Leaders of a Divided Spain Square Off Yet Again

8 MINS READAug 3, 2014 | 11:19 GMT
The Two Spains Square Off Yet Again
The giant Spanish flag in Colon square fluttering on August 24, 2013 in Madrid, Spain.
(Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy looked Catalan President Artur Mas in the eye and shook his hand. They were about to enter the Spanish presidential palace when a photographer asked them to shake hands again for the camera. With Spanish and Catalan flags waving behind them, the two leaders repeated the gesture — this time flashing timid smiles. If this had happened five or ten years ago it would have gone unnoticed. Spanish prime ministers meet with the presidents of the Spanish autonomous communities frequently. But this meeting was different. It was the strained coming together of a man representing a parliamentary monarchy under great pressure and a man who believed he could become the first president of an independent republic.

2014 will not be just another year for Spain. This year, the country is experiencing an identity crisis that threatens the very foundation of the Spanish state. In June, the abdication of King Juan Carlos I reopened the debate about the role of the monarchy. In November, the government of Catalonia will try to hold a referendum in an effort to gain independence, a move that is illegal according to the Spanish constitution. These events are not minor or isolated. Quite the opposite, they highlight the extent to which two pillars of the Spanish state — its form of government and its territorial integrity — are being challenged by large segments of society.

It is impossible to understand Spain without understanding its geography and the significant economic and political limitations it creates. Spanish history has been defined by the country's constant struggle to overcome two constraints: a lack of economic resources and the difficulty of creating a unified state.

Spain's rugged topography and dry climate have left it relatively poor in natural and agricultural resources, especially compared to nearby France. The mountain ranges that cross the Iberian Peninsula have presented a historical barrier to trade and transportation. Moreover, Spain is located at the westernmost point of Europe, relatively isolated from the rest of the Continent by the Pyrenees and vulnerable to invasion from North Africa. But geography has also shaped Spain's ingenuity. With strong adversaries in Europe competing for control of the Mediterranean and Central Europe, Spain was forced to look west, becoming a pioneer in deep-sea navigation. Its maritime capabilities ultimately allowed the country to build a massive colonial empire extending from the Americas to East Asia.

Spain's Geographic Challenge

Geography has also shaped Spain's domestic politics. The Iberian Peninsula's mountainous geography led to the development of population centers with little or no contact with one another, forming isolated areas with strong regional identities. The modern Spanish state was born in the late 15th century after the Spanish forces led by the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon expelled the last Arab forces from the Iberian Peninsula during a process known as the Reconquista. This opened the door for the creation of a unified kingdom based in Madrid but also led to significant political struggles between the center and the periphery.

Since the Reconquista, Spanish history has been marked by a permanent tension between the centralized power in Madrid and the regional governments that are resistant to its authority. This struggle is particularly evident in regions such as the Basque Country and Catalonia, which are marked by linguistic differences and which share a sense of resentment toward the central government's management of their significant financial resources. Over the past five centuries, differences have repeatedly resulted in violence at the hands of the central government and separatist movements. Francisco Franco's dictatorship is a clear example of the trend. Franco tried to centralize his power in Madrid by banning regional languages and suppressing regional prerogatives, but the efforts provoked terrorist violence from secessionist groups, especially in the Basque Country.

Following Franco's death in 1975, Spanish political elites sought to balance Spain's conflicting political forces. The constitution of 1978 created a unitary state with autonomous regions. It was a sort of hybrid political system meant to appease regionalist sentiments. Then, Spain's accession to the European Union in the mid-1980s was followed by a period of unusual prosperity that allowed Madrid to keep the separatist sentiments at bay. During this period, Basque separatism was contained by granting the Basque Country more autonomy and by the growing unpopularity of the Basque separatist group ETA.

Spain's Autonomous Region of Catalonia

Spain's Autonomous Region of Catalonia

Catalonia's current push for independence is similar to those made by the Basque Country, but the context is dramatically different. Catalan demands for independence come at a time when Spain is experiencing the worst economic crisis in recent history. Madrid cannot afford to lose one of the wealthiest regions in Spain nor can it afford to grant Catalonia more fiscal autonomy. Meanwhile, the crisis has negatively impacted Catalonia's population and intensified its secessionist demands. What began as a rejection of Madrid's attempts to exert tighter control of the region's budget evolved into an open demand for independence. Further fueling the calls for independence are a deep mistrust of politicians in Madrid and the widespread sentiment that the region is being robbed by Spain's central government.

A Decaying Monarchy

Spain, however, is not only a unitary state; it is also a monarchy. Along with the Catholic Church, the monarchy is one of the few truly unifying institutions in Spain. The Spanish monarchy possessed significant power and wealth during the period between the Reconquista and the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, but it gradually lost power beginning in the early 19th century. In 1873 and again in 1931, the crown was fully abolished and replaced by relatively short-lived republics. Franco's dictatorship annulled it de facto. Then the post-Franco constitution defined Spain as a parliamentary monarchy yet severely diminished the role of the monarch.

But King Juan Carlos was actively involved in Spain's transition to democracy. He managed to unite the country's main political actors to shape a new constitutional order, ensuring stability and democracy. King Juan Carlos' power, however, derived more from his personality than his post, and over time the monarch's personal prestige was not enough to prevent a significant decline in support for the monarchy. With the turn of the 21st century, a generational change and several corruption scandals involving the royal family tarnished the image of the Spanish crown.

King Juan Carlos' abdication to his son Felipe in June reignited the debate about Spain's monarchy and provoked protests in Spain's largest cities. Demonstrators waved the horizontally striped purple, yellow and red republican flags from Spain's Civil War, putting Spain's traditional political parties in an awkward situation. Politicians were forced to defend an increasingly unpopular institution at a time when the parties themselves were losing political support to anti-establishment groups. The economic crisis has severely reduced popular support for Spain's mainstream parties and has threatened the country's traditional two-party system. This is yet another signal of the fatigue of the constitutional system set up in 1978.

One Spain, Two Spains or Many Spains?

The debate over Spain's national identity has been waging for centuries and is likely to continue as long as the nation exists. The debate became particularly contentious around the turn of the 19th century when the loss of Spain's last colonial possessions led to decades of severe political instability. Spanish poet Antonio Machado brilliantly captured the spirit of the age in his poem, "The Two Spains," which refers to a country torn by political divisions. Machado and his contemporaries lived in a Spain divided in multiple ways: right versus left, clerical versus anti-clerical and centralist versus regionalist. These irreconcilable differences would become particularly acute in the 1930s and lead to the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. To a large extent, these divisions still define Spain.

In an essay astutely titled "Invertebrate Spain," Jose Ortega y Gasset described Spain in the 1920s as a "particularist" country, in which different social groups no longer felt that they belonged to a larger unit and did not share a sense of common destiny or purpose. According to Ortega this phenomenon is more visible in the Spanish periphery, most notably in the Basque Country and Catalonia, but is a consequence of decisions made by the center. According to Ortega, "Castile has made Spain and Castile has destroyed it."

It is within this context that Catalonia's push for independence raises the question: Does the recognition of the existence of a unique Catalan nation mean that it deserves to have its own independent state? Determining the relationship between nations and states is a relatively new challenge that remains controversial in modern multinational states such as the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation and Canada. Defining this relationship was a key issue during the drafting of the Spanish constitution. Some lawmakers considered the concept of nationality a purely cultural-linguistic construct, while others argued that it had concrete juridical implications in that a nation could consider itself sovereign. In the end, the constitution recognized that Spain is made up of different nationalities with their own cultural and linguistic traditions, but stipulated that they exist as a part of the indivisible Spanish nation. In this regard, only the "Spanish nation" was considered to be sovereign, while the different "nationalities" were given the right to be autonomous but not sovereign.

As Ortega would argue, the Spanish and Catalan governments are equally responsible for the current situation. Opinion poll results indicate that if the option for more regional autonomy exists, support for the independence of Catalonia declines significantly. Such an option, however, is not included in the planned referendum. Left wing, nationalist forces in Catalonia are pushing Artur Mas to move forward with the referendum, while conservative, centralist forces within Mariano Rajoy's party are calling for him to remain firmly opposed to it. The "two Spains" are fighting again.

A growing number of Spaniards believe constitutional reform is needed to solve two problems at once. A federal republic would appease separatist sentiments in Spain while abolishing the obsolete monarchy. These ideas, which were originally defended mostly by fringe left-wing parties, are starting to become mainstream.

Across ideological divides, it is becoming increasingly clear that the constitutional system of 1978 is reaching its limits. Constitutional reform is no longer a taboo subject in Spain and will probably happen in the near future. Though reform would be a significant step forward in Spain's permanent search for political equilibrium, it would probably not definitively end the country's historic, geographic and political fragmentation.

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