Catalonia - Look at the Big Picture: The Alternative to There-is-no-Alternative


Mireia Grau Creus

Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern, Generalitat de Catalunya

Editors’ Note: In October 2017 Catalonia experienced acute political and constitutional crisis following the holding of an independence referendum and subsequent unilateral declarations of independence from Spain issued by the Catalan parliament. Roughly one year on, we gather two diverging perspectives on the crisis and its aftermath, from Mireia Grau and Argelia Queralt Jiménez.

The political and analytical debates on recent events in Catalonia have mostly been presented from a perspective according to which the actors involved could not have acted differently ("There was no alternative but to pass the referendum law…"; "There was no alternative but to implement direct rule…";  and so on). This reappearance of Mrs Thatcher's famous TINA ("There Is No Alternative") is more of a justification than an explanation.  And irrespective of which actor they seek to justify, these debates share a common problem: they do not look at the big picture.

The big picture is that the case of Catalonia is only the most acute symptom of a much broader problem: the institutional failure of the Spanish system of decentralization and the effects of this failure on the other dimensions of the institutional setting.

A year ago, press agencies all over the world were intensively following the hectic succession of events before and after the referendum on the independence of Catalonia. Although the political tension between the Catalan and Spanish Governments had been escalating for several years, it was between September and December 2017 that it exploded.

Out of control, these tensions came to a head with the two strange and self-defeated unilateral declarations of independence and in an astonishingly disproportionate exercise of power by the Spanish Government which involved not only the brutal police reaction to the voting on 1st October, but also the rather ultra vires interpretation and implementation of the “federal coercion” mechanism entrenched in article 155 [EA1] [GCM2] of the Spanish Constitution . The triggering of this mechanism, and the measures which were subsequently approved by the Spanish Senate, led to the immediate removal of the Catalan Prime Minister and of all the ministers in his government. The Spanish Prime Minister (Mr Rajoy) and his ministers then assumed all the functions and powers of the deposed government. In his role as Catalan Prime Minister, the Spanish Prime Minister dissolved the Catalan Parliament and called early elections that were held on 21st December 2017.

The Catalan prime minister was removed from office without the intervention of the Parliament that had elected him.  This breach of the common understanding of what a parliamentary system is and how it works has usually been justified by TINA. The Spanish Government and the political parties that supported the use of Article 155 say that they were left with no alternative but to establish direct rule in Catalonia.

TINA also appears in most of the academic debates on Catalonia as a means of justifying actions on all sides.  Debates tend to focus on immediate discussion of the latest development (in a bewildering succession of latest developments) and TINA is used to explain whether this move or that move is legal or not; or whether it is strategic, or constitutional, or right.  Endless Twitter threads are filled with usually-bitter debates. Puigdemont had no alternative….; the judge could not have decided otherwise… ; the government had no alternative…, etc.  Focus on the moment means one cannot see the wood from the trees;  and TINA justifies the present whilst preventing analysis and the search for solutions.

Given that there seem to be so many TINAs, an outside observer might get the impression that the situation itself was clearly structured and defined, and that it was the people involved who were acting irrationally or randomly. Indeed, leaving aside the issue of whether or not one agrees with the behaviour of any particular actor, a key question must be why - if the situation really was so clear and so many people really had no alternatives - did the conflict in Catalonia escalate so far?

Perhaps we need to look a little more carefully before we start seeing TINAs everywhere.  Even if, in a particular case-study, there really was no alternative open to the actor involved, the overall effect of trying to justify individual events and actions is that it diverts attention from the main problem: the institutional failure of the Spanish decentralization.

One of the most obvious reasons why we should consider decentralization in Spain to be an institutional failure is that the very purpose of decentralization when it began in the 1970s was to create a mechanism which would accommodate the political demands for self-government expressed by the Catalan and Basque minorities.  Irrespective of one's point of view on decentralization, any examination of the current situation is sufficient to conclude that it did not achieve this aim.

But it is important to stress that the Catalan conflict is not the only symptom which shows that the system has failed.  In contrast to the increasingly centrifugal trends in Catalonia, surveys show increasingly centripetal trends in the rest of Spain.  So, whilst in Catalonia secessionism has rocketed and a majority of citizens (not just secessionists) think that the degree of self-government is insufficient (ranging from 51.6% in 2006 to 62.3% in 2018), citizens in some other comunidades autónomas (regions) would be happy for powers to be returned to the Spanish Government.  So the issue is not just that decentralization is being questioned, but that it is being questioned from opposite points of view; and this makes it even more complicated to find common grounds for institutional reform.

Further still, in the last ten years, re-centralization has been one of the most active pillars of the Spanish Government's law-making and policy-making. There has already been extensive reporting on the expansive legislative behaviour of the Spanish Parliament (passing mostly executive-promoted bills) and on the consequent limitation of self-government by the regions. In some cases, political actors in certain comunidades autónomas have even dismantled their own institutions of self-government (such as regional ombudsmen), arguing that certain services and rights are better managed centrally and homogeneously.

The Spanish decentralization system has failed institutionally.  It has not accommodated minorities.  It has not led to the development of shared values on what political decentralization should be.  In practice, it has ended up being a rather-centralized system of decision-making (by the Spanish Government and institutions) and a decentralized system for the management of those decisions (by the comunidades autónomas).

And because the institutional setting for decentralization is a failure, issues arising from the failure of decentralization have been passed on to other parts of the system (the judiciary, the party competition, the police and society as a whole) which have also failed in their attempts to deal with them.

The denial of such an institutional failure, whether explicit or implicit, is a major handicap for understanding the complexity of the problem.  If you ignore the big picture, then most of the events and the behaviour by the actors involved make little sense, and commentators have to rely on TINA to help them explain things.

Where do we go from here?  Some international commentators have suggested that the new Spanish Government, led by the Socialist Mr Sánchez, is taking an approach that is more related to political problem-solving than that of the previous government. Whether or not this is the case, the key issue is the same:  unless the starting-point is that there has been an institutional failure of the system, we will continue to see ineffective, patchwork solutions. And lots of TINAs.

Mireia Grau Creus is a researcher at the Institut d’Estudis de l’Autogovern, Government of Catalunya.

Suggested Citation: Mireia Grau Creus, ‘Catalonia - Look at the Big Picture: The Alternative to There-is-no-Alternative’ IACL-AIDC Blog (30 November 2018)