Sánchez Should Offer Catalans a Federal Spain

If an independence referendum is too much to ask.

Sagrada Família Barcelona Spain
Aerial view of the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, Spain (Unsplash/Carles Rabada)

Pedro Sánchez’ chances of remaining prime minister narrowed on Saturday, when the votes of almost 234,000 Spaniards living abroad were counted. His Socialist Workers’ Party lost one seat in Congress to Alberto Núñez Feijóo’s conservative People’s Party. The left- and right-wing blocs would have 171 seats each, assuming Sánchez can convince the two Basque nationalist parties and the center-left Republicans of Catalonia to support him.

The center-right Canarian Coalition, with one seat, and the centrist Junts (Together) of Catalonia, with seven seats, would hold the balance of power.

The Canarians refuse a deal that includes Vox (Voice). Feijóo has no realistic path to a majority without the far-right party, which won 33 seats. But the Canarians are unlikely to vote for Sánchez either. They may abstain.

Junts‘ demand — an independence referendum in Catalonia — is unacceptable to Sánchez. But the Basque branch of his Socialist Party has a plan that might just win Junts over: a federal Spain.

Sánchez balked last time

I called for federalizing Spain in the Netherlands’ NRC newspaper in 2018, when Sánchez first came to power with the support of Basque and Catalan nationalists. He balked at the time, whether out of personal conviction or calculation that giving the regions more power would infuriate the rest of the country.

However, even his minimal concessions to Catalans — the restoration of home rule, withdrawn by a conservative government after the dubious 2017 independence referendum, and a pardon for its organizers — have outraged Spanish nationalists. Outside the Basque Country and Catalonia, a majority of Spaniards believe Catalonia has too much autonomy rather than too little.

Conservatives canceled Catalan home rule

The 2017 referendum was held in defiance of Spain’s central government and Constitutional Court. Most unionists boycotted it. The separatists nevertheless claimed the result — 90 percent for independence with 43 percent turnout — as a mandate to break away.

Spain was governed by Feijóo’s People’s Party at the time, which had for years refused to negotiate devolution with an increasingly agitated Catalan government. It removed them from power after the referendum. It was the first time since the restoration of Spanish democracy that a region had its autonomy pulled.

The organizers of the referendum, including seven regional ministers, were imprisoned and convicted of sedition. Sánchez let them out and also abolished sedition as a crime, making Spain one of the last European countries to do so. (Belarus still has it.)

Federation has advantages

Sánchez insists he will not sanction an independence referendum. Junts may want to reconsider its red line. Polls suggest a majority of Catalans would vote to stay in Spain. If Junts doesn’t help Sánchez, the country may need to hold a repeat election in December or the new year, and they could lose seats. The Catalan separatist parties lost nine of their 23 seats in Congress this time.

Federalization would be popular: two-thirds of Catalans support it. And, as I argued in 2018, it has two concrete advantages:

  1. It would make home rule in the Basque Country, Catalonia and other regions that want it irrevocable. So no repetition of the 2017-18 suspension of self-government.
  2. It could give Catalonia the same fiscal autonomy as the Basques. The Basque Country collects its own taxes, keeps what it needs and sends the rest to Madrid. In Catalonia, the national government collects most taxes and consistently underspends the money it promises to pay the region back.

Give Catalans a reason to stay

There is also an emotional upside. A federation would recognize the Basques and Catalans as nations within Spain.

A majority-conservative Constitutional Court infamously struck this definition from Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010. Coinciding with demands for spending cuts from Madrid, the decision invigorated the Catalan separatist movement. At its peak, it brought 1.5 out of 7.5 million Catalans to the streets. Polls for the first time found over 50 percent support for independence. Separatist parties have won majorities in regional elections since.

One of the prime motivators of Catalan separatism, I learned in my three-and-a-half years in Barcelona, is not that Catalonia pay more to Spain than it gets back or that the region doesn’t have full control over its housing, labor and social-security policies; it’s that other Spaniards resent their separate sense of identity. Many Catalans, even unionists, are proud of their history, their language and their traditions. The hostility Catalanism meets in other — especially the conservative — parts of Spain is shocking. It’s why millions of Catalans believe still their best option is to secede.

Formalizing Catalonia’s, and the Basque Country’s, separate status, and removing the threat of a future conservative government taking that status away, would go to a long way to convincing the majority of Catalans they have a future in Spain.

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