The Hurdles of a Third Way for Catalonia

Written by Carles Boix and J. C. Major


In its May 5 editorial, the Financial Times once again urged Spanish authorities to work on a compromise aimed at solving the Catalan question. The same point has been made more or less explicitly by other international actors. Likewise, in Madrid as well as in Barcelona, some small but influential groups realize that the territorial arrangement now in place in Spain is unworkable and are calling, each in their own way, for a negotiated solution. Only this week, some have seen in the announcement of the Spanish king's abdication an opportunity to break the present impasse.

This may be a tall order, given the gap between what Madrid might consider a reasonable offer and what even the most eager Catalan proponents of a "third way" would be willing to accept in order to avoid the uncertainties of an independence process. At this point, offering to overhaul the current administrative setup or to reduce Catalonia's fiscal drain won't be enough. The solution to the Catalan question goes well beyond the devolution of additional powers or the renegotiation of an unjust and inefficient financial arrangement.

For a long time Catalans have been trying to obtain a degree of political, financial and cultural autonomy that could make them feel comfortable within Spain. The system of autonomous regions established by the 1978 Constitution was meant to take care of that problem, but the results have been disappointing – so much so that in 2005 Catalans got to work on a new law designed to better define and develop their instruments of self-government. A bill to that effect, passed with the backing of an ample majority of the Catalan parliament, was met with hostility by a large segment of the Spanish political establishment and public opinion and was eventually passed by the Spanish Cortes only in a heavily amended form. The final blow came in 2010, five years after the initial approval by the Catalan parliament, when the law was stripped of its key provisions by the Constitutional Court of Spain.

Now we see that powers which have been nominally transferred to the Catalan government remain de facto in the hands of the Spanish central government, and that fundamental policy areas regarding Catalan language, culture and education are being eroded by recurrent waves of official measures coming from Madrid. This state of affairs is a consequence of Catalonia's status as a permanent minority, which is built into the Spanish political order – always outvoted on all critical matters, with no assurance that the State will keep its promises and with no neutral institutions in place to enforce the agreements.

Hence, any credible proposal from the Spanish side should involve a commitment to engage Catalans as equal partners and indeed this should be a prerequisite for the representatives of the Catalan people to agree to a negotiation. This bilateral approach would allow a full transfer of powers in all key areas, coupled with procedures ensuring that the minority partner will retain control over its own affairs – or, conversely, preventing the majority partner from imposing its will as a matter of course.

An additional safeguard would be the acceptance of the democratic principle according to which Catalans would have the last word on all agreements reached with the State. This right to decide on their collective future is in fact the one that Catalans hope to exercise in a referendum scheduled for November, which, as proposed by the Catalan government, incorporates both the option of full independence and that of free association with Spain. We believe that the latter corresponds with the "third way" as we have laid it out.

Accepting these twin principles of bilateralism and democratic oversight would require a profound paradigm shift among Spanish elites. And yet, it could be in Spain's best interest to change course. For one thing, the Catalan problem won't go away, and failure to come to terms with its realities will just keep the conflict open, bringing more Catalans into the pro-independence camp and providing them with additional grounds to move to independence unilaterally.

In fact, the whole Spanish society may have something to gain by facing what it has always seen as an intractable problem. The need to address it now may be an opportunity to tackle at the same time some very fundamental flaws of an institutional framework that was born of a dictatorship and which retains many of its features. Dealing with the Catalan question today could bring closure to a transition that has lasted far too long and left too many issues unresolved.

Carles Boix is the Robert Garrett Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University.

J. C. Major is a member of Col.lectiu Emma, an independent opinion group in Catalonia.

Carles Boix

Carles Boix es el Catedrático Robert Garrett de Política y Asuntos Públicos en Princeton University. Es licenciado en Derecho e Historia por la Universidad de Barcelona y doctor en ciencia política por Harvard University. Antes de enseñar en Princeton, fue profesor en Ohio State University y en la Universidad de Chicago. Es un Guggenheim fellow y un miembro de la American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Su investigación se centra en el análisis empírico de la democracia y en economía política comparada.
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