Catalan crisis

Catalan secessionism has received little international support even as it faces the heavy-handedness of the Spanish government.

Published : Oct 25, 2017 12:30 IST

Pro-independence activists wait outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona to hear the address of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont on October 10.

Pro-independence activists wait outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona to hear the address of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont on October 10.

ON October 1, Magdalena Clarena, a 70-year-old resident of the Catalan village of Fonollosa, refused to move her chair to allow two members of Spain’s Civil Guard to enter the polling station where voting in the Catalan independence referendum, declared “illegal” by the Constitutional Court of Spain, was to take place. She was thrown to the ground by the guards and she broke her wrist in the ensuing melee when a young man was thrown on top of her.

Magdalena Clarena was one of many who were injured in the village which had set up hay bales decorated with flowers as a “symbolic barrier” against the efforts by the Civil Guard and other police officers to disrupt the voting. Hers was one of the numerous cases documented by Human Rights Watch, which, on October 12, released details of the use of “excessive force” by Spanish forces that the Catalan authorities say resulted in injury to nearly 900 people. Other instances of injury due to violence from across the region in the report included a fire-fighter whose arm was broken and a man who sustained multiple injuries while filming the seizure of ballot boxes. “The police may well have had the law on their side to enforce a court order but it didn’t give them the right to use violence against peaceful protesters,” the report concludes.

In another country, these scenes of violence, broadcast across the world, would have proved a career-ending moment for a national leader, especially one who had, in the run-up to the referendum, pledged vehemently to tackle it with the firmest possible hand. While there have been some calls for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to step down, personally the crisis has left him remarkably unweakened—a testament to how divisive to Spanish society the question of Catalan secessionism has been, as well as how difficult the road forward is likely to be.

History of Catalan resistance

Catalan secessionism shares a long history with the Basque separatist party, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), as movements pushing for independence from Spain. It dates back to 1714, when the Spanish King Philip V finally defeated Catalan troops during the War of the Spanish Succession. September 11, the day when Barcelona fell, is still celebrated as Catalan National Day (one of the few countries to mark its “independence” on the anniversary of a defeat!). Catalonia was granted autonomy in 1932, but this was brief.

The Spanish Civil War began in 1936 and it was followed by the military regime of General Francisco Franco, who ruled the country for nearly 40 years. Franco abolished Catalan autonomy and took steps to quash the movement, as he did with others who opposed him. The measures ranged from the killing of leaders, both political and civilian, to the discouragement of the Catalan language.

While a degree of autonomy was restored to the region following Franco’s death and the end of the dictatorship, the push for greater powers and regional control continued unabated, resulting in a 2006 statute . It gave the region autonomy in many areas and the Catalan language preferential treatment over Spanish. These efforts were curtailed four years later, when the Constitutional Court of Spain struck down sections of the statute, resulting in much anger in sections of Catalan society.

The anti-austerity movement

The action may not have taken on such significance had it not coincided with another event that proved deeply traumatic and divisive for Spanish society—the eurozone crisis that followed the 2007 global financial crisis, which left the Spanish economy in ruins and the government pursuing a rigid and grinding austerity agenda. This laid the foundation for the Indignados movement, the youth-led anti-austerity movement (whose takeover of the Puerta Del Sol in Madrid heralded the global Occupy movement), and ultimately Podemos, the left-wing party founded in 2014 by Pablo Iglesias. In his recently published book The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain , Raphael Minder, a journalist of The New York Times , argues that both resulted from similar social and economic tensions, noting the similarities shared by supporters of both the left and secessionist movements, including their appeal to younger voters who had been particularly hard hit by economic woes (and high levels of unemployment). “The Catalan solution is that we should get out of the Spanish system, as opposed to the Podemos answer, which is to say that we should overturn the system,” Marina Subirats, a sociologist, tells Minder in the book.

While La Diada (National Day) has been celebrated on September 11 in Catalonia since 1880 (and was, suppressed, of course, during the days of Franco and at other times), the festivities gained new gusto from 2012 onwards, when, depending on whom you asked, between 600,000 and 1.5 million people attended the peaceful rally-cum-demonstration in the centre of Barcelona. “Citizens took to the streets because they were upset by rising unemployment and budgetary squeezing, but mostly because they were galvanised by the belief that independence could somehow brighten Catalonia’s economic future,” writes Minder, noting the presence of EU flags at the rally that underlined “their faith in the European Union rather than Spain.”

It was at this juncture that Catalan President Artur Mas, who did not attend the rally, began making noises about independence, suggesting the day after that if further steps towards guaranteeing Catalan authority were not made, the movement for full-scale independence would continue. This move thrust his centre-right Convergence party to the forefront of the independence movement, which has since included a cross-spectrum grouping of parties. The wide spectrum of political positioning has meant that the independence movement has, to date, struggled to present a coherent vision for an independent Catalonia, particularly with the European Commission (E.C.) cautioning it about the difficulties of gaining membership. (The E.C.’s stance is in line with its position on Scottish independence, which it has said would have to involve an application to join, rather than automatic membership.) It is certainly one of the reasons why independence has only had limited appeal in Catalonia, with polls ahead of the referendum suggesting levels of support hovering between just over half the population and just over 40 per cent. The 90 per cent support for independence in the referendum was the result of many opponents staying away from the ballot, given the Central government’s stance on the matter.

The independence movement believes that the treatment of voters on October 1 has added new life to the movement and won over those who had been undecided. “Thank you for making people realise why we don’t want to be part of your country,” wrote one independence activist for the British daily The Independent recently. While the extent of this backing remains to be seen, the Central government’s authorities have faced protest from others such as Barcelona’s left-wing mayor Ada Colau, who, while opposing independence, was in favour of allowing the referendum to take place and was deeply critical of Rajoy’s heavy-handed tactics. “For a long time we have been in a situation of deadlock between Catalonia and the government of the Spanish state because there has been no dialogue…no proposals on the table,” she told Spanish television channels earlier this month, calling for Rajoy’s resignation.

Lack of international support

However, there has been a strong disconnect between public statements of outrage internationally and the treatment that the crisis has received from international leaders and institutions, as well as domestically elsewhere in Spain. The E.C., while expressing concern about violence, described it as an “internal matter for Spain” that had to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain. Other leaders have expressed their support for Spanish unity, perhaps not surprisingly, given the fear of secessionist and independence movements. Britain is far from alone in facing calls for independence: the Bavarian secessionist movement in Germany and the Flemish independence movement in Belgium are but two examples. While the shadow of Franco and his oppressive tactics loom large over Spanish life, the domestic media have, by and large, been equally suspicious of the independence movement, with El Pais , one of Spain’s most circulated dailies, calling the referendum an attempt at a “coup” on the same level as that of 1981 when right-wing military action attempted to unseat Spain’s democratic institutions. In fact, Rajoy’s heavy-handed approach has been applauded by sections of society, playing to his support base to a certain extent at least. With this and little international pressure, he has had little incentive to change tack.

It is notable that the Socialist Party has stood with the government both in rejecting international mediation suggested by some as well as in reiterating calls from Rajoy for Catalan President Carles Puigdemont to clarify whether or not he had declared independence for the region. Puigdemont had suspended the declaration and had been given until October 16 to clarify his stance, without which the government could trigger Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which would revert power to the Central government, while Puigdemont would face the prospect of imprisonment. Subsequently, Puigdemont reiterated an offer to meet Rajoy as soon as possible to discuss the situation in Catalonia and also asked that dialogue take place over the next two months.

For now there are glimmers of hope—most notably a move by the Socialist Party’s Pedro Sanchez, alongside the ruling People’s Party—for a parliamentary commission to examine constitutional reform as a means of finding a way out of the deadlock. However, this will take months, and the situation requires urgent action. Spanish banks and other companies have announced plans to move their headquarters out of Barcelona, and there are fears that because of the uncertainty Spain, at the very least, will not be able to capitalise on the investment opportunities thrown up by Brexit and potentially see an outflow of investment.

A worsening economic situation is one that Spain and Catalonia—which currently accounts for just under a fifth of Spanish GDP—can ill afford. Leaders such as Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias argue that only a referendum, legally held and endorsed centrally, could begin to defuse the situation. “I don’t have children, but I would like to, and I would like them to know a Spain with Catalonia in it, and that can only happen if a referendum is held,” he told Parliament earlier this week, as reported by El Pais . In the current environment, his reasoned attempt at compromise is likely to fall on deaf ears.

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