Both governments are fuelling the fire, one with a unilateral declaration of independence, the other with the use of the iron fist. An impasse that could have heavy consequences for everyone. The Catalan crisis is a deterioration of the crisis of the state in Spain. And it can only be solved by renewing the constitutional pact of 1978. But to do so, dialogue is needed. By Steven Forti
A dialogue of the deaf. This sums up the Catalan situation. Mariano Rajoy’s government continues with its defence of the law and the constitution, while Catalonia moves straight to a unilateral declaration of independence. There is no dialogue. There never was. Because political will has always been lacking. Politics, with capital P, has been and continues to be non-existent, at least among the ruling classes in Barcelona and Madrid. Everyone blames the other, without proposing anything, without offering a way out of the impasse that could have heavy consequences for everyone. First of all, for society.
There is no doubt that October 1 referendum marked a first – but also set the future direction – in the Catalan question. The unacceptable violence of the Civil Guard and of the National Police against innocent citizens – leaving more than 900 wounded – who used solely peaceful resistance has changed the cards on the table, mobilizing citizens and internationalizing the Catalan question. Yesterday [On Thursday], two major banks (Sabadell and La Caixa) decided to move their headquarters out of Catalonia, which many companies and multinationals are thinking of. The images that have circulated around the world have made Catalan an affair that is no longer just Spanish, but it is also European.
A referendum or popular mobilization?
On October 1, none of the two governments reached their goal because the referendum did take place – as opposed to what was endlessly repeated by the ruling Partido Popular – but it has virtually no validity nothing because there is no guarantee of the results – and so the region did not vote “with normality”, as the Catalan government has reiterated.
As I write, there is still no official data: we only know that, according to the Catalan government, of those with the right to vote, 42% or 2.2 million cast it. Of these, 90%, or just over two million, voted “yes”. The Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull affirmed that 770,000 votes could not be counted because of the closure of polling stations (more than 400 out of 2,300) or the Spanish police’s raids on polling stations. Data must be taken with a pinch of salt because there is no outside body, apart from the Catalan government, that can certify it.
But one thing is important: neither the UN nor the EU have sent international observers because the referendum was unconstitutional. The sole, small group of observers, the International Limited Observation Mission (Ilom) led by former Dutch Ambassador Daan Everts and paid for by the Catalan Generalitat, however, confirmed that the referendum does not meet international standards for the ‘anonymous methods that lacked transparency used by the electoral administration’.
The computer system was blocked for several hours, in many places the names of voters were written by hand on a sheet of paper, controls to check whether the same person voted several times were consequently non-existent, in many cases votes were removed for fear that the police could requisition them … Let’s keep in mind that an hour before the opening voting stations the Catalan government had changed the rules of the game – establishing the universal census* – and that the electoral board had resigned a few days before the referendum to avoid paying the fine imposed on it by Spanish justice.
October 1 was not a referendum, but a major popular mobilization, a day of protest that brought together an important part of Catalan society. Not only the those who were pro-independence, but also those, and there were a good number, who wanted to condemn the harsh measures of the Rajoy government (the arrest of 14 senior Catalan officials, later released, raids on polling stations and ballot papers; the denunciation of mayors who supported the referendum …) and went into the streets to call for greater democracy, starting with the right to decide on the Catalan people.
It is no coincidence that the mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, who has always declared herself not in favour of independence, cast her vote. And many others did the same.
Further proof came again on Tuesday with a general strike that brought together hundreds of thousands of people to condemn police violence: alongside the esteladas [the unofficial flag typically flown by Catalan independence supporters], you even saw Spanish flags and placards calling for dialogue or criticizing not only Rajoy, but also Puigdemont.
Let us consider for a moment the results of the referendum. Although it is certain that a few thousand votes have been lost due to police actions – calculating how many is impossible – it seems that the cause of independence has not grown a lot. In the unofficial referendum of 9 November 2014 the “yes” vote had been 1.86 million (equivalent to about 30% of eligible voters), while in the Catalan regional elections of 27 September 2015 the votes of the independent parties – who had converted the elections into a sort of plebiscite for independence – were 1.97 million (or 47.8%).
Catalan society is therefore very fragmented: the majority does not want independence. It will still be important to understand whether the images of the police in the October 1st elections will lead to more support for independence.
A unilateral declaration of independence?
It is clear that no one knows how to read the real situation, at least among those who are in the government in Madrid or in Barcelona. Rajoy said the referendum was not implemented and called on the Government of the Generalitat to stay within the limits of legality and respect for the Constitution.
The Spanish premier does not want to accept that this is a political problem that is not solved solely with the courts or with the police: it is necessary to try to regain with a political offer and a new shared project a significant slice of Catalan society that wants to abandon Spain. For its part, Catalan President Puigdemont said he will bring to the regional parliament the results of the referendum, which implies, according to the Self-Determination Referendum Act approved at the beginning of September, that the independence of Catalonia must be declared in the next 48 hours.
Puigdemont does not want to accept that one cannot continue on the road to a unilateral declaration, when more than half of Catalans are opposed to independence. The fact is that the two governments are locked into their strategies and speeches and are unable to change direction. They are sleepwalkers, recalling the phrase Christopher Clark coined to describe the European rulers who led to the outbreak of the Great War. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the next few days.
Everything is extremely fluid, as well as moving incredibly fast. An extraordinary session of the Catalan Parliament was called for Monday, which could unilaterally declare independence. On Thursday, however, the Constitutional Court annulled the session after an appeal filed by the Catalan Socialists: according to various sources, there will be no police to block the entrance to the Independent Members of the Chamber of Barcelona; simply the session will have no legal value. The clash between Catalan legality and Spanish legality would, however, increase, as has been seen in recent months. Friday morning, Puigdemont asked for the opportunity to appear Tuesday in the Catalan Parliament without mentioning any possible unilateral declaration of independence.
The fact is, however, that independent political parties are very divided about what is to be done. Anti-capitalists of the CUP are pushing for a unilateral declaration of immediate independence; Democrate Europeu Català (PDeCAT), the right wing party led by President Puigdemont, would like to gain as much time as possible in the hope of starting negotiations, possibly with international mediation; Esquerra, the Republic of Catalunya, the other governing partner, has maintained a low profile on this issue.
There’s growing support for a declaration of independence that would not enter into force immediately, but only after three or six months. Before then, new regional elections could be convened with the goal of independent voters obtaining a majority not only in seats – as in this legislature – but also in votes. And they could raise hopes of negotiations, demonstrating to their hyper-mobilized bases that there’s been no retreat.
Unilaterally declaring independence would, however, take away the international legitimacy that independence has gained on October 1st: no government would ever recognize the new state and European institutions, who have always reiterated their support for Rajoy, would close off any possibility – already extremely unlikely – to act as mediators in the conflict.
The point is, however, that in Madrid there is no intention of making a political offer of independence, a possibility that is perceived as a defeat. Rajoy has decided to take a hard line and King Felipe VI, in the speech to the nation on Tuesday evening, did not depart from the PP government line: no mention of dialogue but only condemnation of the modus operandi of the Catalan secessionist leaders who have placed themselves “outside of law and democracy”, showing an “unacceptable disloyalty” of Spanish institutions. Ciudadanos, the center-right party backing Rajoy, has asked the government to apply Article 155 of the Constitution, which involves the assumption of some regional powers by the central state. The same demand has been made by the PP right, with [former PP leader and PM] Aznar in the shadows, which has created gossip in the party that Rajoy, which is important to remember, does not represent the right-wing of his party.
The socialist PSOE remains immobile: Pedro Sánchez, who could tip the balance should there be a motion of no confidence in the Cortes, the Madrid-based Spanish parliament, condemned police violence but aligned with the government in defence of legality. Which is to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Susana Diaz and the old socialist guard, after resounding defeat in the socialist primaries of May , are waiting for Sánchez’s next false step to impale him. In the event of a unilateral declaration of independence, deferred or less, it is practically certain that the government would apply Article 155.
This would be a partial suspension of Catalan autonomy, which would have a twofold consequence: on the one hand, the central government could dissolve the Catalan parliament and convene new regional elections with the possibility, not to be discarded, of the alienation of the pro-independence parties (as it did in the Basque countries in past decades); on the other hand, it would foment the protests not only of those who are pro-independence, but many who are not.
Both governments are fuelling the fire, the one with a unilateral declaration of independence and the other with the hard line and the threat of the application of Article 155. And both of them are aware of this, but in their dull blindness are convinced that they will be strengthened.
A smarter society than its rulers
We have seen, however, some initiatives in favour of dialogue in recent days. They are spontaneously emerging from within Spanish society, such as “Hablamos?” Launched through social networks, they invite citizens to come out in the main squares across Spain on Saturday at noon, carrying white flags. It recalls to a certain extent the Indignados movement of May 2011. What will Rajoy and Puigdemont say if Saturday there will be hundreds of thousands of Spaniards who ask for dialogue by occupying the squares of half Spain?
But Catalonia’s lively civil society organisations are also getting active: the Advocacy Col. with nine other organisations has been proposed as a mediator and is already working on a text. Even football club Barça has said it is available to help. Meanwhile, the Church, which issued a statement calling for dialogue last week, has not stood by to watch: Archbishop of Barcelona, Juan José Omella, met with Rajoy and the Catalan vice-president , Oriol Junqueras.
And there are Spain’s parties. Basque President Íñigo Urkullu – whose party voted the Rajoy government’s finance a few months ago – has proposed himself as a mediator with the European Commission. Unidos Podemos had been the most prepared: a week before the referendum hit summoned together in Zaragoza an assembly of parliamentarians and mayors to find a way out of the Catalan crisis. As well as the groups linked to the party of Pablo Iglesias (En Comú Podem, En Marea), the Partido Nacionalista Vasco and the Catalan pro-independence parties PDeCAT and ERC participated.
The Zaragoza Declaration, signed by the political representatives of 6.5 million voters, is the basis from which to start: dialogue, the right to decide on Catalans, agreement for a future referendum backed by the state. The two largest Spanish unions, Comisiones Obreras and UGT, have also joined in recent days. Iglesias has put himself forward as a mediator with Rajoy (who refused). The Barcelona mayor Ada Colau meanwhile has summoned the consuls resident in the city and called for European mediation. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the Strasbourg Parliament discussed at length the Catalan referendum and condemned the actions of Rajoy.
The Catalan crisis is a deterioration of the current crisis of the Spanish state. A multilevel crisis that short-circuited the political system born during the transition to democracy in the late seventies. We had many warnings: the indignados movement, the end of two party rule, the abdication of King Juan Carlos I and of course the birth of a strong pro-independence movement in Catalonia. It is increasingly necessary to renew the constitutional pact of 1978 [part of the-called transition from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy]. It is no coincidence that people are talking of a “second transition”. But to do this dialogue is critical. If things are left to fester, the risk is that you will have to pick up the pieces of a fractured society. (October 6, 2017)
* universal census: citizens who wish to vote in the referendum may do so at any polling station – the goal was to ensure that the possible closure of voting locations would not affect voters.
Translation by Revolting Europe