Catalonia’s Premier Carles Puigdemont officially declared an independent Catalan republic on October 10, only to announce the immediate suspension of independence to allow for negotiations with the conservative Spanish People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The declaration of independence formalised the result of the October 1 referendum held under extreme police repression: in it 90% of those voting (43% of the electorate) said ‘Yes’ to independence.
The harsh reply from Madrid came two days later: Catalonia had to abandon all thought of secession or see its self-rule erased under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. The Catalan government was formally notified by fax that it had until 10am Monday, October 16 to make clear whether it had declared independence or not and, if it had, until 10 am Thursday, October 19 to abandon independence and “return within the framework of the constitution”.
Moreover, only a clear written Yes or No would be accepted–“any statement different from a simple negative or affirmative reply will be considered as affirmative.”
Article 155 states that if an autonomous community (state, in Australian terms) does not carry out its constitutional and legal obligations or “acts in a way that seriously damages Spain’s general interest” the central government can implement any measures needed to force it back into line. To apply it, the Spanish government must give notice of warning to the premier of the offending autonomous community and, if rebuffed, win the support of a majority of the Spanish Senate for its proposal of intervention under the article.
Since under Spain’s rigged electoral system the minority PP government has a majority in the Senate, getting article 155 implemented will be a formality. However, PP leader Rajoy has always been aware that he needs the broadest possible parliamentary majority before adopting—for the first time ever—this “nuclear option” against the Catalan government and the powerful mass independence movement that stands behind it.
That movement has been emboldened by its extraordinary successes, both in carrying out the October 1 independence referendum in the teeth of massive police repression and in driving an October 3 general strike accompanied by the biggest demonstrations since the end of the Franco dictatorship. It has also grown beyond a strict movement for independence to one defending Catalan sovereignty and institutions—a reflection of the 80% of the population who support Catalonia’s right to decide its relation to the Spanish state.
The broad front of Spanish centralism
Before making his move Rajoy made certain to lock in the support of the opposition social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE). The price of its support was the PP government’s committing to a process of “constitutional reform”. This was a micro-carrot to go with Rajoy’s macro-stick, a pretence that Spanish patriotism’s response to the Catalan rebellion wasn’t just repression. In an October 13 interview with the web-based daily El Diario, PSOE federal secretary Pedro Sánchez talked up the PP-PSOE pact as a breakthrough for reform:
What the Spanish right wing has recognised for the first time is that we need to modernise our constitution, not only in the territorial sphere but in others related to the regeneration of democracy, something the bloc supporting Catalan sovereignty can’t deny. If it closes the door on that debate and that reform it wouldn’t be understood by part of its voters in Catalonia, nor would it be understood, I would dare say, by the European Union.
With this comment Sánchez was throwing out a challenge to the main all-Spanish force in the “bloc supporting Catalan Sovereignty”–Unidos Podemos (Podemos and the United Left) and the alliances in which it participates in Catalonia (En Comú Podem), Galicia (En Marea) and the Valencian Country (A la Valenciana). Would they continue to support an unconstitutional Catalan right to self-determination in alliance with the Catalan right wing given the chance to modernise the constitution and contribute to progressive advance across the whole of Spain? Sánchez added:
[T]hey also have an opportunity to contribute with their ideas to constitutional reform. They entered political life in the heat of the moment of understanding that political life and the institutional system in our country had to be regenerated and that we needed to recognise new rights and freedoms. We can advance together on that. Why would they refuse to have the 15M [indignado] generation lead this proposal for institutional reform?
The core of the PSOE’s tactic is thus to use the Catalan crisis—and anti-Catalanism in the rest of the Spanish state—in its existential struggle with Podemos and its allies for the hegemony of the left in all-Spanish politics. The line, however, is very vulnerable to the degree of Spanish state violence and Catalan resistance that any intervention in Catalonia generates. The PSOE’s Catalan sister organisation, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), welcomed the PP-PSOE agreement to form a parliamentary commission for “dialogue, evaluation and modernisation” of the Spanish constitution in these October 11 words of its secretary Miquel Iceta:
As of today Catalonia isn’t to be found in the constitution and it has to be found there… [Constitutional reform] has to be the most progressive possible, the most supportive of self- government possible, making the dream of the constituents reality.
PSOE-PSC complicity with a Spanish state intervention that reproduces on a larger scale the police and Civil Guard violence of October 1 would turn this happy fantasy to ash.
As for Citizens, the “modern” neo-liberal outfit that began life as a movement opposing alleged discrimination against Spanish-speakers in Catalonia, its support for the Rajoy government could always be taken for granted. Indeed, its leader Albert Rivera has been inciting Rajoy to apply article 155 since the Catalan government adopted its referendum legislation on September 6. Citizens sees the intervention as the first step in a long-needed recentralisation of the Spanish state and has also been leading the growing chorus of violent abuse of the Catalan independence movement as “anti-democratic”, “populist”, “exclusionary” and even “Nazi”.
Within Catalonia, Citizens’ leader Ines Arrimades’ plan for Rajoy’s intervention under article 155 is for early Catalan elections. For these to happen, the Catalan government would have to be removed and the Catalan statute of autonomy, which gives the Catalan premier the exclusive power to call elections, suspended. (An article 155 intervention empowers the Spanish government to do whatever it sees fit and does not have to be regularly renewed by the Spanish parliament.)
For Catalan PP leader Xavier García Albiol, Arrimades’ rival for the job of Catalonia’s Quisling after intervention, section 155 should first be used to weed out the most noxious Catalan institutions: firstly the treacherous Catalan police (the Mossos d’Esquadra), who deliberately did nothing to stop the October 1 referendum from going ahead; secondly the Catalan educational system, nothing more than a machine for indoctrinating children in anti-Spanish and separatist sentiment; and thirdly Catalan public television and radio, whose poisonous feed of propaganda prevents Catalans from understanding the benefits of union with Spain.
Rajoy’s defence line—constitutionality
The Rajoy government could have used another constitutional clause against the Catalan administration and movement. This is article 116, which allows, on condition of Congress support, the declaration of a state of siege or emergency in case of a threat to public order. That it didn’t reveals the argument the Spanish government will be using to justify the violence that will be needed to repress Catalan rights and institutions: the defence of the law, the constitution, democracy and European values leaves it no choice.
By contrast, a section 116 intervention, besides having to be regularly renewed by the Spanish parliament, would also require some plausible threat to public order. This is something which–despite the best efforts of Citizens, the PP, the far right, the Spanish National Police, the Civil Guard and the Madrid media “cavern” – just doesn’t exist in Catalonia. Indeed, the approach of peaceful mass protest followed by the Catalan mass organisations–the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), Omnium Cultural, the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) and the recently created Committees for the Defence of the Referendum (CDR)–was critical in exposing the police violence of October 1 to a shocked global TV audience (as well as to persuading people opposed to Catalan independence to vote as a mark of protest).
An important advantage of the constitutionalist approach chosen by Rajoy is not just that its touches a sensitive nerve in a country that can still remember the arbitrary violence of the Franco dictatorship and also provides the PSOE with a line that it can spout as “a party of state”. It gives a line of defence to all those forces and institutions that basically support Rajoy but feel forced to deplore violence and pay lip service to the need for dialogue. “After all”, spokespeople of the European Commission and national European governments have been repeating ad nauseam, “that October 1 referendum was unconstitutional”.
On October 11, European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis announced after a meeting of the commission that “we trust in the Spanish institutions, in Prime Minister Rajoy and in all the political forces that are working to find a solution within the framework of the constitution. We give support to the efforts to overcome division and fragmentation and to guarantee unity and respect for the Spanish constitution.”
To underline this message of effective unconditional support and of refusal to act as mediator, French president Emmanuel Macron said on October 10: “As head of state, neighbour and friend I cannot recognise equal status for the Spanish prime minister and the premier of the Catalan community.” Rejecting any mediation role for the European Union, he added that “we would be accepting that those who have violated the rule of law are right [when] mediation presupposes treating the two parties as equals.”
On October 13, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker repeated this message in a presentation in Luxembourg: “We must not mediate. If the Commission or the European Council undertook mediation when only one side was asking for it, it would lead to serious distortions within the EU.” The most that Juncker could offer supporters of Catalan national rights expecting help from “Europe” was the statement that “some time ago I said to the Spanish prime minister that he should take initiatives so the situation in Catalonia didn’t get out of control. Some things were done, others not.”
Juncker then revealed his real sentiment about the Catalan independence claim–if allowed it would set off a domino effect: “I don’t want a Europe that within 15 years is made up of 98 countries. It’s hard enough with 28 countries, it’s not easy with 27, but with 98 I imagine it would be impossible.”
This argument, as the October 14 Catalan web-based daily Vilaweb pointed out, was grotesque. Not only did it wave away the right of self-determination with a phrase, it was nonsense factually:
Juncker didn’t even have the decency to explain that he comes from one of the smallest states with least population in the European Union [Luxembourg]. Therefore, given that he himself heads the Commission, his argument about the fragmentation and the size of member states made no sense. Only Malta, and by very little, has fewer inhabitants than Luxembourg. Neither could he defend the antiquity argument, given that in 1990 eight of the 27 states of the European Union did not exist within their present borders. But in any case, the most shocking nonsense came when he spoke of 98 states, given that there are not remotely 70 situations equal or comparable to Catalonia’s…
At the present time the only independence process comparable to the case of Catalonia is that of Flanders, even if it is following a very different path to the Catalan one. There are also two cases that could at any moment quickly grow a lot, those of the Basque Country and Corsica. The rest have features that make it difficult to conceive of them creating states of their own within fifteen years.
Juncker’s comments showed, much to the chagrin of Catalan believers in “Europe” as civilised and democratic antidote to authoritarian Spain, that as far as the national question goes the PP monster in Madrid also holds sway in Brussels, Rome, Berlin and Paris. Typical of the reaction among institutional Catalan nationalism was this tweet of former parliament speaker Núria de Gispert:
You know what? That Juncker is shameless! The Europe of states!!!… Well, maybe in the future they’ll come looking for us and I don’t know whether we’ll be interested.
In his October 11 address to the Spanish parliamentary session that adopted (with 72% in favour) the initiation of the article 155 procedure, Rajoy deployed the constitutionalist line of argument to attack the very concept of the right of nations to self-determination. He said: “it’s a deceitful way to present a right that no constitution entertains…Invoking the right to decide is false in a democratic country that abides by international law.”
It was left to Republic Left Of Catalonia (ERC) MP Joan Tardà to respond to Rajoy and the PP mantra of “that which is not legal is not democratic”. “For you [Rajoy], the unity of Spain takes precedence over democracy [but] there can be no constitution without respect for the democratic principle.” Turning to the PSOE benches, Tardà added: “If one day they come to get us, you will co-responsible.”
Spanish nationalism mobilises, the far right re-emerges
The long Spanish-patriotic battleline that is now coming together against Catalonia extends beyond the “constitutionalist” parties to include an extreme right that feels its time is coming. This ultra right, which always gets a miserable vote in Spanish elections (far right voters still overwhelmingly support the PP), nonetheless plays an important role in claiming the street with its violence. It also enjoys important points of support within the police and the PP itself.
Over the past month, extreme right groups of one variety or another have:
• Attempted to drown out with shouting a Valencia meeting in support of the Catalan referendum;
• Issued death threats against Anna Gabriel, leader of the anti-capitalist, pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP);
• Assaulted a woman staffing a stall of the Pro-Sovereignty Association of Mallorca in the Mallorcan capital Palma;
• Laid siege to a Zaragoza meeting of elected representatives of parties supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination and thrown water at the speaker of the Aragon parliament when the participants in the meeting were finally escorted away under police protection that was late in arriving, and;
• Set upon this year’s Gay Pride march in Murcia.
The most serious incident to date took place on Valencian National Day (October 9), when the Spanish National Police stood idly by while ultra right fans of the Valencia Football Club assaulted people in a pro-sovereignty demonstration with permission to march. Throughout this wave of increased far right violence not one person has been arrested or charged.
At an October 8 unionist demonstration in Barcelona, which drew between 350,000 (municipal police figure) and 900,000 (figure of the organisers, Catalan Civil Society), fourteen ultra-right groups were present. Even though they generally abided by the call not to display Francoist banners and flags during the march, the self-restraint required got too much for them. At the end of the day, they ran around central Barcelona, abusing the Catalan police, intimidating reporters and photographers and overturning restaurant tables and chairs. The culmination was a chair-hurling brawl between ultra supporters of Valencia and Madrid football teams outside a café in central Catalonia Square.
During the march the far right set the tone with chants of “Puigdemont to jail”, “This is not our police”, “Where were you on October 1”, “traitors” and “garbage” (all directed against the Mossos d’Esquadra) and with abuse yelled at balconies showing the estelada (Catalan independence flag). Before the march three ultra groups, the Falange, Somatemps and the Urban Legion, saluted the Civil Guard in their inner Barcelona barracks and then joined up with the main march as it passed by the Barcelona headquarters of the Spanish National Police.
The presence of the ultras caused some embarrassment to the organisers of the rally, who intended it as a demonstration of force by mainstream unionism. Socialist Josep Borell, former speaker of the European parliament, had to remind the crowd that people are put in jail as a result of due process.
The common, unifying, sentiment of the demonstration was rejection of the October 1 referendum and the laws passed by the Catalan parliament to enable it—all that was a “coup breaking up Spain”. However, despite its overwhelmingly Spanish-patriotic tone and its opposition to any Catalan right to self-determination, the demonstration also attracted people who rejected October 1 but wanted a Scottish-style negotiated referendum instead. But they were at the wrong rally.
Further confirmation that mobilising Spanish-patriotic sentiment always entails mobilising the far right came in the Spanish parliament in the following week, when Pablo Casado, PP deputy-secretary for communications, told an October 9 press conference:
We saw pass last October 6 without pain or glory the 83rd anniversary of the declaration of independence by [Catalan premier Lluís] Companys. I think that history doesn’t have to repeated, so we hope that tomorrow [October 10] nothing gets declared. At best, he who declares it will end up like the one who declared it 83 years ago.
This was a reference to the October 6, 1934 declaration of “a Catalan state within a federal Spanish republic” made by the Companys government in response to a rightward shift in the Spanish government. The Spanish army put down this “insurrection” after a brief clash with the Mossos d’Esquadra, Companys and his ministers were imprisoned and the Catalan statute of autonomy suspended. After the Francoist victory in the Civil War, Companys, who had returned as premier after the Popular Front victory in January 1936, was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1940. No Spanish government, PP or PSOE, has ever apologised for his murder.
Casado’s comment caused a storm of outrage, with PSOE Pedro Sánchez calling on Rajoy to “keep your pyromaniacs under control”. But this won’t be happening: Casado’s function in the PP division of labour is to do the dog-whistling to the ultra-nationalist far right and assure them that the PP, like its forbears, knows how to deal with uppity Catalan politicians.
Spanish politics is likely to see more of this filth because the PP now has a rival for the far-right vote in the form of Citizens. An example of the two parties’ “more-Falangist-than-thou” contest came in Citizens’ leader Albert Rivera’s contribution to the October 11 Spanish parliament debate on the application of article 155:
This is a problem of thirty years of hegemony of nationalism in my country, in Catalonia, imposing an ideology on the majority of the population and trying to destroy our country, and either we confront it as such and are conscious of the size of the problem and of how difficult it is to democratically destroy nationalism…
The problem is that we have to have a project for the country for the next forty years, to defeat nationalism, politically, ideologically and democratically…
To solve what is happening in Catalonia, well, neither fancy footwork, nor tacticism nor bureaucracy will solve it for us. Vision is what is needed and knowing what we want for the future of Spain. We can’t keep wondering what’s in the head of those who are acting outside the law. We can’t put ourselves in the head of a CUP assembly because they are outside the law…
We have reason, democracy and the institutions behind us, so, please, let’s lead. Let’s not wait for them to do something. Let’s lead. The Spanish people are waiting for your government and this chamber to say what they’re going to do. Mr Rajoy, if you want, you have a country behind you.
Not to be outdone, Pablo Casado told an October 10 press conference that he was, personally, in favour of banning all pro-independence parties under the Law of Parties.
A pointless and self-defeating move?
Given the rapid rejection of negotiations by the Spanish state and of mediation by the European Commission, was the decision of Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont to suspend the declaration of Catalan independence at best pointless and at worse demoralising for the independence movement? There was certainly dismay on the faces of the 30,000 outside parliament who had cheered the premier’s declaration of independence when, less than a minute later, he announced that the declaration was suspended to enable negotiations.
Anna Gabriel, MP for the anti-capitalist pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP), said in the parliamentary session after Puigdemont’s speech: “Negotiations? With whom? With a Spanish state that denies fundamental rights?”
The CUP, whose behind-closed-doors arguments with Puigdemont had delayed the start of the parliamentary session by one hour, was unhappy with what they saw as a last-minute capitulation to more conservative forces in the broad pro-independence camp. These were supposedly starting to buckle under the immense pressure being applied to stop the declaration of independence.
This pressure has included economic blackmail organised by the Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos: he urged major Catalan firms such as the CaixaBank and Banc Sabadell to shift their headquarters out of Catalonia and had the regulation covering the procedure rewritten to allow the decision to be made by company boards and not a general meeting of shareholders. Since Madrid began this tactic, over 500 firms have shifted their headquarters out of Catalonia.
The pressure also came in the form of a last minute public appeal by Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council (of prime ministers of member states), for Catalonia not to take a step that would make negotiations impossible.
An October 12 statement by CUP affiliate Endavant-OSAN (Forward-Socialist Organisation of National Liberation), to which Gabriel belongs, said:
On October 10 the government of Catalonia betrayed the sovereignty of the people as expressed in the October 1 referendum and the October 3 general strike. The non-declaration of the Catalan Republic—and its replacement with a “suspension” that opens the door to negotiation with the State—is an attack on the sovereignty of the people. The Puigdemont government has caved in before the blackmail of the banks, the business elite and the European Union and before the fears of pro-sovereignty forces in government at the popular outpouring that allowed the success of the referendum and the general strike.
Whatever truth there may be in some of the observations of critics of the Puigdemont’s decision to suspend the declaration of independence, they seem to have mistaken its essential purpose. This was not to force negotiations from the Rajoy government, which could not negotiate with the Catalan government even if it wanted to—its Spanish-patriotic support base would not stand for it.
While the necessary form of the Catalan government’s approach was a call on Madrid to negotiate, its purpose was to further expose the authoritarian nature of the Rajoy government in the eyes of a world that had been horrified at the events of October 1: in this way it aimed to increase support among democrats everywhere for Catalonia’s right to decide.
Within Catalonia Puigdemont’s decision helped consolidate the often-fraught alliance of the pro-independence movement with pro-sovereignty forces like Catalunya en Comú (as personified by Barcelona mayor Ada Colau) and Podem Catalunya (Catalan sister organisation of Podemos). Within the Spanish state, it confirmed Unidos Podemos (Podemos and the United Left) and the coalitions in which it takes part in Galicia and the Valencian Country as the only all-Spanish force that stands up for the recognition of Spain’s plurinationality and the right of its component nations to decide. By the same token is confirmed the “new” PSOE of re-elected federal secretary Pedro Sánchez as little different from the old PSOE as far as the national question is concerned.
On a European scale, it helped expose (once again) the authoritarian core of the ruling forces within the European Union, who are manoeuvring to help Rajoy put down the Catalan rebellion just as they tamed the SYRIZA challenge in Greece in 2015.
When it came on October 13, the formal response of the CUP was more restrained but clear: October 10 had been “a lost opportunity”, “hope for international mediation can be regarded as closed” and the Puigdemont government had to declare the Catalan Republic because “only by proclaiming the Republic will we be able to guarantee that the intervention of international players takes place on the basis of recognition of us as a political subject”.
The CUP declaration said:
The people are the only solid structure that this country has, given the absence of explicit support at the international level, given the absence of a powerful and entrenched fabric of production with a sense of country (despite the honourable and growing exception of social and cooperative economy) and despite, equally, the absence of natural resources that might give us a different place in international geopolitics. Our strength is the people and their needs and hopes (emphasis in original).
The response of the leaders of ANC and Omnium Cultural was similar: the Puigdemont government had to give a deadline by which, in the absence of negotiations or progress in negotiations, it would end the suspension of the independence declaration. On October 12, ANC president Jordi Sànchez sent a letter to all members which, while supporting the suspension of the declaration of independence as “honest but risky”, called for the movement to “maintain the chain of trust that has made us so strong up until today” and “be certain that there is no going back in our determination to build a new independent state in the form of a Republic.”
These interventions led to an irritated reaction from former premier Artur Mas, who told Catalan TV that “these people have their job to do but it’s up to the government and only the government to make the final decision.”
At the time of writing (ours before the passing of the first deadline under article 155), the pro-independence and pro-sovereignty camps are struggling to find the basis for a united response to the demands of Madrid. Some—right, centre and left—are for immediately lifting the suspension of the declaration immediately; some—including Barcelona mayor Ada Colau—are for simply saying that a declaration of independence did not take place because it was not voted by the Catalan parliament; some are for responding by simply sending Madrid a copy of Puigdemont’s October 10 speech.
The CDRs organise
As regards the next move the Catalan government should make, some within the conservative nationalist Catalan European Democratic Party (PdeCAT, Puigdemont’s own formation) are for calling early Catalan elections on the basis that only in this way can the validity or otherwise of the October 1 referendum be confirmed. This line of thought is based on the belief that once Catalan pro-independence leaders are removed under article 155, any elections will be held on much worse terms for the pro-independence camp (including, conceivably, the prohibition of pro-independence parties from standing).
Others, especially most forces grouped in the neighbourhood-based Committees for the Defence of the Referendum (CDR), reject this stance as defeatist and are focussing on organising themselves to defeat or neutralise the Spanish state intervention. On October 14, the first Catalonia-wide meeting of these 90-odd committees took place in Barcelona.
Since October 1, their work has focussed on bringing together all pro-sovereignty organisations for the purposes of creating fighting funds, doing paste-ups and meetings, preparing legal defence and solidarity against impending arrests, providing psychological support to people wounded or roughed up on October 1 and increasing protest pressure demanding the removal of police and Civil Guard forces from Catalonia. Most importantly, discussion at the Barcelona meeting focussed on preparing the next general strike and “civic stoppage” that would be needed once article 155 actions start being applied. The meeting also considered how best to initiate and develop a people-based constituent process.
Lack of time prevented discussion of how best to organise the reception and placement of the “International Brigades” of those wanting to come to Catalonia from other countries in order to support its fight for independence.
In the present highly volatile situation, in which major political actors are changing positions from hour to hour, one thing remains clear: irrespective of what Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont announces on October 16, the combination of the organised movement that won on October 1 and 3 and solidarity within and beyond the borders of the Spanish state will be essential to prevent the Spanish establishment’s planned crushing of Catalonia’s national rights.
Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An initial version of this article has appeared on its web site. He is presently running a live blog on the Catalan crisis.