[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.
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.
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:
Right, for any English speakers finding it difficult to follow events in Catalonia today, here’s a quick summary. Thread…
— Tom Clarke (@tombcn) October 26, 2017
The latest trend in El País/the internet/Twitter is to publish innumerable articles ‘debunking’ the ‘myths’ of the independence referendum campaign in Catalonia. And every time one of these is published, there’s a temptation to try to debunk the debunking. Answer it with more facts.
The truth is that these articles are a distraction. It doesn’t matter whether Catalonia has ever been an independent state. It probably was in 1641 but who cares? It’s a red herring. This is a moral question and opponents of the referendum have made no effort to engage with the moral question because they have no arguments.
What’s really important is that it is right and fair that Catalans can vote to decide their political future. None of the opposition arguments, with their revisionism and legalese, their focus on process and judicial decisions, their twisted interpretation of the meaning of democracy, engages with the moral imperative at the heart of this question.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* 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.
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 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.