Independence or death

[Personal note: in an email, a friend mentioned that he was surprised that I hadn’t written more about the current situation in Catalonia. I’ll admit that I too am slightly bemused by this. I can only say that the decline in the blog as a format (not just mine, but in general), which started years and years ago but has now more or less reached its culmination, has coincided more recently with personal events – our daughter is three months old now. So I’ve gone from being one of the few English language bloggers to discuss Catalan independence as an actual possibility worth discussing, to being one of the only political bloggers not to have talked about recent events. In this post, I will try to rectify that.]

How many turning points has this independence movement had? They’re uncountable, I suppose. It began with the Estatut. Or with Arenys de Munt. Or maybe in 1977 when they let Tarradellas back. The 9N ‘consulta’ which definitely wouldn’t happen, then didn’t happen, and if it did it had no consequences. The CUP forcing Mas out and paving the way for a truly committed pro-independence president of Catalonia. Year after year of peaceful mass demonstrations, the biggest series of protests in European history. Intervention in the Generalitat’s finances. The imposition of 16,000 police. A por ellos.

October 1st – #CatalanReferendum

Like many others, I was guarding the local polling station before 6 am. How many times, living in a democracy, do you get to say that? Some of my neighbours had been there all night. The mood was one of tense hope and anticipation. We heard rumours that the Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil were leaving their cruise ships in the port of Barcelona. Would they be coming for us?

Two Mossos arrived and greeted us with a cheerful "Bon dia". "Bon dia!" they received in cheerful response. Could they go in and have a look around? The ballot boxes hadn't yet arrived, so they were allowed in for a minute or so. After they left the school, they took up post a short distance from the school gates, watching.

Then a murmur of activity. The ballot boxes! With the two Mossos stationed outside the front gate, the school's back door was used to smuggle the ballot boxes in. We helped shield one of the guys who brought them as he left through the front entrance with a spare box for another polling station in his hands. A huge round of applause and cheering broke out. The Mossos stayed back.

At 11 am, I went home to make lunch for my family and saw horrendous scenes on the news. We started to receive messages from friends and loved ones, asking if we were OK. One of the schools attacked by the police was in Sabadell, a neighbouring town. In the end, they didn't come for us. After lunch, I was back at the polling station until it closed. My neighbours marched on the town hall and the mayor lowered the Spanish flag.

The police brutality on October 1st was, I think, one of a series of critical errors on the part of the Spanish government. But I think I can understand why it happened. A state can sometimes calculate that it's better to have everyone talking about what it succeeded at (breaking heads and fingers), rather than what it failed at.

Intelligence failures

October 1st was, unquestionably, a day of failures for Spain's security and intelligence services. Most significantly, the Spanish state had previously identified the ballot boxes as its primary target, and yet it failed to capture a single box before it started its raids on the polling stations. What this means is that hundreds of people were involved in a clandestine operation to bring the ballot boxes from storage in Elne, France, to each of the hundreds of polling stations across Catalan territory, and that the Spanish intelligence and security services almost certainly failed to infiltrate this operation. The operation was carefully planned, involved failsafes, need to know data restrictions and even lookouts watching border crossings and major highways.

It's probably fair to say that this intelligence failure indicates a generalised failure by the Spanish authorities to successfully infiltrate the Catalan independence movement's core, and those of us who support independence should take some pride in that. There is an outside chance that the operation was infiltrated but that a strategic decision was taken to avoid revealing this fact for some future gain, and so the ballot boxes were left alone. I find it very difficult indeed to accept this hypothesis given that the politically expedient thing would have been to prevent the ballot boxes arriving altogether.

Similarly, the Spanish government seemed to have no prior knowledge of the online Universal Census system set up in the days before the referendum, and designed to allow people to vote in alternative polling stations if theirs was closed by police action.

The king's speech

One of the founding myths of the Spanish transition is how the current king's father Juan Carlos saved the fledgling democracy by speaking out against 1981's Guardia Civil/Army coup attempt. I don't think many people expected his son to be able to repeat this mythical feat, in the age of the internet, but few predicted that he would do so badly. Felipe's speech had two main ingredients: an attempt to placate his critics on the right, and carte blanche for the PP government to push forward with draconian measures under the protection of the constitution. He failed to speak to Catalans' (or other Spaniards') concerns for the state's lurch to repressive tactics. The king's speech signaled the failure of the transition and its pact for autonomy for Spain's regions and nationalities.

Article 155

Much has been written about the dreaded Article 155 and the powers it might concede to a government that attempts to use it. The thing about Article 155, though, is that it's a bit like the atomic bomb. Even using it once is a highly risky operation which will have far-reaching and unknowable consequences. Much of the hot air surrounding the PP's intentions with Article 155 is just that: hot air. The Spanish government knows that actually applying any of the measures they have floated in the press would be next to impossible. It's a tactic to try to force elections, and insofar as it has convinced committed 3rd-wayers like Santi Vila, it has worked.

But make no mistake: if Catalonia fails to become independent, the constitution will be abused by the PP-PSOE-Ciudadanos coalition in order to make Catalonia pay. Albert Rivera has already called on the central government only to call Catalan parliamentary elections (a power he doesn't have, but will claim under 155) "when they can guarantee the result", i.e. when they can be sure that pro-independence parties won't win again, which they certainly would. The education system, which works very well and categorically does not indoctrinate Catalan children beyond trying to give them the same sense of civic responsibility kids all around Spain are brought up with, will be destroyed. The same goes for TV3 and Catalunya Radio, well-loved and well-balanced broadcasters. This is what awaits Catalonia if 155 is applied. And the PP has already threatened Castilla La Mancha, the Basque Country and Navarra with similar treatment.

Republic (or elections)

No one knows exactly what will happen this evening and tomorrow morning in the Catalan parliament. The assumption is that sometime tomorrow morning, the parliament will vote to approve the lifting of the suspension of the declaration of independence, and that this will be followed by the proclamation of the Catalan Republic. After that, who knows? Elections to form a constituent assembly with the job of drafting the Catalan Constitution are likely, but will they be immediate?

And will there be any international recognition? Israel? Slovenia? The USA? Kurdistan? Kosovo? I've always had the feeling that Spain's true level of international support is weaker than it appears in the media. Its main strength is that it is a state. Catalonia is not. And until it controls its territory, infrastructure and finances, it won't be. The Catalan Republic might be born on Friday October 27th, but the story won't end there. That said, we've come this far. To pull back now would be far more disastrous.

*Update: And this shows why I don't like to make predictions. Now, it looks like elections are to be held on December 20th.

*Update 2: I spoke to soon. Here's my thread covering the events of the day:

5 thoughts on “Independence or death

  1. I certainly agree with all the criticism against the Spanish government and would add their refusal to mediation and their desire to shut down Catalan media as especially alarming.
    However, the Catalan government deserves some criticism as well: Puigdemont's speech in parliament on October 10th was messy and his refusal to appear before the Senate in Madrid goes against his own calls for a dialog.
    And in general, the 43% turnout is just not enough for such a critical decision. Sure, the Spanish government had its big share in preventing a serious referendum, but there just isn't enough support for this move. The police violence should be investigated and the ones responsible should be punished, but taking that and declaring independence is too big of a leap.
    I support Ada Colau's positions in this conflict, calling for a dialog is her main message. Unfortunately, the flags overshadow the real issues of corruption and austerity.

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    1. The US declared independence from Britain with about 30% support, and rather less "legality" than this situation. If Catalonia should remain part of Spain for the reasons most people are putting up (including the US State Department), then the US should be returned to British rule forthwith!

      If you hold an election or referendum and some people choose not to vote, you can't go around complaining about them not being represented; even if the turnout is 0.1%, the result should stand, assuming everyone knew about it and had the chance to vote if they wanted to (or the people you're claiming are underrepresented — i.e., the pro-Spain faction — are responsible for the low turnout — i.e., by Spanish attacks on voters and voting stations, etc.).

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  2. There are reports that Puigdemont will call elections for December 20th and not declare independence. Hopefully, it was negotiated with the Spanish government which will refrain from invoking 155. I can't stand the noise of the helicopter anymore…

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  3. I know, having a small child at home can really turn your life upside down 🙂

    I found your blog because I was googling for pro-independence sources. They're hard to find. It is much easier to open Le Monde or Frankfurter Allgemeine and read articles bashing Catalonia's drive for independence. France is particularly severe in this regard. I guess they're still afraid of their own separatism two hundred years after applying the "loi du sol". I was pleasantly surprised by the British papers, which have at least tried to examine the matter in more depth.

    I'm from Croatia. I lived through a national struggle for independence and I can tell you it was very hard. We felt completely isolated. And we actually had a few superpowers rooting for us: at first Germany and the Pope, later the USA. You have nobody. And you won't have anybody in the near future, either.

    But in the final instance, that's irrelevant. Paradoxically, when millions of people are involved, the thing becomes ridiculously simple: who has a stronger desire?

    I like your title. It may sound melodramatic, but this is really about life and death. How many Catalans are ready to die for a free Catalonia? How many Spaniards are ready to die to keep Catalonia in Spain? The answer doesn't depend on the EU, the UN, Rajoy or Puigdemont, but the heart of each and every person in Spain. And a true believer is worth a hundred people who don't care either way.

    Measured in this way, and judging by what I've seen these past months, there will be a free Catalonia.

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  4. I am Italian and totally in favor of Catalans having the right of expressing their opinion and to seek independence in a pacific way, even if that could turn out to be the wrong decision in terms of economy, international relations, etc.. I think Spain is making great mistakes, especially with the move to put in jail the Catalan government. Although EU politicians are forced to declare their support of Spain, I would say most people in Europe is sympathetic with the Catalans and the international image of Spain is severely damaged. All Spain can say is, "independence is illegal". True: but when two millions people act pacifically against the law, the problem is the law, not the people.

    There is however a major problem. Independence is a big thing. It's not a light decision with scanty consequences. In these cases, I think a simple majority is not enough, just like important constitutional laws. The Catalans should have first reached a solid majority in the Parlament, say 60%, before calling for independence. Similarly, the referendum should have had at least 50% of turnout to be valid. With the 48% or so in the Parliamant elections and the 42% of turnout at the referendum, people can always claim there is not a solid, convincing, stable majority of Catalans in favor of independence. And this is a very strong argument. (Somebody compared this with the Americal independence having only 30% support: even if true, that was a war. Yes, you can make and win a war even with 30% support. Are we talking about a war?).

    Said that, I really hope Catalans will find a satisfactory way out, and that Spain will pay, in some way, for her legal, but brutal, actions.

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