King Felipe on the Catalan crisis: welcome toughness or echoes of dictatorship?

Analysis: The monarch offered no olive branches, only the threat of a bigger stick

Independence referendum: a leave supporter listens to King Felipe address Spain on Tuesday. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty

Independence referendum: a leave supporter listens to King Felipe address Spain on Tuesday. Photograph: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty

 

The restored Spanish monarchy has been warmly supported in the past by many democrats, and even by some republicans, for one very simple reason. They have long believed it is the only glue capable of bonding the fractious national project called Spain after the long dictatorship of Gen Franco.

According to this view, King Juan Carlos, although the dictator’s designated heir, skilfully steered the country towards democracy in the late 1970s. He presented himself as democracy’s front-line defender during the attempted military coup of 1981, when he talked his insurgent military commanders back to barracks.

By the time of the king’s abdication, three years ago, his image had been tarnished by his extravagant private life, which contrasted sharply with the austerity suffered by so many citizens. But many Spaniards invested high hopes in his son, Felipe VI. Indeed, some polls showed a public willingness to entrust him with more powers, to forge consensus among Spain’s increasingly polarised and fragmented political parties.

He now faces the severest test of the monarchy’s unifying role, as the rapidly escalating crisis in Catalonia threatens to break up the Spanish nation state.

Yet when he finally addressed Spain, on Tuesday night, the impact of his words was hardly bonding. His address was primarily dedicated to severely reprimanding the Catalan government for its “unacceptable disloyalty” in defying court orders in holding the referendum, and for sowing discord in Catalan society.

He did offer his empathy, and that of “the rest of the Spanish people”, to those Catalans who oppose the moves towards independence, and fear for their future in the fiercely polarised region. These fears are legitimate, and it is indeed disturbing that the Catalan government is making no attempt to address them.

But the king offered no single word of comfort to the hundreds of people injured by the extraordinary actions of the Spanish police against voters in Sunday’s referendum, nor the slightest recognition that they had been in any way excessive.

On the contrary, his message was that the state must get tougher in order to bring the Catalan nationalists to heel. He ordered, as head of state and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, the “legitimate powers of the state to ensure constitutional order”.

There was no reference to dialogue, no expression of hope for reconciliation. He did not think to include a single phrase in the Catalan language. No olive branches, then, but only, it seems, the threat of a bigger stick.

His stance has been strongly endorsed by the conservative government in Madrid, unsurprisingly, as it reflects its own rigid position, and by the equally Spanish nationalist Ciudadanos party. The Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, or PSOE, which has shown more understanding of Catalan nationalism, and had called for new negotiations, also rowed in behind the king.

The gravity of the situation has forced the king to sacrifice one of his key roles, that of national referee

But Spain’s third-largest party, the left-wing Podemos, pointedly said that the “unelected king” did not speak for Spaniards who wanted dialogue. Basque nationalists accused Felipe of “slamming the door on politics”, and the Catalan government said he had “poured petrol on the flames”.

These comments reveal the depth of the fracture that threatens Spain. For many the king’s tough talk is welcome and respected. For many others he represents a vision of their country that they no longer recognise and that echoes, at least to some extent, the legacy of the dictatorship.

Iñaki Gabilondo, perhaps Spain’s most seasoned and sober political commentator, put it like this: “The king’s words are most unlikely to halt the Catalan rebellion, and perhaps they will have the opposite effect . . . The gravity of the situation has forced the king to sacrifice one of his key roles, that of national referee.”

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