A point of no return has been reached in the negotiations between the Spanish and Catalan governments. At the meeting of 20 September the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy shut the door to the request of the Catalan Prime Minister Artur Mas to negotiate a better fiscal arrangement for the Spanish region.
As a result Mas announced on 26 September the decision to advance elections with a clear roadmap towards self-determination for Catalonia. In fact, on 28 September during the last session of the now dissolved Catalan Parliament a substantial majority of its members voted in favour of calling for a referendum, with only 16% of members opposing it.
The “Catalan Problem” is being portrayed as being on the one hand economic; the most indebted Spanish region has the biggest fiscal deficit with the Spanish state and consequently it is the only region in Spain asking since decades for a more transparent and a fairer system of solidarity.
On the other hand it is cultural; the Catalan culture has been consistently under attack by the Spanish executive and judiciary.
And finally it is political; since long there has been a genuine lack of understanding between a conservative Spain shielded behind an unmovable constitutional status-quo and a Catalonia that has been shouting to deaf ears for a change in the organisation of the state.
However and contrary to what many want to see, the root of the conflict is not to be found in an insatiable Catalonia but rather in the heart of the Spanish model of conservative and opaque asymmetric federalism that fails to strike a balance between rights and duties of the different regions.
The Spanish model is known as asymmetric federalism because some regions or “Comunidades Autonomas” have different competencies than others but as already argued in a previous article Spain is far from being a federation.
To keep a long story short; the current Spanish asymmetric “soft”-federalism was not the result of a deliberative process involving the Spanish peoples and regions in a quest for fairness and efficiency but rather a kind of historical accident.
The Spanish Estado de las Autonomias is the fruit of the circumstances of a post-dictatorship time and as such it was meant to be provisional and improved with the years.
More than 30 years later the debate to reform the state has been constantly avoided, the Spanish constitution remains untouchable –except for the changes in debt ceilings imposed by the EU and approved without debate during summer holidays of 2011- and as a result the inflexibility of the governance structure is causing it to crack open instead of adapting to the necessities of the current times.
In other words, one can argue that many of the causes of the Spanish economic crisis and the “Catalan problem” coincide; that is an unfit institutional structure that makes the state economically and politically unviable.
One can blame the Spanish and the regional political parties for repeatedly failing to educate its population about the richness of united in diversity instead of promoting a Castilian-centred notion of the country.
One can blame some Spanish regions such as Catalonia for refusing to accept the concept of state of the Spanish model as decided in 1978. One can blame the Spanish governments for having repeatedly failed to provide transparent reliable data about the fiscal transfers between regions and the state which has sparked so much speculation and distrust.
It doesn’t matter anymore; time is over for Spain as we know it. The time for unitarian, centralist and opaque Spain is over.
If one rules out a military intervention to defend the Spanish constitution –for despite the threatening declarations from Spanish generals one should trust the EU not to allow one of its member states to use the military against its own people- Spain should either break or radically reform into a federation.
A reform of the Spanish state in the current state of affairs is extremely challenging; politically it would need to start from ground-zero and the required transition to a proper federation would take a time that Spain doesn’t have.
Economically, the Spanish government has no room of manoeuvre; if they concede to the Catalan’ demands without overhauling the system they might keep Spain together but it would mean cutting even more the shrinking state revenues.
However a Spanish solution is not impossible; it would require the creation of a proper Spanish federation that agrees to turn upside down a system that is collapsing both politically and economically. Most of the people who have studied the Spanish fiscal system agree that the system of fiscal redistribution is not only unfair but it is also extremely inefficient.
But all this is embroiled in a legislative and judiciary system that serves mostly the interests of the two big Spanish political parties (the right-of-the-centre Partido Popular, PP, and the left-of-the-centre Partido Socialista Obrero Español, PSOE) who have no interest in changing a status-quo.
Hence, the protests in the streets of Madrid encircling the Congreso de los Diputados and the unrest in Catalonia not only coincide in time, they also correlate. They are both a sign of a state that has fallen victim of its own structures and is incapable to react to the needs of the current times.
Indeed, a reform of the Spanish state would be more beneficial for the country and Europe than all the austerity measures imposed by the EU and the IMF, for most inefficiencies and corruption stem from an endogamic and obsolete institutional setting.
Reforming the Spanish state in a federalist direction is not impossible but given the level of Spanish politics of last decades it is highly improbable.
The only party that in the last decades has been advocating for a federal reform of the Spanish state has been the Catalan Socialist Party which as a result of this political stand is now in dire-straits.
Neither the PSOE with Felipe Gonzalez and later with Zapatero nor PP with Aznar and now with Rajoy have ever supported the idea of a federal Spain and always leaned on a status-quo that rewards immobilism.
Now, as a result of latest developments the PSOE and its Catalan branch, the PSC, try to raise the federalist flag once again but this time, after the broken promises of Zapatero in this respect and the lack of interest from the PP, few believe this is credible.
Federalism is a philosophy that the Spanish parties and the Spanish people cannot embrace overnight after decades of moving in the opposite direction. Most worryingly, the party in government, the PP is barricaded behind the Spanish Constitution and constantly reminds everyone that this document that most Spanish never voted and even fewer have read is untouchable.
Hence, the biggest problem for the EU when it comes to Spain is not the secession of Catalonia, after all, this 7 million region has all the means to find its place in the world.
The real problem for Europe is that, with or without Catalonia, the Spanish state is paralysed and is doomed to crumble unless a new institutional structure is created.
A new institutional structure that allows the state to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of its regions and citizens, with institutions capable to develop integration processes and tackle complex issues in a mature way, all in all, a state capable to be a tool and not a hindrance for the development of prosperity for its peoples.
Spain will have to reform its constitution either to adapt to the demands of its nationalities and hence creating a proper federation or to see the break-up of the state letting Catalonia and most probably the Basque Country go.
The Spanish socialist and conservative governments have wasted each and every opportunity to create a functioning state where all the regions could feel welcome. If all Rajoy’s government has to offer is a submission to a non-negotiable model of state the peoples of Catalonia and the Basque Country might have to look for state structures that allow them to survive an ever-changing and complex world.