Opinion

Catalonia Crisis: One Generation Since Dictatorship, We in Spain Can't Risk Becoming a House Divided

The media has reduced the Catalonia crisis to dueling nationalisms, and a Manichean conflict between legal formalism and popular legitimacy. But simplifications like these endanger an already fractured Spain

People hold a large flag of Spain as they take part in a pro-Spanish unity demonstration organised by the Catalan Civil Society organisation in Barcelona. October 8, 2017
People hold a large flag of Spain as they take part in a pro-Spanish unity demonstration organised by the Catalan Civil Society organisation in Barcelona. October 8, 2017 GONZALO FUENTES/REUTERS

The ever-evolving crisis in Spain following the illegal and flawed October 1st referendum on Catalonian independence has been a rollercoaster. But in this period defined by its twists and turns, Sunday’s massive show of solidarity in Barcelona, in support of the unity of Spain, stands out.

Contrary to the Manichean coverage that has sought to frame things as a simple conflict between formality of the law and constitution versus the legitimacy of the people, Sunday showed that this is a matter with much more complexity than has been appreciated.

What is being seen in Catalonia reflects fractures that necessitate a deep and introspective Spanish response. The solution will not come either with a unilateral declaration of independence or a suspension of regional autonomy that would naturally follow. It will not happen this week or next. What is clear is that whatever occurs in these next days must be the start of a process and not the end.  

A woman holds up a sign that reads "Let's talk?" in Catalan during a demonstration in a square in Barcelona, Spain. October 7, 2017
ERIC GAILLARD/REUTERS

The takeaway for many from the gathering in Barcelona is a confrontational rallying around the Spanish flag. That is a shame. This oversimplification reduces the matter to dueling nationalisms, Spain on the one hand and Catalan on the other. Sunday showed that these are not contradictory identities. It is possible to be both Catalan and Spanish, just as it is possible to be both Spanish and European.

One of the positive symbols that has emerged these last weeks is a heart filled in with the Catalan, Spanish and European Union flags, not as forces opposed to one another, but balanced as part of a greater whole. Achieving that balance is what is now necessary.

The problem is that until this point the countrywide institutions that all Spain shares in common have largely looked the other way. Rather than addressing developing gaps emerging in society, they have played along with a progressive weakening of their presence in Catalonia, allowing autonomy to be redefined as absence.

The result is predictable: an attenuation of the bonds with the Spanish nation that has allowed a critical mass of Catalans to coalesce around the idea of breaking away.

A Spanish riot policeman swings a club against would-be voters near a Barcelona polling station. Oct. 1, 2017
Manu Fernandez/AP

The outpouring of support over the weekend for the continued connection with Spain demonstrated first, that the critical mass of separatists does not represent all of Catalan society and second, that there is a shared national responsibility to prevent its citizens from feeling isolated and abandoned.

Last week, King Felipe VI spoke to the country in a unique and exceptional address. Spain is a parliamentary monarchy and it is extremely rare for the King to speak outside of pre-arranged holiday remarks or moments of tragedy. Among the important messages that he delivered was a simple one to the people of Catalonia: you are not alone. 

In so declaring, the King showed the empathy lacking thus far and gave voice to the heretofore voiceless, the silent (and in many respects silenced) majority of Catalans.  On Sunday they came out and made themselves heard.

They also underlined just how complex things are. Before being a question of territorial secession, Catalonia is foremost a question of a divided Catalan society. This cannot be addressed by a hastily arranged kangaroo referendum or a declaration of independence, but by a long and committed process of reform. 

On Tuesday evening, Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont is due to address the Catalan Parliament. The expectation is that he will make some sort of unilateral declaration of Independence, or declare an intention to do so in the near future. 

The headquarters of the Catalan pro-independence party "Candidatura d'Unitat Popular - CUP" (Popular Unity Candidacy) party in Barcelona was vandalized with graffiti reading "Fascists". October 9, 2017
JORGE GUERRERO/AFP

Many have circled Puigdemont’s appearance as the key event in this ongoing saga. I do not. For regardless of the outcome, it can at best serve only as a threshold for further developments. What is needed is a process of looking at our constitution, at our laws, at our regions, at ourselves and finding a path forward towards a healthy common future.

Abraham Lincoln famously declared that "a house divided against itself cannot stand". Notwithstanding the difference in era and context, this dictum stands as a sobering warning. Moving ahead will require confronting hard questions and difficult discussions.

Spain is a vibrant, robust, and flexible nation. We have done great things. In the course of a single generation we have gone from dictatorship to democracy and from poverty to prosperity. But the best lies ahead. We just have to get on the right path and avoid being waylaid by alternative routes to nowhere.

Ana Palacio is a member of the Spanish Council of State and is the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain. Twitter: @anapalacio