Tag Archives: Catalonia

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.

Revisionist history: Catalan under the dictatorship

"I never physically beat anybody and you can see film footage showing me not beating anybody!"
Peter Cook, Why Bother? "Prisoner of War"

Proving a negative can be rather tricky. As we all know, an absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence and so as epistemology shows us, anyone who states that x categorically does (or did) not exist holds the burden of proof.

The legend of how the Catalan language was treated during Franco's dictatorship comes in two forms. The first and more widely subscribed to says that Catalan was effectively outlawed from public life, that people speaking Catalan in reception rooms and shops were often told that they should "Háblame en cristiano!", and that it was only with the death of Franco and restoration of democracy that Catalan could be heard once again in the streets of Catalan towns and villages. The second, more recent version – we may call it a revisionist version because it is most certainly at odds with the first, received version – says that Catalan wasn't repressed during the dictatorship at all. That books were published in Catalan, kids could speak Catalan in the school playground, official business was conducted in Catalan, that the Catalan language was valued and that the received wisdom of the first version was imposed after the restoration of democracy as part of Pujol's infernal nation-building operation.

Proponents of both versions of this history bear the burden of proof, and both versions have some tricky questions that they need to answer. The question for me, as an outsider, is which version has the most convincing evidence.

It is clearly not enough to say simply that Catalan was outlawed during Franco's dictatorship. This must be proven with facts. And there are facts that lend support to that claim. Throughout the dictatorship, but particularly in the early years, laws and regulations were established to reduce the presence of Catalan in public life almost to zero. It was no longer taught in schools. Civil servants were prevented from speaking Catalan at any time (whether in public buildings or not), under pain of instant dismissal. The Civil Governor of Barcelona asked the publishers of a Catalan language magazine "Do you really think we fought the war so that Catalan could return to public use?". Telegrams couldn't be sent in Catalan. A friend of mine was slapped in the face any time he and his friends spoke in Catalan in their Barcelona schoolyard. Kids had to be given Spanish language names (probably the source of the 'Arturo Mas' legend). People were fined for speaking Catalan on the telephone. Streets and squares were renamed in Spanish in every Catalan city, town and village.

But at the same time, other things happened. In the 1960s especially, Catalan culture started to grow in official acceptance. Children's magazines were published in Catalan from 1961. They were even legal from 1968 onwards. Prizes were given for Catalan language books. Radio stations started to broadcast cultural or folkloric programmes in Catalan. Some schools (mainly either for the Catalan alta burgesia, or in distant villages) started to teach some Catalan language classes.

When you look at the evidence, it seems fair to say that in the early years of the dictatorship, there was widespread official repression of practically all use of the Catalan language in public life but that after a couple of decades in power, the regime rowed back somewhat from its initial position. Expression in Catalan never seems to have been wholly free under the dictatorship – but then it wasn't really free in Spanish either. At the same time, there seems to have been a tacit message in the regime's softening position on the language: that you may speak this language by the grace of our goodwill, and only for the purposes of cultural and folkloric expressions.

Of course, Catalan's use never completely died out in the home which is why you'll find plenty of people in their 50s and 60s here who can speak Catalan perfectly but are unable to write in anything but Castilian Spanish. But its absence from schools, particularly in the industrialized areas of Catalonia which welcomed hundreds of thousands of workers from other parts of Spain in the 50s, 60s and 70s, helped to guarantee that Catalan became a minority language and certainly one in decline. Excluding the regional language from the education system and pretty much all mass media left Catalan as a language of shepherds, fishermen, villagers, poets and die-hard patriots. But ideally not factory workers, bank managers or government officials. I can't prove it but I get the feeling that the intention was not to waste any more time repressing Catalan but instead to leave it as a culturally interesting but politically non-threatening rump of a language. Not erased from history but on its way to being left there.

To me, claims that the Catalan language was completely outlawed during the dictatorship are problematic most of all because by failing to recognise that some Catalan was permitted, some of the time, and in limited contexts, they are easily challenged with a handful of books, poetry prizes and posters for the Orfeó Català. Exaggerating the crimes of the dictatorship is wrong, albeit understandable. The revisionist claim, on the other hand, strikes me as more pernicious because it seeks to deny that the language was repressed – an entirely insupportable claim. The facts that the revisionists cling to are facts. But they always remind me of that wonderful Peter Cook line at the top of this post, which was his character's response to being accused of violence against the men under his command. Yes, there is evidence that Catalan wasn't always repressed. That doesn't mean that in general, and certainly in most professional, educational, civil and legal contexts, Catalan wasn't effectively banned through much of the Franco dictatorship.

The revisionists have a place in this story, most of all to remind us that history can never really be black and white and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. But their narrative is wrong because at heart it seeks to diminish the harm done by the dictatorship to the people of Catalonia and the rest of Spain. I don't doubt that now these revisionist myths are established, they will grow and mutate into fascinating new forms. How long before we hear that actually, if it wasn't for Franco, Catalan would have died out? I expect my mysterious friends at Dolça Catalunya are already drafting that one.

And what about Catalan under the 2nd Republic? Now that's another story….

Catalonia and Godwin's law – how Nazi am I?!

Q: Can anyone who has visited the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin seriously compare Catalan civic nationalism with the atrocities of the German NSDAP?

A: Yes I can and you are a Nazi

I admit that this conversation is slightly paraphrased – I can't be bothered to sift through all of Twitter to find the actual tweets, but that's more or less how it went. I think I had a go at someone on Twitter for their constant use of a hashtag like #CatalanesNAZIonalistas or something. To be fair to him, he gave as good as he got and insisted that like me, he had visited the Topography of Terror museum [which, were it about almost any other topic, I'd call 'excellent' but that seems in rather poor taste], in fact he'd been there twice [beating me, you see] and yes, it was definitely a fair comparison. Well, you can't argue with that, can you?

Another conversation I had went something like:

Man: Oh living in Catalonia now is like being at the Nuremberg rallies

Me: But it's obviously not. You can't really mean that.

Man: Yes I do they are the same [I suspect he really did punctuate properly but it this is the way I remember idiots writing]

And maybe they are. For all I know, they are the same. I mean, I wasn't around then. All I have to go on is archival evidence, witness accounts, half a century of scholarship on the subject, hundreds of documentaries and books, and extensive museums like Berlin's Topographie des Terrors. And that's probably not enough. There are only two logical conclusions I can draw from this: either the initial statements are wrong and Catalonia isn't "the same as Nuremberg" or Germany as the Nazis rose to power was a very pleasant place to live – a place in which I'd have thrived. I almost feel cheated.

For my learned friends who have shown me the truth, I only have a few questions before I settle down to life in my new fatherland. When will they burn the parliament down? Are people wearing Barça shirts the equivalent of the Print My Logo UK SA? Why don't they beat more people up? In fact, where are all the beatings?! I was promised beatings! When will the Generalitat burn/quietly sell off all the degenerate art it owns? Why did Mas step down if he's to lead us to the new dawn? Who's the Catalan Julius Streicher? What the hell are they doing allowing people like the CUP to run around, causing mischief? Why can't they get the real Nazis on board? That, for me, is a big one. They should have a quiet meeting with the real Nazis and say "Look guys it's OK, you can stop calling us "Nazis" now: we're real Nazis like you" and then we'd all be on the same team. Also why do they keep inviting the opposition on TV and radio. All the time. I like my totalitarians to be a little more total, dig?

Farewell, Juan Arza. May we never meet again.

It is with great sadness that we announce that Juan Arza, former correspondent on these humble pages, has stepped down as a member of Societat Civil Catalana. Not because he was caught lying. Or because he couldn't argue his way out of a bag. No, it's because as an activist for the PP, the poor chap couldn't stomach SCC's endorsement of a PSOE-Ciutadans coalition in Madrid.

When you think about it, about the only thing sadder and lonelier than being a member of SCC is being a member of the PPC. Bon vent, Juan, i barca nova. Oh and watch out for those seagulls. They can be vicious brutes.

The difference between Spain and Catalonia: a project

It seems to me that the great hope of the Spanish center is now the mutually assured destruction pact that a PP-PSOE coalition would represent. Actually, this is almost certainly the great hope of the PP which wouldn't stand to lose quite as much as the PSOE (whose slogan in the last election was "Let's kick out Rajoy!"). But therein lies a clue to the potential pact: like the CUP in September's Catalan elections, the PSOE hasn't said no to any PP candidate for president. It has said no to Rajoy, which implicitly leaves the door open for an alternative candidate. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría would appear to be the obvious choice.

So that's one option. The other is a center-left alliance of PSOE and Podemos, which would also need the support of some regional parties to rule. Which would mean the PSOE offering a Catalan referendum, which Sánchez probably couldn't offer even if he wanted to.

I suppose the difference between the Spain and Catalonia situations, vis-à-vis the question of negotiations to form a government, is that the Catalans have the advantage of a seriously big question, a national project, which dominates and blurs party politics. This is, at least in part, intentional. But it's also helpful because in the end, there are enough people who actually believe in that project that it can be used to forge tough political agreements, like the CUP forcing Mas to step aside and then backing one of his proteges for president. Spain has nothing remotely similar on the table. You hear terms like 'constitutional reform' and 'new transition' bandied about but unlike Catalonia, where 48% of voters voted for unambiguously pro-independence parties, the 4 main parties at Spain level don't have a coherent vision of the nation to offer voters. Even the upstarts – Podemos and Cs – have been unable to explain to voters what Spain looks like in their vision of the future. This is either because they don't really know or don't really care… I suspect it's a mixture of the two, personally.

In the end, say what you will about the independence process and its putative ephemerality, at least it's a project. Spain has yet to come up with something similar and the best options for change – Podemos and Cs – don't have the support. So it's Soraya for president and continuity, or new elections with nothing any clearer.

Pujol Ferrusola claims a top police chief offered the family immunity for stopping independence "madness"

A generous offer, if true. It fits with the "do this to save Spain" text that we heard about a couple of years back.

Apparently he wanted some dirt on ERC too and said that he "knew" that Pujol had contacts in "Eastern countries" who were going to help create a Catalan army.

None of which makes the Pujol story any less murky, of course. But if true, it helps to confirm suspicions that the Pujol investigation is less about corruption and more about politics and, ahem, territorial integrity.

Personally, I'd be happy to see Pujol behind bars, if convicted, and Mas as well. But those who carp the "Junts pel 3%" line ought to be careful. The idea that kickbacks are some sort of Catalan phenomenon is laughable. I asked a (non-Catalan) friend in the know about this the other day and he told me that not only is this a Spain-wide practice, it happens pretty much everywhere.

And while the independence movement has been accused of existing solely to mask the Pujol case (absurd, given that the large demos started years before anything about the Pujols was in the papers), you might well ask why we hear so much about one group of oligarchs in a country totally overrun by corrupt shits. Would it not make sense, you may wonder, for the PP to pressure an already politicised police and judicial system to investigate the Pujols, shortly after Rajoy himself was named in court documents as personally receiving envelopes stuffed with cash? Because the PP wins both ways: if the tactic works, you stop the Catalans and overshadow the PP's corruption cases.

I mean who even remembers that the PP's offices were raided in December 2013?

Catalonia's 'solemn declaration' – has the Rubicon been crossed?

Two years back, I wondered if and when Catalonia would 'cross the Rubicon' and clearly position itself in contravention of Spanish law. Some sort of moment of illegality is essential in any process like this, just like during the Spanish Transition, to mark the break with one judicial and legal authority, and the beginning of a new one.

Yesterday, the two pro-independence groups in the Catalan parliament, with a majority of seats but not quite of votes, signed an agreement to present a 'solemn declaration' to the parliament for ratification next Monday, officially declaring the start of the formation of a new Catalan republic. Among the nine points in the declaration, the parliament will vote to approve that the Catalan institutions are no longer subject to the Spanish Constitutional Court, a tribunal it declares to be 'illegitimate' since its ruling against Catalonia's statute of autonomy in 2010.

Coup d'Etât

It was Mariano Rajoy, then leader of the opposition, who went around Spain collecting millions of signatures "contra los Catalanes", in order to apply pressure to a Constitutional Court decision. The decision to hear the case against the Estatut, described by Javier Pérez Royo in 2007 as a 'Coup d'Etât', was effectively the beginning of the current independence process. And it's Mariano Rajoy's immovable position which has precipitated yesterday's agreement.

Rajoy has been planning for a moment of illegality for some time. Indeed, he thought he had one in last year's 9N public consultation on independence, though that remains to be seen. This time, however, it looks more likely to stick. Which is why we had the uncharacteristically rapid response in the form of a televised statement, apparently agreed in advance with PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez.

Point of no return

So is this a point of no return? It looks like it could well be. Rajoy will now have to decide whether he treats it as a meaningless statement – "provocative", as he has already said, but meaningless all the same. Or whether he intends to take it seriously and respond just as seriously, by calling for sanctions of some sort against Catalonia.

And what will happen if Rajoy does push to suspend autonomy? That would be a first in Spain's current constitutional arrangement. And could it trigger a revolutionary situation in Catalonia? There are still many questions to answer.

Elections, Don Felipe and the banalization of evil

Hello again.

Sunday's elections in Catalonia delivered a majority of seats for pro-independence parties but "only" 47.9% of the vote. In reality it was the unionists who lost the vote. Only 39% of Catalan voters were mobilized to back parties in the 'No' camp, despite a high turnout and months of scaremongering and threats from the Spanish government, the PP, the PSOE and Cs.

Cs did predictably well (in fact, it bears noting that the pollsters also did well this time around). It'll be interesting to watch whether Ines Arrimades's group can now act as a serious opposition in the Catalan parliament – whether the party has now matured – or whether they'll continue to throw TV-friendly tantrums once every six months or so. It all boils down to if she really leads the party in Catalonia. It doesn't feel like it. And that's not a slight against her: it just feels like Albert 'Scarface' Rivera is still the boss. Aznar sees the danger at national level and Sánchez is fast at work on a new collection of sonnets. No room here to wonder about the genius who thought that Nicholas Sarkozy would be a vote winner for the PP. Or that Xavier Albiol would be, for that matter.

Spain-level party bosses love to wade into Catalan elections and these were special elections. You have to wonder if any of them have questioned whether their appearances helped or hindered their affiliates' campaigns. Pedro Sánchez, Pablo Iglésias, Mariano Rajoy, Felipe González… their parties may well have done better if they'd stayed in Madrid.

Felipe González in particular should probably be locked in a cupboard for the next elections. Ignore what he said about Pinochet and Maduro – Don Felipe has his business interests in mind, and who can blame him? But comparing Catalan separatism to Nazism was a little… off, no? Don Felipe should know that Godwin's law is also considered to apply off the internet nowadays.

Friday before the elections we were in Berlin and visited the Topography of Terror museum which charts the Nazi party's coming to power, Hitler's dictatorship and the state security aperatus it established, centered on the SS and the Gestapo. While we were there, I briefly recalled Don Felipe's words. And it made me sad that someone of his apparent intelligence could insult the memory of so many millions of victims the way he did. I had an urge to grab him by the ear and take him around that awful place. And make him read. And make him look. But what good would it do? To paraphrase Bellow, when the need for illusion is so deep, why shouldn't Don Felipe trade in ignorance?

Finally, I was delighted to hear that Societat Civil Catalana appears to be unraveling. Josep Ramon Bosch has quit as president. He's being sued for threats and insults and has been caught praising the Nazis on YouTube. His need for illusion was also deep.

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Legalism and coercion: two problems with Span's approach to Catalonia

As I said in my post the other day, opponents of Catalan independence rarely frame their arguments in terms of the benefits of remaining part of Spain. On the contrary, they're limited to one main argument:

1 Catalan separatism is illegal; and therefore Catalan separatism is undemocratic.

Allow me to present an expanded version: in a constitutional democracy like Spain, the rule of law is paramount. Under the Spanish constitution, Catalonia separating from Spain would be illegal, as would holding a referendum on indepedendence without parliametary approval. Because the Catalan separatist parties insist on pursuing this path without permission and in contravention of the constitution, they are challenging the rule of law. Ergo, they and their supporters are undemocratic.

Read as many PP, PSOE, SCC, Cs, UPyD, central government, foreign office, etc briefings as you like: that is pretty much the only argument ever given against the movement in support of a Catalan referendum. And you can see why: if a thing is illegal and undemocratic, it's bad. It sounds like something from Russia or some ghastly place like that. It doesn't fit with our values.

It's also a nice, short soundbite. If the BBC, FT, Bloomberg, etc ask the Moncloa for a quote on Catalan independence, they only have to say "Mature democracy… rule of law… illegal… undemocratic". I mean, SCC's interminable PDFs pretty much write themselves (you'd almost think it was the same people writing them, but that's by the by). It's an argument which works in today's climate of churnalism, rolling news and short attention spans.

Apart from the fact that I think the Spanish government and their unionist friends should be making the case for staying part of Spain in a positive way, something really irritates me about the 'undemocratic' argument. I think it's because it's based on a combination of a cynically simplistic vision of what democracy is and how it can be practiced, and a highly restrictive and legalistic approach to the constitution which fails to accept the duty in a democracy of ensuring that the law doesn't actively cause political problems to arise. I think this says a lot about Spain in general and about its right wing in particular.

The main problem with this argument is that it reframes Spanish democracy as coercive rather than consensual. When a constitutional democracy acts legally to restrict basic or universal rights against the will of a section of its society, it acts coercively. This coercive nature actually fits with many policies promoted by the current government. From the attempted abortion law reform to the new gagging and anti-protest law to its treatment of Catalonia's right to self determination, you can see a clear pattern. I call this attitude coercive because while the argument is always given (and generally with a nasty smirk) that the constitution provides paths by which the Catalan government could theoretically hold a referendum, in practical terms none of these paths leads anywhere.