[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: