PAUL FRIJTERS. Observations, lessons, and predictions for the Catalan situation

Oct 10, 2017

I make the following observations about the Catalan situation:What might happen!

  1. About 40% of the population of Catalonia and its capital Barcelona was not born there, but largely comes from the rest of Spain.
  2. Internal migration is high, with about 0.4% of the population moving from one region in Spain to the other every year. This means that over the centuries, the Catalonian population is ethnically mixed with many other groups in Spain and outside, with no more than a fraction attributable to the population of centuries ago. All stories of ‘we Catalans’ had this or that done to us over centuries ‘by others’ are myths that impose a constant group on a fluid population (which is true for most national myths).
  3. The best polls available mid 2017 said only 41% of adults living in Catalonia supported independence. This is a bit higher than the proportion that reportedly has voted in the quasi-referendum of this week so it’s a fair bet that even now, a majority living in Catalonia is not pro-independence.
  4. The Catalan language, suppressed under the Franco regime that ended in 1975, first became an option in Catalan schools in 1983, and is now for several years an ‘immersion language’ wherein all children are forced to become fluent in Catalan, with Spanish in second place (a non-tuition language).
  5. Catalan history education was reformed shortly after Catalan nationalists became important in regional government (1980), with a shift away from the hundreds of years wherein Catalonia was a ‘normal’ part of Spain, towards those periods in which something resembling the current region (usually incorporating bits of France) were more autonomous. The celebration of the ‘conquest by Spain’ in 1714 is a case in point of a now strongly-remembered event. The bitter 1936-1939 civil war in which Barcelona fought alongside Madrid against Franco has been less favoured in the new history dispensation. In the new history telling, Franco was Madrid.
  6. The vast majority of trade from Catalonia goes to the rest of Spain; the Catalonian economy is likely to collapse if it were suddenly no longer in the EU.
  7. Corruption is high in Spain and Catalonia, leading to politicians eager to whip up other stories. The Catalan leaders have thus knowingly violated both the Spanish constitution and several Catalan laws to get their referendum on track, without even a majority in their own parliament. A high-stakes but also imaginative strategy.
  8. Nationalism in the rest of Spain is fairly strong and sympathy with Catalan leaders is very limited. The EU has openly committed to staying out of it and supportive of national unity, so the Catalan issue will be an internal affair.

Lessons and predictions:

  1. Ethnic nationalism can be engineered via a simple procedure: teach a language and a history at school in the version of ‘us’ being the victim of ‘them’ and after a generation you will have succeeded in breeding a new generation that believes you.
  2. Mixing population is a counter-measure to regional governments that promote ethnic nationalism: in Catalonia it is a race between the power of the regional government to indoctrinate at school versus the power of the economic and social system in the whole of Spain to mix the population around fast enough to prevent a majority of nationalists emerging in Catalonia.
  3. The Catalan government has been on collision course with the rest of Spain for a while now and the collision is now inevitable: both sides are now committed so it is likely that we will see a take-over of the Catalan institutions by the centre. Elections might come before or after this, and a key question for the centre is whether they would try for a cooling-off period before having regional elections in Catalonia.
  4. Changes in personnel might come quickly now, on both sides. Rajoy hasn’t played it smartly so far, losing the major media battles, so someone more switched-on might well take over quite soon, perchance after a snap general election. On the Catalan side, it seems quite possible that elections will have to be held, either because the Catalan leaders will be arrested or when the parliamentary coalition in Catalonia breaks down.
  5. I don’t see a quick resolution to this issue. The Catalonian nationalists have managed to create an independence-oriented machinery within the Catalonian state. Such things are not easy to dismantle, and changes to that machinery will be fought tooth and nail. Yet without dismantling it, Catalonian independence will eventually come so the Spanish central state might try despite the road blocks.
  6. If Catalonian nationalists get away with their strategy, central governments throughout the EU are going to be much more careful when it comes to regional languages and history teaching. And they might wake up to the importance of population mixing as a counter-strategy.

The strategy of the EU and the Spanish government has been to isolate the Catalan nationalists from the rest of the Catalan population, a task they have failed spectacularly at so far. Doing that better requires imagination. They will be looking to inject a different dynamic into the situation. Yet, the Catalonian nationalists have shown in the last few years that they are more organised and have their eyes firmly on their prize.

What would I do if I were the centre? I would insist on following the law, which means arresting the Catalan leaders for their illegal activities. I would do that first and see whether the leaders then taking over in Catalonia are a bit more stupid, meanwhile using EU leaders to talk of their disapproval of the actions of the Catalonian government. I would of course push for stories to come out on the ‘hidden instigation of violence’ in Catalonia and the victimisation of non-Catalans in Catalonian schools. If the new leaders are not stupid and also do illegal things, I would take over the region (article 155), replace most of the top of the civil service apparatus with local boring competent people, announce an independence referendum in 2 years’ time and new regional elections in 6 months. The tricky bit would be the Catalan media.

A sneaky possibility is for the Spanish military to try to engineer the return of openly violent Catalan nationalism. That would spell instant success from a media point of view. It would have to be believable and real, so the strategy would have to be to incite some hot-headed Catalan students into doing something violent. Perhaps the release of some mentally unstable former ETA members would do the trick.

What would I do if I were the Catalan nationalists? Given that they have broken so many laws, there is no going back for them and their only means of personal survival is to hide behind their populations, so their strategy has to be to make take-over as difficult and media-painful as possible whilst moving towards declaring independence. I would probably offer the centre a full referendum in 18 months’ time as the price for taking it slow, hoping that other issues will distract the rest of Spain, meanwhile ramping up the internal push towards independence whilst studiously avoiding violence. I would also try to get own parliamentary approval for past actions, to reduce the immediate legal threat. To appeal to the migrants, I would also reform the Catalan nationalism-story to be more inclusive and less ethnic (which is pretty much exactly the strategy that the Scottish nationalists have adopted in the last year).

Let us hope the more peaceful possibilities materialise.

Paul Frijters is a professor of Wellbeing Economics at the London School of Economics.

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