Pro-independence Catalans have the odds stacked against them

October 25, 2017 09:25
People wave Catalan separatist flags during a demonstration organized by Catalan pro-independence groups in Spain on Oct. 21. Photo: Reuters

Following the recent developments in relation to the independence referendum of Catalonia, Madrid has invoked special constitutional powers in an attempt to strip the region of its autonomy.

For the pro-independence Catalans, even though the result of the referendum was very much in their favor, they have the odds stacked against them, and the prospects for an independent Catalonia are anything but promising.

It is because on one hand, the Catalan separatists don't have their own military or any foreign ally to back their cause. And then on the other, the less than 50 percent turnout in the referendum also suggests that public opinion in Catalonia is far from overwhelmingly in favor of secession from Spain, as we saw the referendum being boycotted by pro-Madrid political groups.

The low turnout in the referendum has added weight to Madrid's notion that it has the mandate from the "silent majority" in Catalonia for upholding national unity.

Over the years, Madrid has been putting substantial effort into cultivating and sponsoring pro-Spain political forces in Catalonia. These political groups had largely kept a low profile during the referendum, but then massively burst onto the national political scene in the aftermath.

Among these pro-Madrid groups, the Society of Catalan Citizens (Societat Civil Catalana, or the SCC) is currently the most powerful and influential one.

Two weeks ago, the SCC organized a massive protest in Barcelona in support of national unity, during which Nobel literature prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was invited to address the crowd, which the SCC claimed was 350,000-strong.

Founded in 2014, the SCC is in fact a coalition of several pro-Madrid groups aimed to counter the secession drive in the region and mobilize public opinion against the Catalan separatists.

Endorsed by mainstream political elites in Madrid including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and leader of the opposition Pedro Sanchez, the SCC was nominated by the Spanish government for the European Citizen's Prize in 2014 and eventually won it, which provoked a fierce backlash from the Catalan legislature.

The Catalan parliament's protest against the nomination was indeed quite justified, as it was made not just based on political differences, but also on the fact that there was solid evidence indicating a close connection between key SCC members and remnants of the former Franco regime.

For instance, Josep Ramon Bosch, the founding chairman of the SCC, was found repeatedly uploading video clips about the activities of pro-Franco militants onto YouTube under pseudonyms. Apart from that, he was attending public events held by the Franco Foundation in person on a regular basis.

Even though the Franco Foundation was initially intended as a civilian organization dedicated to preserving the documents and personal letters left behind by former dictator General Francisco Franco, over the years it has remained a de facto brotherhood club for ultra-right activists in Spain.

Moreover, Jorge Buxade Villalba, the founding secretary general of the SCC, represented the Falange Española de las JONS, the Fascist party founded by Franco, and ran in local elections back in 1995 and 1996.

Nevertheless, whether the SCC is ultra-right or not, the overall political outlook of pro-Madrid groups remains bright, since the influx of Spaniards into Catalonia over the centuries has resulted in significant demographic changes in the region, under which immigrants from other parts of the country have already become a key stakeholder in Catalonia.

Identifying strongly with the rest of Spain, these immigrants might not be totally against Barcelona’s demand for greater autonomy since it is after all more of an economic than a political issue, but they are definitely opposed to Catalonia's secession.

And the reason is simple: once Catalonia gains statehood, they will become "foreigners" overnight, which would definitely work against their fundamental interests.

In my opinion, in the foreseeable future, Madrid is likely to step up support for pro-unification groups in Catalonia and help them seek international recognition so as to on one hand, tighten its grip on the region, and on the other, let the Catalan separatists understand that they are fighting a losing battle.

Such an approach to dealing with separatism has proven to work in many other parts of the world, and it is likely to work in Catalonia as well.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct 24

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal