The survey published by La Vanguardia this past Monday emphatically shows, as echoed by the accompanying headline, that 80% of Catalans support an “economic agreement for Catalonia.” And this percentage might even increase, since only 15% are against it and the remaining 5% swing back and forth between indifference and incomprehension. It is significant that the study openly calls for “an economic agreement similar to the one in the Basque Country,” resisting the temptation to use the ambiguous and all-inclusive expression “fiscal pact.” A name is just a name, yes, but if CiU keep their firm electoral promise to demand a Catalan treasury run solely by the Generalitat, with the key to the safe in hand, they will obtain popular support for this precise objective, but not for any other watered-down version of an agreement.
Catalan citizens are already fed up with being led on by clever and not-so-clever wordplay. To cite the most recent attempt, we all know that a forced intervention by Europe –encouraged by the United States— is exactly that: an intervention that affects our sovereignty and jeopardizes our future. But we are no longer going to let ourselves be fooled by the words of those who tout the so-called “success” of having received, at our own behest, an enormous loan at a good price, an expression of solvency… As a result, whether it is due to the strong commitment to the promises that were made, or because it’s clear Catalans are sick and tired of having the wool pulled over their eyes, the Government of Artur Mas has very little room to maneuver if it hopes to receive support from a more ambitious nation as it travels down the road towards this goal.
Now let’s be clear: if support for the fiscal agreement has reached this extraordinary 80%, it is thanks to the leadership of the Catalan Government and, in particular, that of Artur Mas. These consensuses don’t happen magically. Catalans have known for decades that they have a profoundly unfair fiscal deal. And in recent times, since the publication in 1985 of Narració d’una asfíxia premeditada [“The Narration of a Premeditated Suffocation”] by Ramon Trias Fargas. And ERC has been insisting on it for years. Thus, what is new is not so much the discovery of the suffocation, but that a moderate government incorporated the desire to breathe deeply, fiscally speaking, into its electoral program. And, it’s evident, it has helped a great deal that the economic depression has strangled us to the point of complete asphyxiation.
The Catalan Government, therefore, has public opinion on its side. Nonetheless, it’s not clear that it will garner the support of the second and third most-represented parties in the Catalan Parliament, PSC and PP (the case of Unió is too complicated to address in this short commentary). This is because dual loyalties and, therefore, difficulties exist when it comes time for them to vote in favor of the interests and aspirations of the Catalan people, exactly the opposite of what their counterparts in the Basque Country do. And it also seems that the Government is having a hard time winning over certain economic sectors –fewer and fewer of them fit this discription, of course— that have their main safety nets in Madrid, nets that a Catalan treasury with a strict government—with what many have compared to a Lutheran work ethic— would put at risk. Nonetheless, tread carefully here, because when faced with the dilemma of having to choose between popular support or ceding to the pressure of the powers that be, considering how vigilant the citizenry is today, the second option would lead to certain failure. Said differently: if the Catalan Government were ever tempted to cede to these powers, it would immediately lose public support.
Nonetheless, in the same survey it is just as interesting to note how people responded to the alternatives if the plan for a Catalan treasury were to fail. Here we see how public opinion is clearly divided among those who consider that Catalans should “take the plunge” [and go the full independence route] (31%), those who opt for continuing to negotiate and seek out agreements (56%) and those who believe that accepting defeat would be the best option (9%). It is obvious that this division of opinions has a lot to do with how the options were worded in the survey. If the survey had formulated them differently, especially if it were made clear that in one scenario negotiation would continue until reaching an agreement, the results would be vastly different. In addition, people were forced to improvise their answer to the question, without the Government having acted as a leader and clearly expressed what the official alternative would be. And with the exception of Esquerra Republicana, we also don’t know what alternatives the PSC, PP or ICV and the rest would propose. Thus, the citizenry responded without a clear political “cushion” of support, and this was what led to the disorientation.
In addition, I know that there are those who insist, even from within the ranks of the Government, that a plan B shouldn’t even exist, or that it shouldn’t be made explicit. It is a way of keeping their hands free just in case they need to make a less-ambitious pact or, as one of the answers to the survey suggests, it’s necessary to “keep negotiating and exploring other possibilities to try to reach an agreement.” Or in other words, if it becomes necessary to discreetly retreat and postpone urgent decisions, almost a matter of life or death, sine die. I do not agree with this approach at all. Explaining plan B—which in this case would involve committing ourselves to taking decisions about sovereignty that are outside the law— is precisely what gives strength to negotiations when a parliamentary majority does not exist. And, above all, because it shows commitment and it transmits confidence to the citizenry and makes them willing to support the government. It is leadership that creates opinion, and not the other way around. And I am sure the Catalan Government knows this.
Salvador Cardús is Full Professor of Sociology in the Autonomous University of Barcelona’s Sociology and Political Sciences Faculty. He works to spread the word about issues relating to education, nationalism and immigration. He is author of the book El desconcert de l’educació (Disorder in Education), an out-and-out positivist work and a manifest countering the clichés that have always been linked to educational issues.