Author: Dean Molyneaux
Can royal intervention solve a constitutional crisis? The Catalan experience suggests the answer remains ‘no’.
For many of a certain age in Spain, the appearance of King Felipe VI in a rare live television address to the nation yesterday will surely bring back memories of the turbulent transition from dictatorship to democracy that the country experienced in the aftermath of Franco’s death.
During those uncertain days, Felipe’s father, Juan Carlos I, made an unprecedented and succinct address on the airwaves, in order to delegitimise the military coup led by franquista military commanders who had barricaded themselves in Congress, while reinforcing the then recently ratified Constitution. It worked. The King became a national hero (for a while) and the Spanish nation was cemented as an indivisible constitutional monarchy.
After two short years on the throne, last night’s address was arguably Felipe’s first opportunity to win back hearts and minds not only in tumultuous Catalonia, where a protest and general strike had been ongoing all day in response to police brutality during the illegal independence referendum on Sunday, but also across the other regions, where an increasing disenfranchisement with the Casa Real has been festering since long before Juan Carlos’ abdication.
With thousands in the streets of Catalan towns and cities, national police being driven from their lodgings by angry hordes and the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence imminent, Spain is facing its greatest constitutional crisis since the coup of 1981. This is the time for leadership from above politics, a chance to demonstrate that monarchs can still play a role in steering the ship when everything below descends into chaos.
Yet Felipe VI decided to demonstrate all the intransigence of Thatcher in the early days. Unlike his father, who reacted to the coup in real time, Su Majestad had 48 long hours to consider how to best address his subjects. He went on to spend some five minutes reiterating that the Constitution should prevail and that the Generalitat (Catalan administration) had acted outside the law.
He’s not exactly wrong in the technical sense but when there are 700,000 souls tramping through Barcelona’s streets, a small dose of tact can go a long way. Instead, he focused on lambasting the Catalan government with the same terms that have been spun out time and time again by prime minister and leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), Mariano Rajoy and which have caused such great ire amongst many Catalans, even those nonsupporting of independence.
An optimist would have predicted that the term ‘diálogo’ (dialogue) would be uttered, as it has been by many both in the streets of Barcelona and by the opposition Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). If the King wants dialogue, there is a good chance that the monarchist PP will give him dialogue. Instead, we heard the tired rhetoric of unity and perseverance – more like a secondary school politics class on the basics of democracy; lacking in fervour and devoid of any condemnation of the violent clashes which saw hundreds of civilians and law enforcement officers injured on polling day. Casualties? Nothing to see here.
Regardless of where you stand on the legality of the referendum and the need to adhere to the Constitution – which, let us not forget, does not permit regions to secede from mother Spain without an amendment – it is hard not to conclude the best short-term solution some form of dialogue between Madrid and the various players in the rather fractured separatist movement.
The outcome of this is anyone’s guess but if it restores calm across the region and prevents the deployment of troops, it would be a good place to start. The present strategy of inaction, one of Rajoy’s signature moves, while tentatively threatening to invoke Madrid’s constitutional power to suspend the Generalitat, will undoubtedly lead to more civic action, likely in the form of strikes and mass protests. The net result of that? An even more bitter division than exists at present.
What is sad is that from a Spanish perspective, the King has truly scored an own goal. A significant number of those in the silent majority who were either passively or actively against independence, now find themselves disgusted with the treatment of Catalan civilians by state forces; many interviewed in the street described it as a watershed moment. Even though dedicated separatists would naturally disregard any royal message as basura, there was an open net when it came to the millions of other Catalans who wanted to hear compassion, rather than accusation.
They are now rightfully angry at their King as well – the one man who could have commanded some degree of moral authority. Felipe’s intervention may prove to be as irrelevant to the current crisis as it looks to be on the surface but it will surely leave many in Spain and abroad questioning the relevancy of a monarchy already viewed as out-of-touch by many, not to mention thousands fewer monarchists in Catalonia.
Dean Molyneaux read Hispanic Studies at Durham University and is a Law Graduate of Trinity College Dublin.