Professor of Economics at the University of Barcelona
Image: President of the Parliament of Catalonia, Carme Forcadell, presides over the Parliamentary Board that met one hour before the start of the plenary session, to admit the referendum law for processing.
Ten years ago, in 2011, a drift began in Catalan political life that brought a lost decade for economic, social and political progress. The elections on February 14 can put an end to this decade of confusion and start the path back to the path of progress. But, in any case, it will not be a short or easy path.
What will determine this possibility is whether the independence movement can behave liberally from now on. Before I explain myself, let me go back to the origins of the lost decade.
The drift of Catalan constitutionalist nationalism towards unilateral independence coincided in time with the explosion of social unrest that caused the classist management of the 2008 financial crisis throughout Spain. Especially, the opportunist and ideological macroeconomic management of the recession as of 2010 as mirrored in the policy of social spending cuts and tax increases for the middle and popular classes.
The result of this malaise was the appearance of new social and political movements that questioned the reigning bipartisanship since the transition (“They don’t represent us”) and raised new political flags. In the Spanish and Catalan left, new political forces emerged, such as Podemos and the Cmmuns. Its motto was “More and better democracy”.
In addition to the Comúns, this malaise had its own peculiar expression in Catalonia. It was the creation of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC). Sensing a moment of opportunity, it unfurled the ever-present, but hitherto lowered flag of independence. Its success in dragging nationalist parties from constitutionalism to unilateral independence is a case worthy of study both in the world of academic research and in business schools. I do not know another so successful.
The illiberal dimension of the independence movement was manifested forcefully on September 6 and 7, 2017 with the disconnection laws. Approved only with the pro-independence votes, they were a denial of the pluralism of Catalan society and its rules of tolerance. In addition, to the extent that the provisions of the Catalan constitution of the Statute were violated, which required the vote of at least two-thirds of the Chamber, these laws can be seen as a parliamentary self-coup.
The self-coup of September 6 and 7, 2017 put an end to the political consent of non-nationalist Catalans towards the long government of Jordi Pujol and the short one of Artur Mas. More than half of the Catalans who had never voted for the CDC nonetheless consented to those governments, considering them legitimate and not fearing that they would disobey the Constitution and the Statute. Those laws broke that consent. Catalan society was fractured. Until today.
A pluralistic and liberal society cannot be governed from the extremes. Liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin made a useful distinction between positive and negative freedom. The first is defined by what laws and rules allow us to do or not do. The second one claims the right to decide without restrictions. Berlin defended negative freedom as “more civilized”, considering that “the concept of positive freedom, of course essential for a decent life, has been violated and perverted more often than negative freedom”. I think this consideration can be applied to the pro-independence field.
For Catalonia to return to the path of progress, the pro-independence movement has to show that it can be liberal; in other words, that it knows how to recognize and respect the plurality of political preferences and expressions, in addition to accepting the rules of the Statute. This is the great unknown of Catalan politics that will be cleared from next elections on 14-F.