Thursday, 10 August 2017

Catalonia, Untangled

The climate in Catalonia is getting hotter every day, and not just because it is high summer here. The Generalitat, the Catalan government, is planning an October 1st referendum on independence and Carles Puigdemont, its President, has said that a Yes vote will mean a near-immediate declaration of independence. The conservative ('Partido Popular') party in Madrid is using the Constitutional Court ('Tribunal Constitutional') to overturn the decisions of the - supposedly - autonomous Generalitat, and is checking - each week - every payment made by the Catalan government to ensure that its funds are not being used for the plebiscite.

At any point over the next few weeks this could erupt into a real face-to-face confrontation. Puigdemont will reconvene the Generalitat two weeks earlier than normal, on August 15th, and the plan is then to pass the laws that would govern the referendum and its aftermath. It is likely that the Madrid government will intervene - the use of force is being talked about - while the Catalans will respond with mass protests of the sort seen each 11th of September.

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Why is this happening? And what are the parallels with Scotland?

Three reasons stand out: bad governance, regional finance, and the wealth gap.

Bad Governance

The Spanish government in Madrid has consistently mis-read the signals from Catalonia. President Rajoy promised 'dialogue' but has offered none. Instead he and his conservative government have used the Constitutional Court to overturn, again and again, decisions made by the 'autonomous' government of Catalonia. The first, and for many Catalans the worst, of these decisions was to overturn the 2006 Statute for Catalonia, which had been passed first by the Generalitat and then approved by 74% of voters in a referendum. The process in the Court took four years - the decision was published in 2010 - and the result confirmed what many in Catalonia had suspected - that our government had no real power, and that at any moment Madrid could intervene to change a policy that it did not like.

The parallel for Scotland is the overturning of the 'Sewell Convention' in the Brexit case taken by Gina Miller et al to the UK Supreme Court. That decision demonstrated that the Scottish Parliament has no real powers and that Westminster is supreme.

Back in Spain, the conservative government continues to use the Constitutional Court to overturn the Generalitat's decisions - on everything from how we can pass laws to what we can call our ministries. This is simply bad governance. Instead of engaging with the Generalitat, the Spanish government is bashing it with a large legal hammer. It's law-law, not jaw-jaw.


In a state made up of autonomous regions you'd expect a sensible system of financial transfers so that wealthy regions help to fund poorer regions. 

In Spain, this is a muddle hidden in a black box.

The Basque Country and Navarra are treated differently from other regions - allowed to gather and spend their own taxes and to pay the Spanish state an annual sum for shared services such as defence and foreign affairs. (This is called the 'Foral' system here.) The remaining regions either pay into the central pot (Catalonia and Madrid are the principal contributors) or receive from the pot (poor regions such as Andalucia and Extremadura are normally net recipients.) But it is not nearly as clear as that, and there is endless political horseplay with successive Spanish governments favouring regions that voted for the party in power, and pharaonic projects planted in some regions and not in others. It's a mess, but the Spanish government seems unable to sort it out.

The Catalans - consistently one of the regions paying out - are sick of it. Catalunya has been a net contributor for years, and yet sees very little benefit, or change, in the recipient regions.

The parallel for Scotland is, of course, our oil. Oil from Scotland's waters has been squandered by Westminster (the phrase comes from Kevin McKenna's article here). Scotland's poor have not benefited from the country's huge natural resource wealth - check the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation if you need confirmation. Like the system in Spain, the UK government has hidden from the Scots the extent of the squandering, and has favoured political friends in the City of London over the people who really need the money in Possil Park or Pilton. 

The Wealth Gap

Something has made more people in Catalonia, more discontented than they were. One possible explanation is the combination of the 2007 financial crisis, and the wealth gap.

The financial crisis forced millions of people across Spain into unemployment. Youth unemployment rose to over 50% and millions of families were left with no breadwinner in a country in which unemployment benefit is limited and short-term. During the crisis the Spanish government passed a series of laws to create more 'flexibility' in the workplace - meaning the same sorts of zero-hours, flimsy contracts that the Tories of Westminster favour. For their employees, not for themselves of course.

Spain, like the UK, has the dubious distinction of being in the top - worst - dozen countries in the OECD index of wealth inequality. Wealth is not being shared out and so, like other countries in the top 12 (Turkey, Mexico, the USA...) folk at the bottom of the wealth pile are increasingly discontented and are expressing that discontent in their votes and on the streets.

The wealth gap is not the only reason for discontent, but it seems to be a catalyst for anyone who feels that injustice is being done. Catalonia hardly needs a catalyst - enough injustice is being done to this nation to ensure that, come 1st October, Yes will win outright in the referendum. The big question then is - what will Spain do next?