15 December 2017

Next Thursday Catalans will be called to the ballot box to elect a new regional government. This vote will have much bigger political consequences than such an election normally would have. It comes after the political standoff between Madrid and Barcelona reached breaking point on 27 October, with Catalonia unilaterally declaring independence and Madrid reacting by imposing direct rule on the region.

With less than a week to go before election day, the final outcome remains uncertain. However, the electoral campaign has already shed some light as to what future political developments in the region might be. These developments suggest it will not be easy for Spain to solve the Catalan question anytime soon.

The trends in Catalan politics and society

It has been suggested that one of the main effects of the Catalan crisis has been the emergence of a fracture in Catalan society, between unionists and separatists. While it is questionable how deep such a societal fracture runs, at political level, the issue of independence has certainly overshadowed traditional left-right divisions and has helped to cement new ones. The new dividing lines, centred on issues of identity, appear less conducive to dialogue, with political opponents increasingly deaf to each other’s concerns.

The current electoral campaign has been characterised by two distinctly separate camps: the separatists (ERC, JxCat and the CUP) and the constitutionalists (Ciudadanos, PP and PSC), with only CeC-Podem, the regional ally of Podemos, non-aligned. While some parties like the PSC are trying to play the role of mediator, popular support is going overwhelmingly to the radical positions on both sides of the independence debate. Going by the most recent polls, the parties expected to perform best are the liberal Ciudadanos (with over 23 percent), born in Catalonia some years ago out of a rejection of nationalist pushes, and the two protagonists of the independence process, ERC and ex-president Carles Puigdemont’s JxCat (between 20-23 percent and 14-20 percent respectively, although the gap recorded between the two significantly diverges from one poll to the other).

The question of regional/national identity has always been strongly felt in Catalonia, but with outright independence rising to the top of the agenda in the last few years it has become by far the most dominant cleavage. Previous Catalan governments, particularly on the left, have often comprised both Catalan nationalists and non-nationalists. That seems far less likely now. The parties in favour of independence and unity have hardened their respective positions on the question of Catalans’ status within Spain.

The left-wing ERC, accredited as the main force in the independence camp, started its campaign on a more moderate platform. It somewhat distanced itself from the 27 October unilateral declaration of independence, arguing instead in favour of a negotiated independence. However, it has become more hawkish after Puigdemont’s centre-right pro-independence party JxCat gained ground in the polls.

Meanwhile, there is evidence that the polarisation of the debate is fostering a re-politicisation of the electorate with unprecedented political participation expected on 21 December. Greater turnout is likely to favour the constitutionalists and could see the separatists lose their majority in the next Parlament.

Can Spain solve the Catalan question?

Without a majority, separatists’ independence plans would be put to a halt. This might reduce tensions between the governments in Madrid and Barcelona. But it would be wrong to think that Spain is on track to solve the Catalan crisis. Around half of Catalans appear to favour some form of independence, although not necessarily declared unilaterally. This means the issue will simply not go away. In the medium to long-term the only possible solution will require striking a balance between Catalonia’s existence within Spain and the desire for greater autonomy. But, with both sides doubling down, it is increasingly difficult to see how a solution could be found that would heal the wound opened in Catalan society.

A majority of the public expects the parties to reach a post-electoral deal and avoid new elections should neither of the two camps manage to secure a governing majority. But the political distance which has emerged between the opposing factions might make achieving such a compromise more difficult and create further instability in the region. In this respect at least, Catalonia might not be so different form the rest of Spain and replicate the experience of the country in 2015, when the outcome of the national elections left parties unable to find the political entente necessary to guarantee a stable government, resulting in a rerun the following year.

The implications for Europe

From the EU’s point of view, political instability in Catalonia could create some headaches. But should the vote deprive separatists of their majority, this would undoubtedly be a political victory for Brussels, which has sided with the Spanish government in the standoff between Madrid and Barcelona.

Yet, the position the EU has taken during the crisis might have long-lasting consequences. I noted elsewhere the risk the EU faces from regional and separatist movements. This will prove doubly problematic if these movements extend their hostility from their national governments to the supranational level. In Catalonia this might be happening more quickly that I would have expected. The change in Puigdemont’s stance towards the EU is revealing. In a recent interview, he dubbed it a “club of decadent and obsolescent countries controlled by a small few and closely linked to increasingly debatable economic interests”, while hinting at the possibility that Catalans might want to leave the bloc.

It should be noted that Puigdemont’s recent conversion to Euroscepticism has created some uneasiness even within his own political faction. However, while JxCat was initially lagging behind in the polls, ever since Puigdemont started campaigning – among other things on an EU-hostile platform – support for the party experienced an upward trend. It is of course questionable how much this is because of anti-EU positions. Nonetheless, it shows that regional autonomist/separatist movements can under certain circumstances turn openly hostile towards European institutions, whether in Catalonia or elsewhere. This is why the EU will have to address the question (not necessarily the problem) of regionalism trends sooner rather than later. How the political crisis will be solved in Catalonia will provide an important test for Catalans, Spaniards and Europeans alike.