Tag Archives: Catalonia

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.

Coercive democracy and the legal argument against Catalonia

Consider the following situation: a democracy cracks down on a wave of peaceful street protests against its elected president, citing the constitution and the rule of law. The protests are illegal. Unconstitutional. The protestors undemocratic. Legal methods are found for making protest even more difficult. Some of the street protesters comlain that the protests should be permitted. A government spokesman responds that if the protesters want to be allowed to protest, they should try to get the constitution reformed (a process made practically impossible by the fact that the ruling party has an absolute majority in both houses of parliament, and the constitutional and supreme courts both generally agree with the government). Commenters mutter that protest doesn’t have anything to do with democracy. That in a constitutional democracy like theirs, universal suffrage and the rule of law are what counts. That maybe the army should be sent in.

Who you consider to be right in a situation like this might well depend on your understanding of the possibilities and limitations of constitutional democracy. It’s true that the protests are against the law. It’s true that avenues of action exist for the protesters, but also true that they are practically useless. It’s true that a basic or universal right seems to be threatened by the constitution itself. But is the right to protest really inalienable ? Isn’t it accepted that the right to protest is curtailed in most democracies one way or another? Couldn’t you argue that protest is inherently undemocratic? What about the people who feel scared when they see a protest march?

How should the government act, then? Should it maintain its position: ‘rule of law trumps all’? Should it toughen its stance and jail the ringleaders? Or should it look for a negotiated settlement? The choice is between two forms of constitutional democracy: coercive and consensual. And it’s a problem which most countries struggle with at one time or another, in one way or another. The decision the government goes for will generally reflect its ideological position: does it tend to liberalism and consensual democracy, and so want to negotiate? Or does it tend towards authoritarianism and coercion? But it will also reflect a calculation: is the section of the electorate which needs to be coerced big enough to cause problems for the government?

The right to self determination isn’t the same as the right to protest. No rights are exactly the same. But it has interesting similarities in that few countries accept either right unconditionally. I don’t think that any of us doubted that the PP would tend towards an authoritarian, coercive method of government when it was elected. We’ve seen multiple examples of this approach over the last few years (though to be fair to them, their abortion law reform was dropped – proof that the PP can be pragmatic when it comes to moral and ethical political issues, if not others).

I’ve written this to make it as clear as possible that when SCC/PP/whoever trots out the argument about the rule of law and democracy, they’re really using a smokescreen. Every government has it within its power to push for a pragmatic solution to a problem like Catalan separatism if it chooses to. The PP has made a calculation that in electoral terms, ignoring Catalonia is the best policy. This is a political issue, not a legal one, and arguments to the contrary are misleading.

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Societat Civil Catalana adds nothing to the debate about Catalan independence

Reading through the interminable policy statement PDFs issued by Societat Civil Catalana, you realize that there is a fundamental problem with SCC’s approach. Partly, it lies in the way it chooses to define democracy (and what is ‘undemocratic’). But most of all, SCC fails to offer a compelling argument for remaining part of Spain. It instead focuses on a cold, legalistic line which is pretty much identical to that used by the Spanish government.

By focusing on this as its main defense of the status quo, SCC has made a strategic mistake. Not only because it’s obvious that they’ve intentionally opted for an unnuanced view of what ‘democracy’ means, but also because as they focus so heavily on this legal argument, they fail to make a positive case for Catalonia continuing as part of the Spanish state.

When you think about it, SCC actually adds nothing to the debate. Its entire strategy is effectively identical to that of the state, which has repeatedly sought to criminalize an entirely peaceful political process which has seen millions of people taking part in mass demonstrations and non-binding ‘consultations’. The SCC, then, whether or not it is actually independent of the Spanish state, is in effect singing from the same song sheet. This may well be the reason why it has failed as an organization: when asked recently how many members the group had, a spokesman eventually responded – “75”. Even in a climate where it may be difficult to get people excited about defending the status quo, that number is lamentably poor. This, surely, is the result of a failure to galvanize support for a positive vision of continued union.

I think this could be a huge strategic mistake. By demonizing those well-meaning citizens of Catalonia who would like to be able to vote on self-determination as ‘illegal’ and ‘undemocratic’, rather than promoting the benefits of continued union (as ‘Better Together’ tried to regarding Scotland and the UK), the SCC isn’t making an active case for union. Indeed, it seems that the SCC and the Spanish state have both given up on a large section of Catalan civil society. Much like the PP in Catalonia, which really only exists as way of leveraging more votes in places like Extremadura where an anti-Catalan attitude always goes down well. What this says about the inevitability of eventual independence, I will leave for another day.

The question is: why doesn’t SCC open a new front in the debate? Why can’t it advocate for staying part of Spain?

From the left towards Catalan independence

Fellow traveler Kate Shea Baird sums it all up quite well. I feel it’s important for those of us on the left who support Catalan independence to remember that we want independence in order to deliver a better country. Not just any country. An independent Catalonia, sí o sí, is not the aim and never should be. I don’t consider Catalans to be living under a repressive regime (unless you mean the Mossos) and so I don’t buy the liberation trope. And while I wouldn’t like to see Artur Mas behind bars for organizing the consulta, I’d crack the cava open if he and the rest of his party were sent down for corruption.

The pro-independence left (mainly the CUP and elements of Iniciativa and a handful of people at ERC) must maintain its focus through all the twists and turns in this process. We must, above all, fight for our values as the keystone of our support for independence: we want a better country. We want a country that helps the poorest, defends labor, looks after its citizens’ health, educates its young people, invests in the arts and culture, promotes sustainable living and tourism, and rejects CiU’s corruption and the neo-liberal model. And because we’re on the left, we must want all these things for Spain as well.

That’s the Catalan republic that I defend.

Catalans, that Polònia joke wasn’t funny or clever

If there was one way pro-independence Catalans could bring discredit on themselves, it was to stoop to the level of their opponents. For years, independentists have had to put up with regular accusations of being selfish, greedy, insane, stupid, terrorists, ETA, 18th century throwbacks, fascists, Nazis, Hitler.

So when last week’s ‘Polònia’ on TV3 ran a sketch comparing Mariano Rajoy to Hitler in the famous bunker scene from Downfall, I turned to Gemma and said “That’s not good”. Since then, the PP has threatened legal action and my fellow independentists have gone into overdrive defending the sketch and mocking the Spanish right’s “sense of humor failure”. Here’s why they’re wrong.

The Meme – not great comedy

The sketch was yet another version of a meme based on 2004’s German film, Downfall. It’s a great film and in context, a powerful scene. Hitler berates his generals for their failures, all the while refusing to accept the truth: that it’s all over. That the noise and the rumbling all around them is Soviet artillery already in Berlin.

The meme is first recorded in 2006, with Hitler re-dubbed in German complaining about Microsoft writing off its popular Flight Simulator game. Since then, around a thousand more parodies have been made, generally dubbing the original footage but sometimes simply imitating it.

I’ve written poorly about comedy here in the past. I watch a lot of comedy, read about comedy, listen to podcasts about comedy, read comedy scripts, think about comedy: it’s something I love and an important part of my life. And in my opinion, the Hitler Bunker Meme got pretty tired pretty quickly. Around about the time that guy used it to complain about Microsoft Flight Simulator. A thousand versions later and it’s one of the worst jokes I can think of. Dull, trite, derivative, unimaginative, OLD. Let’s face it: if you’re writing comedy in 2014 and you think the Bunker meme is right for this week’s main sketch, you need to catch up. That joke is 8 years old (and wasn’t that funny at the time).

Polònia’s Downfall

Which brings me onto Polònia itself. Since 2006 (yeah), it has been one of the best comedy shows on Spanish TV. It brought a kind of satirical irreverence which people across Catalonia (and Spain – Dan Hancox records in Ghosts of Spain that anarchists in Andalusia enjoy watching it) just drank up. Its treatment of the royal family and the main political actors in Spain and Catalonia became legendary and made it the most popular show of the week on Catalan TV. I adored some of its musical numbers, including Imagine reimagined by Artur Mas and Oriol Pujol in 2012.

But shortly after that sketch aired, something happened to Polònia. In a fairly short time frame, the show suddenly started to poke far less fun at Artur Mas, previously mocked for his vanity and his upper-class attitudes. It started to treat him with reverence, which I found pretty unpleasant. Since then, Toni Soler’s show has continued to go downhill. If I catch it, I’ll still watch. But I get few laughs out of it now. Basically only if the princess is on it.

You can be sure that the writers at Polònia wouldn’t never even consider using the Bunker meme to joke about Artur Mas, even if he were in the middle of a deep crisis. It would undo the work of the last 2 years.

Banal and self-defeating

Besides which, it was ideologically foolish. Much has been made in Catalonia of the ‘banalization of Nazism/fascism’ on the part of the PP and Ciutadans. And quite right, too. Unwilling to debate the political issues surrounding potential independence for Catalonia, both parties (now representing a combined 10% of the Catalan vote, according to recent polls) have used the most atrocious rhetoric to criticize the process. They’ve almost certainly encouraged some fence-sitters to join the pro-independence side, sick of the insults and the dismissive attitude.

And now they’ve thrown all that goodwill away.

As for the independentists who have howled like banshees over the last week, complaining that the PP lacks a sense of humor, or the intelligence to understand a joke… they should take a deep breath, read their words back and see whether they can detect any discrepancies in their attitudes. The joke wasn’t remotely funny by any real comedic standards. And calling Rajoy Hitler in the Bunker is not the way we’re going to win the argument.

I won’t be watching tonight’s Polònia. El Gran Wyoming, however, always has a place at my table.

Perfect timing for Catalan independence on #9N?

One of the recent posts I wrote on here asked at which point the Catalan government would ‘cross the Rubicon’ into potential illegality in the ‘process’ towards independence. Today, less than 48 hours from the popular consultation on independence, it seems like that moment has arrived.

The Spanish government has had the Constitutional Tribunal suspend all preparations for Sunday’s ‘participatory process’. Today, the Catalan government has made clear that it will not hand responsibility for organizing 9N over to civic associations. In other words, The Catalan government appears to be at the least very nearly in breach of the Constitutional Tribunal’s suspension order.

So why now?

There are several factors that make 9N the perfect moment for disobedience on the part of the Catalan authorities.

1 The Catalan government already backed down from the original consulta. In order to maintain the process, the government needs to stand firm now.
2 Disobedience at this point could have multiple effects but the most important aspect is how the Spanish government responds. Having already stated that it would not act “if the consulta were organized by civic associations”, it seems like the Spanish government may have nearly committed itself to instructing the police to interfere with Sunday’s vote. This might be a deciding factor in the future of the process. If the Spanish interior ministry were to order police (including Mossos) to seize the ballot boxes, it would be doing so under the gaze of hundreds of accredited foreign journalists and press agencies. For this reason, I strongly suspect that it won’t act but will try instead to dismiss the poll as meaningless.

This highlights yet another oddity in the PP’s campaign against the consulta: this ‘consulta-lite’, adopted because the full non-binding consulta was made illegal, was initially dismissed by the PP. Alicia Sanchez-Camacho urged MAdrid not to act against it because it was such a joke. Then, when the Generalitat managed to get all the volunteers it wanted in a few days, the PP changed its tune and again took the Generalitat’s plans to court. This indicates a lack of strategy on the part of the Spanish government.

3 The Spanish government seems to be weakened internationally due to the constant stream of corruption cases (which also affect Catalonia, of course). The Economist, Bloomberg and BBC have all published pieces criticizing Spain in recent days. This adds to the feeling that this might be the best time to take advantage of reasonably positive press coverage for Catalonia, and a slightly negative international attitude towards Spain.

My predictions for #9N:

Turnout – Very important. Unfortunately, I doubt that turnout will reach 50%. It may not even reach 33%. If it did exceed 50%, there would be something to celebrate.

Police – I doubt that the police will be asked to intervene. If they were, the vast majority would obey orders, including the Mossos. But it could lead to unpleasant scenes.

Results – The lower the turnout, the higher the support will be for independence. Some parties, particularly Iniciativa, are calling on supporters to vote Yes to the first question and free choice on the second.

Trouble – I doubt there will be disturbances. That would change if the police were sent in. I read today that Montblanc is setting up concrete barriers to prevent vehicular access to the old town (which strikes me as needless and potentially dangerous – what if there’s a fire?). Areas like this would become potential flashpoints in case the vote were stopped by force. The risk of the far-right trying to stir up trouble is always present but these groups have very limited support.

Outcome – Oriol Junqueras will announce his roadmap to independence on Monday. Smart of him to wait for the results of the consulta. The most likely outcome, in my opinion, is that turnout well be lower than desired but will indicate growing support for independence. ERC and the CUP will push for elections soon and will try to guarantee that they take the form of a plebiscite on independence. If they succeed, and Podemos decide to stand (the feeling is that they might not: they’re trying to keep their powder dry until next year’s general elections), they would be forced to declare a position, and it will probably be in support of union with Spain. ICV, PSC, PP and Cs will oppose any kind of plebiscite and may even refuse to stand on a No platform. In short, by Monday nothing might have changed. But everything might have changed too.

Which is why I’m going to vote.

PP u-turn to offer Catalonia a new fiscal pact – what now?

It looks likely that next week will see Mariano Rajoy offer Catalonia a new fiscal settlement in an effort to deflate growing support for independence. This would represent a huge policy shift for the PP, which until now has refused to discuss any possibility of changes to how much tax revenue Catalonia receives from central government.

The aim behind this offer is obvious and it underlines the serious strategic mistake the Spanish government has made in dealing with Catalonia. Refusal to negotiate since 2012’s September 11th demonstration has fostered significant unity and growth in the pro-independence camp. The PP effectively killed off any chance of returning to the days of ‘la puta i la ramoneta‘ – the traditional model that CiU has used to get more cash from Madrid by pretending to be pro-independence. This shift aims to reintroduce a ‘third way’, with the intention of undermining Unió support for Artur Mas pressing on with plans for an unlikely referendum this November.

The question is, how successful will this manoeuvre turn out to be? Independentists will insist that Mas takes ‘ni un pas enrere’. Popular support for a referendum is around 80%. Can the PP really deflate this to acceptably low proportions? The fairest way to judge this would be to include any such offer as a third way in a consultative referendum which includes independence as an option. But the offer will almost certainly be linked to dropping plans for the ‘consulta’.

I’m not certain but I get the feeling that the PP has left it too long to change its mind. Artur Mas’s constituency has shifted significantly and he knows it. I say this because I don’t see Mas as the evil genius mastermind behind the independence movement which seems to be an indispensable position for anyone who seriously doubts the level of popular support for independence here. I think he’s an opportunist who has hitched his wagon to the estelada. The Spanish government is clearly hoping that Mas will see sense and unhitch that wagon. Or at the very least, that Mas won’t be able to swan around complaining that Madrid won’t talk.

As in any political decision, of key importance here is the personal ambition of those involved. I find it difficult to believe that Mas will back down now. And populist that he is, he’ll be thinking hard about his changed constituency and his legacy.

Catalonia independence referendum: date, questions and Spanish response

As you’ll have heard by now. A referendum on Catalan independence “will be held” on November 9 2014. It will consist of two questions: “Should Catalonia be a state? And if so, should it be an independent state?”. CiU, ERC, ICV-EUiA and CUP agreed these terms. This represents a plurality of the parties in the Catalan parliament. The agreement came days before the potential collapse of the CiU government over a budget vote due next week.

The response from Rajoy was immediate: “It’s not negotiable. It won’t happen”.

Jordi Cañas of C’s (such a fitting name) maybe hinted at the unionist approach on TV3 just now: “There won’t be a referendum in November next year” he said, “there will be elections”. And as suggested here before, this is the most likely strategy of Spanish opposition to Catalan independence: deny the right to a referendum and thereby encourage the ‘other path to independence’ – elections followed by a unilateral declaration of independence. This would put Madrid in a much better position in terms of international support and negotiating power. It is, I reckon, the preferred outcome in Madrid because of how easy it would be to paint the Catalans as thoroughly antidemocratic, as well as sowing disagreement between the pro-referendum parties (Iniciativa won’t agree to a UDI as an election pledge, I shouldn’t think).

So, in short: this time next year, we’ll still be talking about what might happen.