All posts by Tom

Spain's strict spending controls give the lie to Catalan autonomy

One of the most widely repeated myths in the debate about Catalan independence is that 'Catalonia already enjoys more devolved powers than almost any other region in the world'. We're frequently told that US states, German landers and other autonomous regions have nowhere near the autonomous powers that Catalonia enjoys. This is less accurate than it immediately seems.

While it's true that Catalonia and the other autonomous communities in Spain have broad powers and areas of responsibility under the constitution and the statutes of autonomy, they really cannot be compared with, for example, German landers or American states. Vitally, Catalonia has strictly-limited powers over what taxes it collects and when it can levy new taxes. Most attempts to create new taxes have been challenged by the Spanish government, or have been subsequently 'trumped' by the government establishing an identical tax at state level, thus making the Catalan tax obsolete.

But it's the Spanish government's latest announcement threatening suspension of payments under the Autonomous Liquidity Fund (FLA) which really gives the lie to this claim. The fund itself was already problematic, because rather than helping Spain's autonomous communities operate in financial markets, it establishes the Spanish state as the source of liquidity loans, which must be repaid with interest. The FLA system establishes almost total state control over autonomous finances and spending, even governing payment priorities, expenditure controls and the final decision over which bills are paid and when. If that sounds like 'autonomy' to you, we have a very different understanding of the word.

Now, the Spanish government is taking things a step further by forcing the Generalitat to provide detailed accounting on a weekly basis to ensure that 'not 1€ is spent on an illegal referendum'. The Spanish government has clearly decided that to use the normal tactic of taking the Generalitat to court post factum in the event of any spending with which it disagrees, won't work with a referendum that will likely lead to a unilateral declaration of independence. So the decision has been taken to directly intervene (even more than previously), and establish even stricter controls on Generalitat spending with the threat of suspending FLA payments. If that sounds like 'autonomy' to you, we have a very different understanding of the word.

It looks like the Spanish government feels that it has played its best hand with this move: not using force or even the courts to defeat the Catalan 'challenge', but something that hurts even more: cash. But once again, the bigger picture is being ignored. By removing even the pretence of fiscal autonomy from the Catalan government, the Spanish state is admitting that the whole thing is a façade whose supposed constitutional protections are meaningless in the face of a state hellbent on recentralization. Autonomy for Catalonia is not protected: it's "by the grace of Madrid, and don't you forget it". To win the point, Spain has to lose the moral argument.

Resignation and good humor: Vilaweb's interview with de Carreras

What with all the movement of the last few weeks in the Catalan independence process, there are a hell of a lot of articles being published which are worth reading. And there's a lot to think about. Like: was what happened with Santi Vila a colossal fuck up, or a cunningly executed maneuver? Or a bit of both?

One of the better things I've read recently is Vilaweb's interview with one of the founding members of Ciutadans, Francesc de Carreras. The scion of one of those families that did very well during the dictatorship, he's a former left-winger who has drifted into the political space that was his birthright. And that's not necessarily a criticism… Spain and Catalonia are full of people who joined the PSOE, the PCE, the PSUC essentially in protest against the dictatorship. Most of them were never convinced by left wing ideology and were more properly English-style liberals looking for an outlet.

But I digress. The interview makes for good reading because de Carreras is typically pretty candid and can be quite amusing. He talks about his wives, and his father, and his political career. He maintains that the referendum should have been held in 2012 and readily admits that the reason one can't be held now is that Spain would lose. But he also says that a referendum won't be held: that the state will use all the force it has in law to prevent it from happening.

And here he touches on the key topic of the day: what can the Spanish state do to prevent a referendum and/or Catalan independence? They talk about closing schools to stop a referendum from taking place, but what if elections are called the same day? There's talk of intervening in Catalonia's autonomy, replacing the president. But how will an imposed viceroy hope to govern? De Carreras mentions a state of emergency or 'siege', which could see troops on the streets. But how could that not trigger a revolution? He has faith that the Catalans will simply obey like the Basques did when Batasuna was made illegal. But the situations are fundamentally different: one involved the banning of a party most people accepted was linked to an armed separatist group, the other involves deposing a democratically elected president and government peacefully carrying out their election manifesto.

Meanwhile, in Barcelona, on this peaceful and warm March afternoon, preparations continue for the progress through parliament of the Llei de transitorietat jurídica.

El País – from liberal leader to voice of the establishment

If El País is "co-author of the transición", what does the state of this newspaper tell us about the state of Spanish democracy? That is has retreated into an increasingly authoritarian, illiberal and limiting structure no longer aimed at liberating a nation but at preserving the status quo, above all else.

When I first moved to Barcelona nearly 15 years ago, El País was still read in progressive Catalan households. Even though it had practically always been close to the sort of 'Socialismo' represented by Felipe Gonzalez, El País seemed to stand up to the conservative, even post-Francoist caspa of the Aznar government. Throughout that era, as its readership shared in the boom of the 2000's, El País seemed to represent a progressive, hopeful agenda for Spain. After 2004's 11M bombings, El País offered clear analysis and avoided the unforgivable conspiracy theories of El Mundo and other parts of Spain's conservative press. Zapatero, the most progressive Spanish prime minister to date, helped encapsulate a sense that a certain 'can do' Spanish liberalism was dominating, and despite the launch of Público, El País was still there as the leading liberal voice.

The dawning of the crisis meant bad times for Spain, and bad times for El País and its proprietor Grupo Prisa. Despite layoffs, the newspaper struggled with huge debts, many with the banks it was supposed to be investigating. The ones that helped trigger the crisis itself. Now the government proposed critical labor reforms and I, in retrospect late to the game, saw that El País wasn't in the business of opposing central economic policy. As unions planned first one and then a second general strike, El País published hatchet jobs on their leaders and did its best to undermine turnout. When the Socialist government used Franco-era measures to forcibly militarize all air traffic controllers in the country, El País published lie after lie about the industrial dispute they were involved in. And as Catalonia, without its promised Estatut – which the newspaper had backed, started to look towards self-determination, El País retreated into the sort of dogmatic legalism which still informs its position today.

Grupo Prisa's CEO, Juan Luis Cebrián, was interviewed the other day in El Mundo by Cayetana Álvarez de Toledo y Peralta-Ramos, the 13th marquise of Casa Fuerte and hotshot at José Maria Aznar's right-wing Spanish nationalist FAES think tank (she who allegedly broke the law the other day at the trial of Mas et al, but who will doubtless face no penalty). Asked about the Catalan question, Cebrián laid out his position frankly and clearly: "If the king's brother in law can go to jail, why can't Artur Mas?" [a curious comparison, given that Iñaki Urdangarin, has been jailed for corruption and embezzlement, while Artur Mas is on trial for permitting a non-binding popular consultation to be held] and "Someone mentions sending in the Guardia Civil. People say 'no, not the Guardia Civil', but I say: yes, why not? That's what the Guardia Civil is for" and "[The government should act so that] the debate isn't about when they get their independence, but about when they get their autonomy back".

The interview is fascinating because it helps to explain the decline of El País as a leading liberal voice, the decline of the PSOE as the party of reform, and the end of the Transition Pact, the end of nearly 40 years during which the Catalan bourgeoisie represented by Convergència i Unió could be relied on to maintain the governability of Spain as a whole. The new pact which has replaced the old one is opposed to constitutional reform, which is why it maneuvered to prevent a PSOE-Podemos coalition in the last two elections, and preferred to gift Rajoy reelection than see Pedro Sánchez in charge.

The new pact can be defined by 4 particular policy lines on which its members agree: opposition to reform other than further liberalization of the labor market; the reduction of the concept of democracy to "the rule of law" and not much more; a strict and un-nuanced reading of the constitution; the rejection of the right to self-determination.

Regarding this last point, last month Alfred de Zayas, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, wrote to the Spanish government to raise concerns about its treatment of the Catalan question – the so-called 'Operación Cataluña', which involves criminal trials for elected officials, along with other, even murkier tactics. He reminded Spain about the right to self-determination. And he noted that a referendum is a very good way of resolving questions like that currently concerning Catalonia.

El País, once the leading liberal voice in the Spanish language, chose not to report this letter.

2017: the key year for Catalan indpendence

Happy new year, everybody!

Based on an analysis of recent polls by pro-independence Vilaweb, there would likely be a 63% turnout in a unilateral independence referendum (i.e. one held without the Spanish government's permission). The result from such a referendum would be 79% in support of independence.

That would clearly be enough to justify a declaration of independence, to be followed by a process to agree a new constitution for the Catalan republic, and fresh elections. While many Catalans may not have noticed, detailed and serious plans for future independence have been underway for some time. Among other things, the Catalan government has been quietly creating a diplomatic corps from within its staff. Unofficially, the hobbyists working on things like a Catalan constitution, and the changes needed for independence to happen, are being taken much more seriously. I've attended some interesting debates.

Meanwhile, while we have seen the Spanish state using some of the tools at its disposal to try to derail the independence process (constitutional court rulings, probably funding groups like SCC*, the Pujol accusations, banning judges, diplomatic pressure, criminal cases brought against elected officials, and now formal accusations of incitement to sedition), we have yet to see the state bring out its big guns. Those include: banning political parties (Anna Gabriel thinks there's a chance of this happening to the CUP); jailing elected officials (Mas/Forcadell); and intervening directly in Catalonia's autonomy (appointing Josep Enric Millo as caretaker president).

I think it's fair to say that things must come to a head in 2017. Failing to at least announce a referendum this year (and really, it needs to be held this year), will cause confidence in the process to decline. So all eyes are now on the llei de transitorietat jurídica, the law which will establish legal and judicial continuity should Catalans vote to become independent. This law is, in essence, a de facto declaration of independence and the moment it is approved by the Catalan parliament will likely be the 'train crash' moment we've been predicting for the last few years.

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* Is it just me, or is Societat Civil Catalana on its last legs? They've changed leader, again, and their former supporters are now involved in a competing gravy train think tank. If I'm right, we'll see SCC lose this year's court case and wind up its activities sometime next year.

The referendum conundrum

A few months ago, the Assemblea held a vote for its members to decide whether or not to press the pro-independence parties to support a binding referendum on Catalan independence. The idea seems to have come from the CUP and is now embraced by all three pro-independence parties, as well as the Assemblea and other grassroots groups.

[This is an interesting move in my dance with the ANC because 18 months ago or so, I had an argument with ANC people in the street in Cerdanyola who at the time were calling for a unilateral declaration of independence, which I insisted would never be recognized internationally – I said that we needed a binding referendum; now, I'm a member of the ANC and opposed to the referendum. One of us is out of step, almost certainly me].

Catalan government spokesperson Neus Munté today outlined the importance of a referendum being "binding and meeting international standards" in order for it to be recognized in other countries. She also said that people on both sides of the debate must turn out and vote [i.e., 'remain' supporters can't be seen to stay at home like they did on #9N], and that in order to achieve this, the referendum must have concrete "legal and political consequences".

In case you hadn't noticed, these are exactly the arguments used by those of us unsure about the workability of the new plan. It's obvious that a binding referendum with a high turnout would be the best and most democratic way to deliver independence, were that the result. But simply saying that a referendum needs to be binding, and have a large turnout, and have legal and political consequences, is almost totally useless. We need to know how they're going to make this happen.

In Spain's current political climate, the chances of the next government (my money is on a minority PP government) agreeing to a binding referendum are minimal. So all the PSC, Cs and PP need to do to make this proposed referendum another #9N is convince their supporters not to bother voting. Apart from the problem with drawing up an electoral register, there is the issue of ensuring legal consequences from a referendum the Spanish government will certainly declare to be illegal.

It might be that I'm not seeing the plan. It might be that Munté et al have a plan and they're just preparing the ground. Maybe they're hoping for a repeat of #27S, when they called the elections a plebiscite and the PP eventually agreed. But for the moment, this binding referendum is a conundrum: no one opposed will vote unless the referendum is taken seriously, and the referendum won't be taken seriously unless the opposition votes.

Spain's anti-terrorist parties law used against Catalan Democrats

Spain's law of political parties, enacted in 2002 to prevent Basque parties linked to terrorism, has been used for the first time to prevent the registration of a political party with an explicitly pro-Catalan independence manifesto. The party formerly known as Convergència was attempting to register its new name – Democratic Party of Catalonia – with the Spanish registrar of political parties. The name itself was also rejected for bearing too close a similarity to the Catalan Democrats party formed out of the ashes of Unió, but this was expected. What wasn't expected was a political reason for refusing to register the party.

The law, voted in with the support of CiU, allowed the courts to ban Batasuna and a range of other attempted Basque left-independence parties on the basis of alleged links with terrorism. In fact, at the time the law was introduced, many felt that it had been created solely for the ETA/Batasuna case and that there was no way that Spain would abuse the legal system to ban legitimate parties (i.e. parties with no links to armed groups).

It states that a party can be made illegal when it threatens democratic principles, particularly by threatening to reduce or destroy the 'state of freedoms' or to make democracy impossible. Specific grounds it cites include (excuse the rough translation):

  • Threatening freedoms and fundamental rights; promoting, justifying or otherwise supporting attacks that threaten death or injury; or excluding or persecuting people on the basis of their ideology, religion or beliefs, nationality, race, sex or sexual orientation.
  • Fomenting, enabling or legitimizing violence as a means of achieving political objectives or to endanger the conditions present for the peaceful exercise of democracy, pluralism and political freedoms.
  • Form part of and provide political support to terrorist organizations with the intention of aiding them to subvert constitutional order or seriously threaten the peace; intending to subject public authorities, specific individuals or parts of society, or society as a whole to a climate of terror; or contributing to the amplification of the effects of acts of terror the fear and intimidation they cause.

However, article 6 of the law states that parties "will align their organization, operation and activity with democratic principles and with the content of the Constitution and the law". And it's this flimsy sentence which the Interior ministry is using to effectively ban the PDC.

It's very clear indeed that the law is aimed at banning political parties which threaten, carry out or justify – by their own acts or via proxies – violence or terrorism. Altering the purpose of this law so that it now covers any party which campaigns for radical change, however peacefully, is confirmation of the PP's disturbingly authoritarian attitude to constitutional democracy.

Voting Remain to build a better European Union

The EU is a beast that's difficult to love at the best of times. And these certainly are not its best times. The weakness of its institutions over the last decade has meant that it has found it difficult to deal with a series of crises. But it has not been the abject failure that some would have you think. While I disagree with much of the fiscal policy pushed by the Troika, it must be remembered that the EU managed to prevent a Euro collapse that really was on the cards for a year or two. It's easy to forget now that when the EU faces a serious challenge, it has the pragmatism and determination needed to find a solution. This spirit is what has saved the EU in the past and will help it move forward from its current stasis.

For months, I've been discussing disconnection, alone and with friends. I've been in Catalonia for fourteen years now, and my infrequent trips to England have left me worried about what's happening there. Increasingly, I've felt disconnected from England. I don't understand why there are Union Jacks everywhere, or why cool people I get along with suddenly shriek at me about the country being "full". I don't understand how people close to me can describe the EU as "horrible", while they simultaneously contemplate handing power to people like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage. Victory for Brexit will be a victory for nasty right-wing populism – the repetition of old lies and the fabrication of new ones. Look how UKIP supporters pushed an ever louder, ever nastier anti-migrant message and then went into overdrive trying to claim that Jo Cox's assassination wasn't political. That party thrives on people's fears, and has managed to poison debate in England in a way I never thought possible. And Brexit will hand Farage a huge amount of political capital.

Not wanting to empower Britain's populist right wing isn't enough of an argument for the EU, though. The other half of this narrative must be logic and fact – the LSE's Nicholas Barr is as good a source as any for a sensible, evidence-based approach to remaining in the EU. How telling it is that some Brexiters are even calling on their countrymen to 'Ignore the numbers!', as though that were somehow a noble way to approach this debate. It isn't: it's the very definition of small-minded ignorance, a quality which exemplifies the Brexit campaign. The numbers are, of course, vitally important. Which is no doubt why we're encouraged to ignore them. "You can prove anything with facts!", as Stewart Lee reminds us. Whether it's trade, security, democracy or the economy, all the evidence and research points to remaining in the EU as the sensible choice.

If Brexit ends up winning on Thursday, the sky will not fall. But things will change. Britain's democracy will have been dealt a major blow by arguably the most dishonest and hate-filled political campaign in our history – certainly since the Blackshirts. Voters will have sided with ignorance and demagoguery. Britain will, for perhaps the first time in its history, take a step backwards and explicitly reject progress and modernity.

This referendum will likely be my last chance to vote in the UK. It's also by far the most important vote I've ever cast. If you have a vote, please use it to vote to keep Britain in the European Union and reject UKIP's vile, populist propaganda. Vote for the hope that Europe represents for so many millions of people, and for the aim that together we can build a better Europe and a better Union. Vote Remain.

Ciudadanos-Cs, the vanguard of cuñadismo

I've struggled in the past to properly describe Ciudadanos' political philosophy. The refer to themselves as 'liberals' (which means something different in just about every country where it's used). It's true that they lack far-right policies but their spokesmen have expressed some pretty reactionary attitudes at times. And while it would be unquestionably wrong to call them fascists, they're certainly good at signalling their values to people who don't think Franco was that bad (something they learned from the PP).

But their latest spot, for next month's elections, has thrown everything into focus. Cs represents, and speaks to, that most Spanish of political philosophies: el cuñadismo.

Because it's Spain's cuñados' votes that the PP and Cs are really fighting for. The guys who come out with lines like "Por qué te quejas? Tú al menos tienes trabajo" or "Mucho protestar y luego bien que tienen iPhones" or "Bueno, esa es tu opinión". Cuñadismo has finally been captured in a video clip so perfect, it almost hurts to watch.

And I'm not the only one who thinks so.

The decline and fall of the PSC

From a high in 1999, where it won 38% of the vote in Catalan parliamentary elections, the PSC is now at an all time low. While it's easy to blame this problem on meddling from Madrid, the decline of the PSC is intrinsically linked to its abandonment of basic principles which it defended at the height of its success – most importantly the right of Catalans to decide their future democratically.

Under Carme Chacón's stewardship (from what I understand she remains the most powerful figure in the PSC), numerous mistakes have been made:

  • Chacón has used the PSC as a tool to try to obtain personal power at state level. This is evidenced by her adoption of a patently dishonest discourse regarding the question of Catalan separatism, aimed not at securing the PSC's position but at boosting Chacón's own chances of leading a PSOE still dominated by anti-separatist sentiment (see José Bono, Susana Díaz).
  • Chacón's leadership has also boosted the right wing of the party, and left it without a true social-democratic focus (in line with the PSOE as a whole).
  • Her powerful position in the PSC has helped to ensure the appointment of a series of weak and ineffectual leaders in Barcelona, particularly Pere Navarro and Miquel Iceta, who have been totally unable to run the PSC on their own terms. This has further weakened the party when faced by more dynamic party leaders like Mas, Junqueras, Rivera and more recently, Colau.
  • The PSC's adoption of an anti-Catalanist position is at odds with its line under Maragall, who defended not only the independence of the party within the Socialist federation, but also the Catalans' right to decide. This decision was at least in part conditioned by the rise of Cs. Cs is a pseudo-centrist party which has learned one of the best tricks of the PP – know how to speak to the far right, and how to adopt its positions on questions of nationality, language policy, the right to decide, etc – without actually espousing right-wing policies (well, not very often anyway: the mask slips sometimes, like when its leaders say that gay marriage is "problematic" or that male violence against women "doesn't exist"). The PSC's shift in position culminated in its purging the party of anyone with pro-independence views, further boosting ERC and the newer Podem-EnComú.
  • I have a feeling that the PSC's analysis of the rise of Cs is flawed. The PSC seems to think that it can win votes by seeming to be nearly as unionist as Cs. But at the same time, it hasn't been willing to drop its commitment to policies like 'linguistic immersion' (education in Catalan for all), which Cs opposes. This has led to a disjointed position which Cs has found it easy to exploit. It has also led many former PSC voters – a large number of whom supported the new Estatut and, at least nominally, the right to decide, to look elsewhere – ERC, and the CUP have benefited. Every time the PSC takes a step towards Cs in terms of policy, it loses votes. This is an example of a very common mistake in politics: when a political movement seems to be gathering momentum, you can either co-opt it and try to lead it (see: CDC and the separatist movement) or you can oppose it. What you can never do is follow the upstarts (in this case, Cs) and hope to gather a few votes by clinging to their coat tails. It never works.
  • But it has worked for Cs and for their friends in Societat Civil Catalana. Probably the clearest symbol of the PSC's decline is its involvement in SCC, a unionist organization founded by and operated in the tradition of, the unionist far-right. This takes the PSC beyond an accusation of Pasokification. The PSC now regularly shares a platform with SCC – and each time it does, it provides a new coat of democratic makeup to a group founded by the likes of Josep Ramon Bosch and Javier Barraycoa. That SCC is Somatemps 2.0 is well established. For the PSC to share a platform with a group like this shows just how far the PSC has fallen. We end up with situations like the youth PSC of Cerdanyola attacking the CUP over apparently invented accusations of violence on the UAB campus, while defending SCC and their neo-Nazi boot boys.

Now, you wonder how much longer Chacón can continue, given that she has managed to lead the PSC to its worst ever results in both Catalan and Spanish parliamentary elections. When, as predicted, we end up with fresh elections this summer, I'd expect them to be her last chance. The alternative is annihilation.

UPDATE: ah well, there you go. It turns out that the last elections were her last chance. Chacón is out. Maybe she read this. We'll never know.