Task Forces


The Catalan Condundrum

By Alexandar Felsing



The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) both state: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

Reading this, the current unrest in Catalonia, one of the richest regions in Spain (accounting for 25% of the country’s exports), is the story of a people who were colonised centuries ago and continuously disadvantaged ever since, finally being pushed to the point that they rise up and express their democratic right to self-determination against a totalitarian, oppressive state, only to be terrorised and beaten into submission by the state’s security forces and government apparatus. At least this is the version most visibly reproduced by media outlets across the world.


The truth, as always, more complex. As someone born in Spain (I held dual nationality to the age of 18) and living in Catalonia for the past 7 years, I am aware of my privileged position as an observer with one foot in Spain and one foot outside the peninsula. I have friends and colleagues on both sides of the argument, and have almost daily exposure to the volcanic passions that it arouses. Listening to my friends and colleagues converse I have some inkling of the emotion that only 81 years ago plunged this nation into a divisive and destructive civil war that claimed half a million victims and was itself the prelude to the greater, devastating global conflict.


First, some facts. Present day Catalonia was historically part of the Kingdom of Aragon as a Principality (together with the Catalan counties either side of the present-day border with France), which, together with the Kingdom of Valencia, the Kingdom of Majorca and various other overseas territories, made up the Crown of Aragon (as distinct from the Kingdom). The Crown of Aragon merged with the Crown of Castile in 1479 but retained its own parliament until 1715 when full union was achieved.

As such Catalonia, like other regions in Spain, retains a unique and distinct character (vide the Basque country and Galicia), which at the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975 both the monarchy and politicians were keen to respect, and as a result the so-called “Autonomías” or regions were given wide-ranging devolved powers. Indeed, the Spanish Constitution of 1978, modelled as it was on the West German ‘Grundgesetz’, gives its regions some of the most wide-ranging autonomy in the world, and at the time it was ground-breaking. The draft Constitution was subjected to a national ratifying plebiscite in 1978, and was approved by 91.1% of Catalans (compared to 71% in the similarly-minded Basque country). Everyone approved of the limits it placed on secessionism, although at the time most were worried about the Basque Country, not Catalonia.

Successive Catalan (and indeed Basque) governments have been able to negotiate ever-increasing autonomy in the intervening years due to a political system which gives regional parties proportionally stronger representation in the Madrid parliament than their national counterparts. In this way, the voices of the regions were meant to be guaranteed a fair hearing, but the regional parties’ disproportionate power was used to wring concessions out of central governments keen to form coalitions. Every election saw a new round of negotiations, and by the early 2000s both Catalonia and the Basque country (and to a lesser extent the other autonomies) had control of their own Media, Educational systems, and Police, with Foreign Policy, Defence and Border Control the domain of central government. Regions have their own Parliaments, employ their own civil servants, and decide how money is spent (Catalan police officers receive up to 40% more pay than their counterparts across the rest of Spain).

One of the banes of Spanish politics has been a pervasive and endemic corruption. In fact, corruption is the Spanish disease (although not exclusively Spanish), as witnessed by a drawn-out investigation that has proven corrupt practices in the governing centre-right Partido Popular (Popular Party) stretching back decades (including double salaries, brown envelopes and secret accounts given to party members). The party has been able to minimise most of the damage by cooperating with law enforcement and the courts, and the perpetrators, both inside and outside the party, have been going to gaol one by one. At the same time, Catalan governments headed since 1980 by the independentist /nationalist party CiU (Convergencia I Unió) have been the instigators and beneficiaries of a rampant kickback system whereby all Catalan government contracts were subject to a 3% 'charge' which went straight into the pockets of the politicians. With the same party in power almost throughout the period one Catalan President, Jordi Pujol, is allegedly calculated to have accumulated billions of euros which he and his family have hidden in offshore tax havens. Successive Catalan governments have slowed down and otherwise impeded Madrid-driven investigations, since almost all of the current crop of politicians have been involved as juniors. The Pujol case is currently 'on hold' since Mr Pujol himself has little recollection of the facts due to his age (in his latest declaration 6 months ago he stated that his fortune in Andorran banks was an inheritance from an unknown family member).

Partly in order to distract from this system of systemic corruption and partly in order to give themselves the immunity they would have if they split from Spain, Catalan governments have taken advantage of their highly devolved control over education and media to stoke up separatist feeling amongst Catalans from school age onwards (children are often drilled in pro-Catalan sentiments and history books have been rewritten in order to favour the Catalan version of history). The situation came to a head during the financial crisis of 2008, when Catalans were increasingly told by local politicians that their industry (including the car maker SEAT, set up close to Barcelona by General Franco, Dictator of Spain, in the 1950s) and taxes were subsidising the poorer regions of Spain, thus justifying a call for independence (rather like southeast England wishing to split off from the rest of the UK since it pays proportionally far more in taxes than it receives in investment). As such the Catalan separatist movement today has a carefully stage-managed aspect and has continuously and cleverly manoeuvred the Madrid government into making some fundamental mistakes in dealing with the issue, including a heavy-handed PR disaster when handling the referendum on 1st October 2017. 

Much of this most recent drive towards independence is also attributable to the fact that the main separatist party, and the one that has dominated Catalan politics since 1980, PDCat (the former CiU), solidly bourgeois and traditionally more in favour of increased devolution rather than outright independence, found itself unable to form a majority at the last election in 2015 and, in order to keep its hold on power, was forced to team up with two more extreme parties, ERC (Esquerra Republicana Catalana), an older outrightly separatist party, and a new, far-left anti-capitalist party called CUP (Candidatura d'Unitat Popular). In this way, a wafer-slim majority of two seats in the regional Parliament was achieved, although it fell far short of the 66% required for constitutional change, even under Catalan law. In return for their support, ERC and CUP demanded a full commitment for full independence, which PDCat had to accept. Taking into account that the Catalan Estatut (or Statue of Autonomy) sets out rules and regulations for the calling of Referenda and passing Acts of the local Parliament in Barcelona, which themselves have not been adhered to (opposition MPs were not allowed speaking time in Parliament, and a two thirds majority requirement was waived), even under the Estatut the Referendum was illegally organised. 

As such the picture is a lot more complicated than may seem when listening to international media. It is a tale of corrupt politicians covering up their misdeeds by persuading the local population through schools and media that they are mistreated and robbed by the central government in Madrid, and who have broken their own regional laws to get to this point, stating in the process that the "will of the people is above any law". Has the Madrid government been clumsy in their handling? Of course, stupidly so. Pictures of police manhandling grandmothers never plays well to the international media (even though the most viewed grandmother in question was a famous and avid supporter in the 1970s of ETA, the Basque terrorist organisation). But the main reason that the government's reaction has been clumsy is that they have been hampered by the limits of the Spanish constitution, while the separatists have felt that they are above it. 

As I write the Catalan regional government is now destroying evidence proving the level of past corruption as well as requesting their IT provider to delete all incriminating email before the central government get access to everything. Catalan Police were confronted and stopped from burning thousands of government documents at an industrial furnace in the suburbs of Barcelona by the national police at the weekend, and some Catalan politicians have returned to work at posts which they have been sacked from for sedition. The Catalan conundrum is by no means over yet.


Alexander Felsing, an EWB member, is the Founder and Managing Partner of Adamas Advisors, a company specializing in strategic consultancy, banking compliance, corporate and wealth structuring in Andorra. He has attained his M.A. at Cambridge University as an Army scholar and graduated as well from Royal Military Academy. He is a retired British army Captain.