On December 7, Catalan nationalists are expected to demonstrate in Brussels under the slogan ‘Wake up, Europe. Help Catalonia’. The protest is a new push to focus international attention on Catalonia ahead of regional elections on December 21, and which follow months of tense struggle between the regional and national governments.

Over the coming weeks, Catalan nationalist leaders will continue to frame the Catalan conflict along two lines of argument. The first is that Catalans are a unified ‘people’ fighting against an authoritarian ‘state’ (presumably one with no ‘people’ behind it). The second is that they have merely operated at a ‘soft’ level of expressing beliefs and identity, whereas the national government headed by Mariano Rajoy has responded on a ‘hard’ plane with police action and incarceration of political leaders.

To study the playbook pursued by the Catalan movement is of value to any European or world citizen with concern or interest at the dimensions of contemporary ethno-nationalist populism. This is because neither of the arguments mentioned above stands up to rational scrutiny. Nationalist leaders have not simply been expressing dissent or putting forward political solutions; they have taken unilateral actions which affect the rights of all Catalans – and, indeed, all Spaniards – without having a mandate to do so. One might argue, in fact, that it is nationalist leaders who have turned a state (in the form of the powerful devolved administration) against its people. What is at stake in the Catalan crisis, then, is not a nineteenth century struggle for national liberation, but rather the very contemporary question of whether élites are answerable to the rule of law.

State versus people

In 2015, Catalan premier Artur Mas called for regional elections. He did so after a couple of years in which he had reversed his deep unpopularity – the result of government cuts and corruption scandals affecting his party – by blaming Catalonia’s woes on the Spanish government, and by arguing that, if the region did not receive substantial concessions, it should vote on independence from Spain. Mr. Mas also harked back to the presumed grievance inflicted on Catalonia in 2010, when the Spanish constitutional court struck down some provisions in Catalonia’s regional charter. This grievance, it is worth pointing out, had not prevented Mr. Mas from voting in 2012 alongside Mr. Rajoy’s party in order to impose sweeping austerity measures in Catalonia.

The national government explained to Mr. Mas that an independence referendum was impossible: the current constitution, which received the support of 91% of Catalan voters in 1978, does not allow for this type of referendum to be held at a regional level; and a constitutional change would require building broad, cross-party support at the national level. Yet Mr. Mas pushed ahead, claiming that the new regional elections would be a plebiscite on independence.

The results of these elections-turned-plebiscite were clear: 52% of Catalans voted for anti-independence parties. A seriously flawed electoral law, which grants overrepresentation to rural areas, allowed pro-independence parties to achieve a majority of seats in the regional assembly, but it is nevertheless hard to imagine that anyone would have interpreted these results as a mandate for secession.

That, however, was exactly what the nationalist parties did, and the powerful resources of the devolved administration were soon mobilised towards the organization of a referendum on independence. This course of action was despite numerous warnings from the courts that no regional government had the authority to call for such a referendum, and that the new Catalan administration – now headed by Carles Puigdemont – was taking on powers which it did not constitutionally have.

On 6 and 7 September 2017, pro-independence parties passed laws in the regional parliament which would allow for both a referendum on secession and a ‘national transition’ towards independence. This was accomplished by circumventing the procedures of the chamber and by overruling the parliamentary rights of the non-nationalist minority (which, it must be stressed again, represented the majority of Catalan voters).

If this is alarming for anyone who believes that respect for agreed-upon procedures is an integral part of the democratic process, it was nevertheless in keeping with the ethno-nationalist outlook of Catalan separatists, who have form in disregarding non-nationalists as mere ‘foreigners’ or -worse- ‘traitors’. Indeed, the president of the regional assembly who presided over these fraught proceedings, Carme Forcadell, once explicitly excluded supporters of non-nationalist parties from her definition of the ‘Catalan people’.

The measures passed in early September abolished the framework of the same regional constitution which the nationalists had claimed to value so dearly. Their leaders legitimized these moves, as they have often in the past, with the argument that while there is no majority support for independence, there is large support for a referendum on the issue. This is true, yet the more pressing question is how many Catalans were in support of the path of unilateral secession (via referendum) that nationalist leaders had embarked on?

When viewed this way, the drop-off in support is stark. [Click here to continue reading in openDemocracy.]