Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia’s December 21 elections

It is time for the Spanish establishment to realise that their country, like any other democracy, can’t be maintained harmoniously only by threatening the use of force and prison sentences.

Patrice de Beer
16 December 2017

An election campaign poster ahead of December 21 Catalan regional vote. NurPhoto/Press Assoiation. All rights reserved.The Spanish central government has called for new elections in Catalonia this coming Thursday, December 21, with the official aim of re-establishing stability and the rule of law after a protracted crisis which peaked with the outlawed referendum on independence organised by the regional Catalan « government » last October 1.

Despite the – sometimes brutal – police intervention, voting was held almost throughout Catalonia, giving 90% votes in favour of independence. But with an abstention rate reaching 58%, mostly from anti-independence voters. Madrid at once declared the voting void, imposed a state of emergency based on article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, disbanded the elected autonomous government, put it under the control of the Spanish authorities, and sent to jail almost all the ministers they managed to grab – the head of government, « President » Carles Puigdemont, and four others ministers having fled to Brussels to avoid detention – as well as the leaders of the two main Catalanist popular movements.

We have all been following live this crisis that hardly any European – Catalans and Spanish excepted – had heard or bothered about before. Two political visions facing off at each other, the rule of law and order, period, vs. the right of peoples to decide on their own fate; the legitimacy of a five-centuries old centralised monarchy vs. the cry for independence from a people tracing its history since Charlemagne, proud of its traditions, culture and language suppressed by the Bourbon kings in the eighteenth century and by the Franco dictatorship in 1939 and which has elected autonomist, then independentist governments almost since Spain’s return to democracy in 1978.

A difficult choice

It is difficult to choose between these two logics. The European Union as a whole has sided with Madrid, logically, as Spain is a member of the club. But also nowhere in Europe has a democratic government let an internal crisis brew to the same point as in Spain without bothering to find a prior solution or way out.

Worse, the conservative central government of the Popular Party (PP), led by Manuel Rajoy, seem to have done its utmost to fan the flames of independentism in Catalonia. In the UK, David Cameron’s government granted a referendum on independence to the Scottish nationalists, and won; the same had happened before in Canada with Québec. And in France, Corsican nationalists – a large part of whom had openly advocated independence and had connections with terrorism – are in charge of a region which has been granted far more power than any other French region.

History, and even journalism, are not – nor should they be – informed by an immediate emotional reaction to events coming out of nowhere because we had not paid enough long term attention to a crisis brewing up in front of us. As for Catalonia, it has long been run by bourgeois, and often parochial, nationalists, who in the 1990s, supported a Madrid conservative government whose same conservative views on economy and society they shared, in a country where the weight of institutional Roman Catholicism still prevails. And, being moderates and not firebrands – unlike the Basque ETA – they have historically been in favour of some kind of pactism with the central government to strengthen their autonomy, restored by the 1978 Constitution.

Thus they negotiated with the Zapatero Socialist government a new status, or Estatut, which gave them more power and the right to call themselves a nation within Spain. It was approved in 2006 by a referendum for Catalans as well as by the Spanish Parliament. The PP immediately took this decision to the Constitutional court which took four years to cancel the crucial points of the Estatut. One year later, the PP was returned to power under Mr. Rajoy.

Since then they have rejected any renegotiations with Barcelona. This inflexible policy, joined with Spanish nationalist posturing by some Madrid politicians, and media, including sadly, the prestigious daily El Pais, as well as the derogatory terms sometimes used against Catalans, portrayed as egoists, traitors, if not Nazis, fanned the embers of Catalan nationalism, thus driving the, till then, marginal independence movement to an – albeit small – majority in Parliament.

This movement has been carried forward by its own success. And politicians being as they are, i.e. not better or worse, no more or less corrupt than many other Spanish politicians, a country well know for its corrupt practices, the two major parties – moderate PDeCat (Democratic and European Party of Catalonia) of Mr Puigdemont and leftish ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia) – more provincial, less well travelled, were afraid of being outbid by the other if not by their own electorate. They also had to rely on the extreme left CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) to retain a working majority in Parliament.

Thus propelled by their own hopes, they did not register two major factors. On the domestic front – including among the large minority of Catalans who have originated in other parts of Spain, but not all, many having fully integrated into Catalan nationalist society – this rebirth of Catalan irredentism has been instrumental in boosting a renewed Spanish, or more precisely Castillian nationalism. A feeling widely used by Spanish politicians, right and left, to invoke their own political aims, as it was deployed to deal with the Basques during the dark years of ETA terrorism. This has been too much underestimated by independentists.

It has also emboldened the most reactionary fringe of Spanish society, where Mr Rajoy appears a relatively moderate. Some PP leaders have called for article 155 to be imposed if need be in other autonomous regions like the Basque Country, but also on some run by the left, like Castilla La Mancha or Andalusia. And the new conservative party Ciudadanus (Citizens) is now outplaying Rajoy on his own right and threatening PP’s pre-eminence, asking for a dismantling of some of Catalonia’s rights, including those on the use of the Catalan language.

But also what Catalan leaders did not realise, contrary to their own dreams, was that European public opinion does not have great sympathy for those portrayed as « separatists » – even if this has somewhat changed after the last referendum, and the harsh repression which has followed, increasing sympathy for them. Moreover, they did not understand that there was no way any European government would go against another one, but would stick to European solidarity, by hook or by crook, either just out of sympathy or because they face problems of the same kind at home.

Defusing crisis

Nevertheless, politics is not only the art of playing one off against the other. It is primarily the art of defusing crisis, and of soothing hard feelings. And especially with a Catalan society now divided into two almost equal parts.

Opinion polls show that no one can achieve a clearcut victory on Dec 21. One or two seats more for the pro or against independence, depending on the day the polls were made, and an absolute majority unpredictable, if any. Which could give a key role to the Podemos affiliate, Catalunya en Comu (Catalonia Together), equally split on independence.

Rather than appeasing passions, Madrid has chosen the hard way: suspending Catalonia’s autonomy for the first time since democracy was re-established; refusing even to consider discussing any changes in Spanish-Catalan relations; sending, handcuffed like criminals, independentist leaders to jail, threatening them with 10 to 50 years of imprisonment for rebellion, sedition or prevarication – some offences not even listed in European penal codes.

To give an example, the master-mind of the murder in cold blood, by an Islamist terrorist, of 3 Jewish pupils, one teacher and three soldiers in France in 2012 was sentenced earlier this year to « only » 20 years in jail. And when anti-independentist Catalan Socialist leader Miquel Iceta asked for the release of prisoners in order to calm down the situation and avoid raising even more independentist feelings, his party colleague, ex-president of the European Parliament Josep Borrell, replied that, before soothing, we have to « disinfect ». Meanwhile Defence Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal has told the military that their role was « to be prepared against any attack on democracy ».

Threats don’t help

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s vote, Catalonia will remain divided. Yet all Catalans will have to live, work, and eventually govern together. If independentists carry the day, they will have to extend a friendlier hand towards those their politics has estranged. And they have already been warned by Madrid that, if they were to talk again of independence, article 155 would be imposed once again, with all its dire consequences.

But if a shaky anti-independence coalition between Socialists, PP and Ciudadanus win, they too will have to reassure nationalists that they won’t become second class citizens in their own land, and their land within Spain. The preemptive threats coming from Madrid won't help.

It is time for the Spanish establishment to realise that their country, like any other democracy, can’t be maintained harmoniously only with a threat of the use of force and prison sentences. They will have to convince the several millions of Catalan independentists that Spain could once again be a welcoming place for them. Not an easy task. But this will be a prerequisite if Spain is to regain stability, political as well as social and economic, and remain a major power within Europe. 

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