Rare national address from Spain’s king carries shades of ’23-F’ crisis

Two Spanish kings, two very different speeches, and a bloody horizon.

Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets at crowds in Barcelona on Sunday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File
Spanish riot police fired rubber bullets at crowds in Barcelona on Sunday. CREDIT: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti, File

In a rare national address Tuesday, Spain’s King Felipe VI came down hard on the government of Catalonia and made no mention of the Madrid government’s complicity in turning the question of potential independent statehood for the northeast region from a civil affair to a bloody one.

“For a long time, some Catalan authorities have repeatedly, consciously and deliberately flouted the Constitution and their own Statute of Autonomy, which is the law that acknowledges, protects, and safeguards their historic institutions and their self-government,” Felipe said. “With their decisions, they have systematically infringed the rules legally and rightfully approved and have shown an unacceptable disloyalty towards the institutions of the State.”

Nowhere in his remarks did Felipe even acknowledge the brutal police crackdown on Catalans on Sunday.

Instead, the king invoked the ominous language of power. “[T]he rightful powers of the State have the responsibility to guarantee the constitutional order and the normal functioning of the institutions,” the king said.

Videos from Sunday showed national Guardia Civil officers beating and wounding men and women, old and young, in pursuit of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s mandate to prevent people from voting. The violent scenes triggered sympathy from elsewhere in the country, with some unions ordering members into solidarity strikes far from Barcelona. Businesses there were dark and streets full of angry crowds in the hours before Felipe spoke.

The Spanish monarchy has been put in similar positions before in modern times — forced to make a call between groups headed for collision, in the final moments before bloodshed would become inevitable.

February 23, 1981 is an iconic date in Spain. Shorthanded as “23-F” locally, the night saw a brigade of armed Guardia Civil storm the national parliament and hold its more than 300 elected representatives hostage for almost 18 hours.

Any coup that can be measured in hours rather than decades is a failure, of course. But the Guardia Civil and army leaders who threw the armed insurrection into motion had expected that then-King Juan Carlos I would welcome their actions and restore the dictatorship that had ended just a few years earlier with the death of the fascist General Francisco Franco. They believed the king would surely “cancel the aborted six-year experiment with democracy and bring back the old certainties of the Franco era,” as journalist Rob Orchard put it in a 2014 piece detailing the conspiracy theories that still swirl around 23-F.

But Juan Carlos did the opposite. Donning his military uniform and sitting at a desk inside the royal residence, the king went on national television and rejected the coup. “The Crown cannot tolerate in any form any act which tries to interfere with the constitution which has been approved by the Spanish people,” he said. The national cabinet would act immediately “to guarantee the governing of the country within civilian rules.”

At that moment, the would-be resurgence of Spain’s 40-year authoritarian rule failed. Over the next three decades, a king who’d been Franco’s personal protege and hand-picked successor was widely beloved by a country that moved out of totalitarianism and built strong economic and diplomatic ties with its neighbors. The open society that was paved after 23-F also gave citizens freedom to argue over the country’s identity, structure, and laws that had been denied throughout Franco’s reign. But other than annual Christmas addresses and the occasional national tragedy, Juan Carlos didn’t give any more rousing declarations about democracy, order, or unity.

Juan Carlos’ 1981 speech is universally regarded as decisive. Had the monarch veered the other direction, the coup’s success was guaranteed. The crisis into which his successor, Felipe VI, inserted himself on Tuesday lacks that galvanizing clarity. The new king’s very different approach to the current fractious moment threatens to accelerate a run toward violent schism that was already moving at a sprinter’s pace.

Carles Puigdemont, leader of the Catalan government, has vowed to proclaim formal independence for his territory and people within 48 hours once the relatively few recorded votes from Sunday’s referendum are tallied. With the counting expected to finish by week’s end, Catalonia could officially sever its bonds to Spain this week.

The window for non-violent reconciliation is closing fast. If Rajoy doesn’t open a dialogue with Puigdemont in these next few days, the balance of Spanish civil authority will shift back into the hands of men with guns — a modern retread of the shift Juan Carlos rejected 36 years ago.

If it is not discussion, Rajoy’s next move will be to invoke the constitutional provision allowing Madrid to suspend a region’s autonomy. To give that paperwork meaning, he will have to send in soldiers, arrest Puigdemont and his ministers, and ask police and army rank-and-file to face down the millions who would surely fill the streets yet again in response to such a crackdown. Should he ultimately lean on hard power to tame a situation his intransigence exacerbated for months, Rajoy will have shown just how brittle his authority is — and made reality the thing he claims to oppose most.

Rajoy’s poor twinned choices for action help to explain why he’s opted for a holding pattern thusfar this week. “Some blame Mr Rajoy for not acting earlier on the Catalonia question, for letting it reach boiling point,” the Financial Times reported Tuesday. “But in the wake of Sunday’s vote, in which 2.3m people in Catalonia voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, analysts say that this time at least Mr Rajoy’s ‘wait and see’ approach is his only available option.”

If the failed coup of 23-F was a near-tragedy, the current crisis is pure farce. There is no evidence to suggest that the “yes” side of the Catalan separatist question can martial even a Brexit-thin simple majority. Leave was polling around 40 percent prior to Sunday’s vote, and unionist Catalans have boycotted prior referenda en masse thus exaggerating the apparent support for secession.

It’s not surprising the leave cause hasn’t galvanized clear majority support. Catalonia would fall on harder economic times striking out on its own, even compared to the present situation where it gets far less back in federal spending than it furnishes in taxes. The arguments for separation are “not the discourse of liberating emancipation [but simply] good old-fashioned conservatism, which is what nationalism always bends toward,” as Spanish-American writer Nando Vila recently wrote.

The lack of a proper popular mandate for secession gives the current Catalan leaders’ stance a tinge of irony. They are acting in defiance of the constitutional democracy Spaniards have upheld for 40 years to impose a sincerely but narrowly held belief upon their countrymen — a description that would also have fit the Franco-loving coup clique from 23-F.

The whole thing is doubly-farcical for how easily Rajoy could have steered out of this skid. Prior votes have been shown to reduce separatist fervor when they were allowed to proceed. Sending in the police to club impassioned crowds turned more people both inside Catalonia and elsewhere in the country to the separatist side, leading English-language Spain historian Paul Preston told the BBC on Wednesday.

“Basically if the Spanish government had acted sensibly and flexibly, which it could have done, and possibly didn’t either because of its Francoist instincts or because there is of course electoral benefit to be gained on the right in Spain from being seen to be anti-Catalan, everything that happened on Sunday could easily have been avoided. It would have been possible to say ‘by all means you can have a consultation but the result will be non-binding,'” Preston said.

But having committed itself to the crackdown path on Sunday, Rajoy’s government and Felipe’s monarchy would now have to absorb major reversals to restore the possibility of peace.

“At this moment I just cannot see the Madrid government making any concessions. The Madrid government has derived quite a high degree of kudos within Spain, and it would require very major concessions on Catalan control of its tax revenues in order to diminish independence feelings,” said Preston. “It is quite clear to me…that people who are pretty hostile to the idea of separation from Spain, because economically it would be a disaster, but nonetheless what happened over the weekend has so intensified feelings on both sides that I see no early and easy solution.”