When Carles Pérez put in a prank call to Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy in January 2016, he did not expect to get through so easily. The presenter from the morning show on Ràdio Flaixbac was pretending to be Carles Puigdemont, then president of the generalidad of Catalonia. A surprisingly upbeat Rajoy proceeded to reminisce about the time they had met before and looked forward to welcoming him to Moncloa Palace whenever he wanted to come.
The call ended abruptly when Pérez broke the news that he was a prankster but it should come as no surprise that the two men would get on so well. Both are archetypal examples of conservative, provincial gentlemen.
Is it any surprise that these two politicians, both under the shadow of corruption, would play the nationalist card?
If it were just left to them alone to decide, I believe the Spanish government would not have suspended the powers of the generalidad under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. And Puigdemont would never have stood up in the Catalan parliament and unilaterally declared Catalonia to be an independent republic. What happened did so because they are both caught up in events.
The courts service reported earlier this year that a total of 1,378 politicians are under investigation for corruption and 87 of them are behind bars. More than anything else, this is what has broken the two-party system and driven voters to support the new Podemos party of Pablo Iglesias and the new liberal party Ciudadanos.
In Catalonia, support for Jordi Pujol’s Convergència party (renamed the Catalan European Democratic Party under Puigdemont) has fallen from an absolute majority in 1984 to 11.5 per cent in 2015.
In Spain, Rajoy's Partido Popular went from an overall majority in 2011 of 186 seats to just 123 seats in 2015. Is it any surprise that these two conservative politicians, both under the shadow of corruption, would play the nationalist card to keep these trials off the front pages?
What’s happening now in Spain is therefore just politics, plain and simple. It is not an oppressed nation yearning to be free or the re-emergence of a past political ideology. Both have held to their policies while it was politically advantageous to do so. Rajoy’s defence of the unity of Spain is keeping his minority coalition together and Puigdemont’s exile in Brussels makes it harder for the now much better supported Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya to distance itself from him.
Until the October 1st referendum, neither had to pay any personal or political price for keeping a hard line. However, the violent scenes at polling stations changed that. Rajoy made a tactical mistake by not condemning the violence. A prime minister with better political skills could perhaps have turned disadvantage into advantage by saying: “Look what we have become.”
It then got worse with the imprisonment of eight former members of the Catalan government. Rajoy would not have wanted this. Puigdemont’s denouement came when he made a “We must resist!” home movie from a hotel room in Brussels. Whatever the outrage he felt for his former cabinet colleagues spending the night under lock and key, he just looked ridiculous.
Long ago, he should have been honest with his supporters to say low-cost independence was never on the cards. The way forward was to emulate Scotland and the Basque Country. Do the most you can with the considerable powers you have and through competence, not victimhood, generate support for an independent state.
Appeal to EU
The best-case scenario now for Rajoy is elections without incident on December 21st, followed by a restoration of the powers of the generalidad. This is the best-case scenario for Puigdemont too.
His persistent social-media pleas for the European Union to get involved suggest he is a general still fighting the last war. For a man who speaks five languages, he has shown a poor understanding of EU institutions.
We need fewer flags on balconies and more appreciation of how much progress the entire country has made
He told his followers before the referendum that the EU would not want Catalonia to be outside but Brussels remained 100 per cent on the side of the Spanish government.
It was right then and the hope is that it will continue to be right. The EU is facing far too many institutional problems in places such as Poland and Hungary to get involved in a local row.
It’s not hard to see where a solution will eventually come from. There will have to be constitutional reform including another go at Catalonia’s statute of autonomy. Perhaps also tax-raising powers and some judicial functions could be devolved.
Despite Finland having only a small minority of Swedish speakers, the Swedish language is taught in all Finnish schools. As a confidence-building measure, could Catalan become a compulsory subject in every school in Spain? One thing is becoming ominously clear: how much all of this uncertainty is costing. The Bank of Spain says this figure could be up to 2.5 per cent of GDP (€27 billion).
Worse than this, though, would be if this opportunity to draw back is lost and the tension festered for a generation.
We need fewer flags on balconies, less talk about a dark past long gone and more appreciation of how much progress the entire country has made in the democratic era.
Joe Haslam is an associate professor at the IE Business School in Madrid. Twitter: @joehas