Catalonia: A personal response
The attempt by Catalan authorities to hold a referendum on independence was marred by violence on Sunday, 1 October. Several hundred people – including approximately 30 policemen – were hurt in clashes between security forces and citizens attempting to vote in the referendum, which had been denounced as illegal by the Spanish central government.
For the past 18 days, the editor-in-chief of Slovenian Eurozine network partner journal Razpotja, Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič, has been commenting on the events in Catalonia via a series of Facebook posts. Lisjak Gabrijelčič is an intellectual historian of nationalism and a translator from Catalan to Slovenian, and is part of the Catalan Weekend project group, organized and founded by the Òmnium Cultural association, an informal group of scholars and journalists founded in 2015 who regularly visit Catalonia to observe, discuss and critically engage with the process of independence. He was not in Catalonia for the referendum.
Here, in the order they were posted on Facebook, are Lisjak Gabrijelčič’s instant, personal, and sometimes passionate responses to the process that culminated in the clashes on 1 October. They are a contemporaneous record, republished here in the form and style in which they were originally written, lightly edited only to correct spelling and syntax.
Friday, 15 September at 22:121
Constitutional guarantees have been basically suspended in Spain, without any authorization by the parliament. Today, a court shut down a talk by a Catalan MP in Vitoria (Basque Country). Two days ago, a similar order was issued by a judge in Madrid. This time, the police was sent to enforce it. A cultural association was prevented from holding an event in Santa Coloma de Gramenet near Barcelona.
Armed police have raided the headquarters of at least five major Catalan media outlets (El Nacional, El Punt Avui, Vilaweb, Racó Català, Nació Digital). Newspapers face punitive fines for publishing ads regarding the referendum (they can be effectively shut down), and it’s technically a crime to share information regarding the referendum on social media. Writing an article in favour of the referendum is considered illegal if it could be understood as ‘inciting participation’.
The Spanish Post Office has refused to deliver a local newspaper because it included an article in favour of the referendum. The same has happened to the journal of the cultural association Òmnium Cultural.
The website Punt.cat, a foundation for the promotion of the Catalan language online, has been shut down by a court order. The foundation claims it has not published any material declared illegal by the state.
100,000 posters related to the referendum have been confiscated by the police, mostly from private companies. At least three people have been arrested for putting them up.
There are reports and videos of police searching private vehicles, often without individual warrants, and harassing citizens suspected of carrying or performing ‘illegal propaganda’. At least one citizen was arrested, in the Sant Andreu neighbourhood of Barcelona, for standing up for his constitutional right of free expression.
These actions have been met with mass protests. In L’Hospitalet, several hundred people have surrounded police which raided a printing house, chanting ‘Is this your democracy?’ So far, violence has been avoided. Anti-terrorist units have been despatched to Catalonia to dismantle possible acts of civil disobedience.
I have heard reliable first-hand accounts by friends who have had their private correspondence intercepted and mobile phones hacked or blocked.
In Sitges, the police confiscated the mobile of a journalist of Nació Digital who was reporting on a pro-referendum event.
It’s a state of exception in everything but name. And if we are to believe the threats of PM [Mariano] Rajoy, it’s about to get worse.
The last vestiges of Catalan financial autonomy have already been suspended. Two out of three Catalan mayors face arrest, together with the entire government.
The State Prosecution has stated that the 16,000 volunteers participating in the referendum will face criminal charges. The chief prosecutor has gone a step further, saying that voting itself will be considered an illegal act.
Through its control of the judiciary, the central government is issuing direct orders to the regional police, against the provisions of the Statute of Autonomy. This is all on the first day of the campaign. Before the end of the month, constitutional democracy in Spain will be emptied of meaning.
Monday, 18 September at 13:092
Five days ago, Catalan pro-independence activists were wondering if they could reach a participation rate of 50%. Today, two polls put it at 60%. The Yes vote is down from 70+% to 60%, suggesting the obvious: voters who are not keen on independence have been mobilized in support of the referendum by the repressive response of the Spanish state.
This is good news for the pro-independence camp, as the No vote is getting split between abstention and participation, pushing the turnout to a level where it will look legitimate (for a variety of reasons, a 55% Yes with a 70% turnout would look much better than a 90% Yes with a 45% turnout).
On the other hand, that’s not good news for everyone else. The government has put itself in a corner, and it will eventually fall prey to its own blind logic. In the end, I’m afraid they will have no other choice but to employ violence to prevent voting.
The Socialist opposition is playing along. Today, the Socialist Party said it would not oppose the application of article 155 of the Constitution – the suspension of Catalan autonomy, which is tantamount to the introduction of a fully-fledged state of exception in the region. Another referendum, agreed bilaterally by the state and the region, is out of question, they added, as it ‘compromises national sovereignty’.
Wednesday, 20 September at 11:193
At least 14 high-ranking officials of the Catalan government have been arrested. There are multiple reports of Spanish paramilitary police entering the buildings without a valid search warrant. Internet and phone access to the regional Department of Economy has been cut and its communications interrupted.
The headquarters of the left-wing pro-independence CUP party have been encircled by masked police. They are about to force their way in.
The spokesman of the Catalan Bar Association has denounced the indiscriminate police raids of lawyers’ offices. Rectors of all Catalan universities have issued a joined statement condemning the state’s repression. Thousands of people are gathering in the centre of Barcelona, denouncing what they call a coup and demanding a general strike.
In the meantime, the Spanish Ministry of the Interior has contracted three cruisers to host the special police units being sent to Catalonia to prevent the vote. They know they will be unwelcome in the city.
Wednesday, 20 September at 18:324
Two epicentres of civic resistance in Barcelona:
– in front of the headquarters of the CUP party, a human shield of a few thousand people has been preventing the police from forcing their way in since noon;
– the police have managed to enter the Catalan Department of Economy, but a huge crowd of at least 20,000 has gathered outside, effectively trapping the police inside the building … since 8:30 in the morning.
Thursday, 21 September at 15:595
Yesterday’s actions by the Spanish police in Barcelona – called ‘Operation Anubis’, after the Egyptian God of Death, no less – were a disaster. They achieved nothing except mass mobilization, pushing the local Podemos – [party] closer to the pro-independence camp.
– 40.000 protesters trapped a dozen-or-so paramilitary policemen (Guardia Civil) inside the Catalan Department of Economy for 20 hours, until they were allowed to leave amidst unflattering chants. On foot.
– Protesters blocked access to the headquarters of the CUP party, forcing the police to retreat. During the 12 hour confrontation, the nearby Podemos offices offered logistic support to protesters.
– In the city of Manresa, a crowd of several thousand encircled the headquarters of the Guardia Civil, trapping 18 policemen inside. They had to be rescued by helicopter.
– Workers in the ports of Barcelona, Tarragona and Palamós are refusing to dock the cruisers with 4,000 police reinforcements.
– People took the streets of all major Catalan towns in defence of their institutions. Spontaneous demonstrations have erupted in Spanish-speaking working class neighbourhoods such as Sant Andreu de Palomar in Barcelona, where support for independence is notoriously low.
– 30,000 people have gathered in front of the Court of Justice in Barcelona, demanding the release of the officials arrested yesterday. Leaders of Podemos and other independence-sceptic figures are joining.
Around half of the detained senior officials have been released, as no charges could be levied against them. Two are being denied habeas corpus – something that would constitute a scandal in a rule of law country. Catalonia’s financial autonomy has been completely suspended by a simple order (not even a decree!) by the Minister of Finance. So much for ‘the most decentralized country in Europe.’
The personal bank accounts of all members of the Catalan Government are blocked, and the members of the regional Electoral Committee have been fined €12,000 a day until they resign. So far, all have refused.
41 of the 67 Catalan MPs have abandoned the Spanish Congress. A general strike has been called. The people want to vote.
Saturday, 23 September at 11:596
The Spanish state has taken control over the regional police, showing, yet again, the ephemeral character of Catalan autonomy, which can be emptied of content overnight by a simple ministerial order.
All officials arrested on Wednesday have been released, after having to appear in front of a judge in handcuffs. At least two of them have been charged with ‘sedition’ – 15 years in prison. A conference, organized by the leaders of Podemos in Zaragoza (Aragon) to discuss the Catalan crisis, was banned by the police. ‘Never have the findings of a conference been reached so quickly, before even starting,’ a commentator quipped.
Even Catalan Socialists, who have been on the foreground of the opposition to the referendum, have severely criticised the curtailment of fundamental rights.
Civil disobedience broadens. As the always cautious editor of the moderate daily La Vanguardia Enric Juliana wrote: ‘The recent mobilization has blurred the emotional boundaries between supporters and opponents of independence. The protests go well beyond the usual pro-independence social sphere. The riverbed deepens, and it can open the long cycle that will lead to Catalonia’s separation from Spain.’
Students have occupied the Universities of Barcelona and UAB.
Tens of thousands remain in front of the Court of Justice.
Activists who have their mobiles wired (including some friends of mine) have started launching coordinated disinformation in order to flood the police with confusing info. With comical results: yesterday, the police raided a warehouse – instead of ballot boxes, they found yoghurt cartons.
The Catalan government has put international observers in charge of the Electoral Commission, elegantly avoiding the punitive fines (€12,000 per day) issued to its members.
Workers in the port of Barcelona were blowing ship horns all night to prevent the 4,000 policemen staying in the cruisers from sleeping: ‘Until 1 October, they won’t have one minute of rest’, their representative said. ‘And next Sunday, we well vote – Votarem!’
Classical republicans defined freedom as the absence of arbitrary coercive power, with ‘arbitrary’ defined as ‘a power that doesn’t have to take into account your legitimate interests, and is not restrained by commonly agreed and predictable boundaries.’ According to this definition, Catalans – as a body politic, and as individuals – don’t have freedom within Spain. The past week only made blatant what was previously hidden.
Tuesday, 26 September at 05:477
The big news of the weekend was the central government’s attempt to take control over the Catalan regional police, the mossos.
Civil Guard Colonel Diego Pérez de los Cobos was supposed to take command. There could hardly be a worse choice, in symbolic terms. His father Antonio was a high-ranking member of the neo-fascist party Fuerza Nueva and a vocal opponent of the transition to democracy. His brother Francisco de Asis Pérez de los Cobos was, until recently, the chairman of the Constitutional Court, despite being a member of the ruling PP party (article 127 of the Constitution prohibits judges from joining political parties, but luckily for him, the Constitutional Court is technically not part of the judicial branch); Don Francisco is also the author of a booklet of aphorisms that reproduces persistent stereotypes about Catalans: ‘There is no political act in Catalonia without some form of onanism’ – ‘Money is the balsam that brings Catalonia to reason’ – ‘A Catalan expresses satisfaction by saying: “My interests are safe.” ‘ Let’s say his impartiality was contested. During his tenure, the judges struck down several key Catalan laws (including the perfectly constitutional popular consultation on Catalan independence in 2014), damaging the Court’s reputation for good.
Family connections aside, the colonel also has some issues of his own: years ago, he was prosecuted for police brutality, accused of torturing an ETA prisoner.
The Catalan police chief refused to be put under his command, and the regional minister of interior said the mossos will not take orders from Madrid. The standoff continues.
Repression now targets cyberspace. 13 kids were arrested for replicating the official website, with referendum info. The popular online forum Racó Català was shut down, apparently because users were sharing information related to the vote. So was the website of the pro-independence association ANC (Catalan National Assembly, 80,000 members). No previous notification was given, no court order received. The same happened to a private website promoting homemade pro-referendum leaflets.
Needless to say, all of this goes entirely against the rule of law.
The State Prosecution has ordered a block on all social media accounts of members of the Catalan government. It’s not clear whether Facebook & Twitter intend to comply … ‘Someone please inform the prosecutor that Silicon Valley hasn’t been part of Spain since 1821’, a commenter wrote.
In the meantime, Podemos was finally allowed to hold its conference on the Catalan crisis in Zaragoza (Aragon), joined by various regionalist parties. An angry mob of neo-fascists and Spanish nationalists (you know, the ‘fine people’) gathered outside and blocked the exits. ‘You go to Zaragoza to promote a democratic pluri-national Spain, and remain stuck inside, surrounded by fascists’, someone tweeted.
Trying to leave the building, the president of the Aragonese parliament was hit by a flying bottle. ‘We couldn’t apply the proper security measures because our anti-riot units are all in Barcelona,’ the police spokesman said.
The conference strongly condemned repression – ‘the state of exception is threatening the civil freedoms at the basis of our democracy’ – but, besides the usual progressive platitudes, made no concrete proposals on how to solve the crisis.
In the port of Barcelona, dock workers and passersby continue to make noise around the cruisers hosting the 4,000-strong police reinforcements.
A comical twist: the cruisers are painted with images of Looney Tunes characters … As you can imagine, they became the butt of many jokes; Tweety has become almost a mascot of the Barcelona protests, symbolizing, as she does, the carefree defiance of the weaker. Much to the irritation of the Spanish police, who on Sunday decided to cover the paintings with sailcloth, in order to restore dignity to their temporary barracks. The reaction was immediate: #FreeTweety (#FreePiolin) became the new hashtag of Catalan civil disobedience.
Yesterday, Catalan PM Puigdemont appeared, placid as usual, on the hugely popular Spanish news show Salvados: ‘We will vote’, he reiterated.
Six days to go.
Thursday, 28 September at 04:248
As Civil Guard units are being sent to Catalonia, crowds in cities around Spain – Huelva, Toledo, Santander, Guadalajara, Córdoba – are gathering to cheer them up, waving flags and chanting: ‘¡A por ellos! – Go get them!’ …
Apparently, the Ministry of Interior is unhappy with these spontaneous expressions of patriotic fervour, perhaps because they subvert the official Jacobin narrative according to which there is no ‘them’ and ‘us’, we are all equally Spanish. In order to show that all are equal under the law, they want to – no joke – ban these demonstrations. The boomerang hit back quicker than I would have guessed.
Meanwhile, in Barcelona:
– the famous news anchor Mònica Terribas faces charges for ‘obstruction of police’ because she asked the audience, during her radio show, to watch out for movements of police vehicles in the city, and call in if they notice anything unusual;
– hundreds of homemade posters have been confiscated from private citizens, including those denouncing repression;
– students who have a scholarship from the Generalitat (the Catalan government system) are missing their tuition payments because the central government blocked the accounts;
– a well-organized team of Catalan lawyers is preparing a judicial counter-offensive: ‘We will overwhelm the courts with civil rights violation cases. The state will wake up with a huge hangover when this is over.’
Baltasar Garzón, the ex-judge who in 1998 famously ordered the arrest of Augusto Pinochet and led the case against the Argentine colonels for human rights violations, has condemned the government’s ‘abusive use of the institutions, especially the courts’, and denounced the ‘entirely disproportionate actions of the state prosecution.’
‘The root of the current Catalan crisis,’ he added, ‘is that Francoism hasn’t been properly dismantled in Spain.’
The prosecution has asked the police to take control of the polling places as early as on Friday. Several associations are getting ready to occupy the schools and municipal buildings before they get there.
In the meantime, President Puigdemont published a video on Twitter showing a machine printing new ballot papers. Caption: ‘Minerva contra Anubis’ (if you recall, Anubis was the code name of the Spanish police action last Wednesday, and Minerva … well, you know).
Everyone’s waiting for Friday afternoon now, when kids leave school and offices close. Then, the great battle for the polling stations begins.
Oh, and nobody knows where the polling boxes are … At the bottom of the sea, the spokesman of the Catalan government joked.
Tweety don’t swim, it seems.
Friday, 29 September at 18:069
‘Like a fly in a jar, who doesn’t see the obstacle but senses that something very powerful is barring its way, so the government is perplexed by the obstinate and unyielding resistance in Catalonia – as if it finally began to grasp the magnitude of the phenomenon. All its measures, [bullshit alert] backed by the law [bullshit alert], prove to be futile, unable to block all the paths leading to the vote. What is more: its actions have broadened and deepened the disobedience.’
So says the journalist Iñaki Gabilondo, one of the most lucid observers of the Catalan crisis.
An opnion poll published today by ElDiario.es confirms his verdict. With the referendum infrastructure basically dismantled:
– 63% of Catalans say they intend to show up to vote (and we can be sure at least 3/5 of them would vote YES);
– 75% consider that the Spanish government acted in an ‘authoritarian way’;
– 83% support a referendum on independence;
– 92% say they ‘feel indignation’ about what’s happening.
An overlooked, yet probably the most important detail yesterday was the statement by the Spanish Bishops’ Conference. Initiated by the archbishop of Barcelona – after more than 400 Catalan clergymen, including bishops, sent a letter to Pope Francis asking for his intervention on behalf of Catalonia’s right to self-determination – the statement was a very balanced compromise, demanding ‘respect for institutions’ and the ‘preservation of our common Spanish home’, condemning the ‘politics of confrontation’ and calling for ‘a generous dialogue in the spirit of understanding’.
Nothing unusual, one might say, but the break with the language of the pre-Francis era is astonishing. Gone are the exhortations to ‘Spanish unity’, no trace of the neo-Baroque nationalist rhetoric that characterized the episcopate’s positions under Rouco Valera. Instead, the bishops speak of the ‘the inherent rights [derechos propios] of the peoples that make up the State’ – a terminology one would expect to hear at a Podemos rally or in the homily of a Basque patriotic priest, but it’s unprecedented for the Spanish Bishops’ Conference.
Right-wing media are furious (Francis is a crypto-protestant who will ruin the Church), and the PP issued its first public critique of the Church ever (as far as I know), with incredibly harsh language: the Church should stick to moral teachings, and leave politics to elected officials. ‘The Catalans have finally succeeded in their historical aim to secularise Spain’, someone quipped.
To religion’s closest neighbour, football. Gerard Piqué, who had made gestures towards the independence cause, tweeted a statement urging fellow Catalans to vote on Sunday. #Piquefueradelaseleccion (Piqué out of the selection!) was top-trending topic all afternoon. ‘Funny how they suddenly had no problem understanding what he’s saying,’ someone tweeted, hinting at the polemics around Piqué’s annoying and provocative habit of answering in Catalan to questions asked in Catalan by Catalan journalists during press conferences.
Demonstrations continue: 15,000 students marched in Barcelona yesterday; fire brigades were cheered as heroes for their aid to the referendum’s organisation.
In an unusual sight, hundreds of tractors have roamed into Barcelona pledging to block police vehicles if they attempt to prevent voting. The cavalry of the new Catalan Republic.
Repression continues but it’s more comical now than scary. A hundred voting boxes were confiscated – without a proper warrant, of course – in the town of Igualada. Turns out they were made for Barça’s assembly. A journalist of the Catalan public TV faces charges of terrorism for having climbed on the roof of an already smashed Civil Guard car while reporting on the last week’s protests in Barcelona.
UN human rights experts have expressed their concern over ‘measures that appear to violate fundamental human rights’. It is a ‘critical moment for Spain’s democracy’, they wrote.
The mossos have decided ‘not to take any measures that would endanger the safety of citizens or could lead to violence or public unrest,’ emboldening the grassroots ‘defence committees’ to start occupying polling places.
Meanwhile, the Data Protection Agency (another independent cog in the Spanish checks-and-balances system) threatened to fine each member of the election committees with an exorbitant €300,000, up to €600,000 for volunteers. It didn’t even make headlines.
Few take these threats seriously. Most state institutions have lost legitimacy.
At the closing event of a campaign that wasn’t, a festive crowd sings L’estaca, the anthem of anti-Francoist resistance:
‘If we all pull, it will fall down, it cannot last much longer.
If I pull this way and you pull that way,
it will surely fall, fall, fall,
and we will be able to free ourselves.’
But orderly, to end where I began – Gabilondo:
‘There are few things in life as scary as the great historical accelerations. When everything precipitates, when things seem to derail, when events are overflowing. We are in the midst of such an acceleration.’
As scary? Or– as beautiful? Both at once, perhaps.
All changed, changed utterly : A terrible beauty is born.
Saturday, 30 September at 19:3010
First serious poll on Catalan referendum commissioned by a foreign outlet: Glasgow’s The National publishes a poll with a large sample (n: 3,300) according to which:
– 62% Catalan voters intend to show up to vote tomorrow;
– 83% would vote Yes.
That’s 51% of all voters in support of independence btw.
In the case of a Scottish-style, consensual referendum:
– 77% would turn out to vote (that’s the glass ceiling, no election in Catalan history had a higher turnout, so it looks quite plausible);
– 66% would vote Yes.
It’s impossible to predict how many people will actually turn out tomorrow, and how many of them will be prepared to queue all day and face all sorts of impediments.
Both sides are nervous. The chairman of the Catalan National Assembly said that a 1 million turnout would already be a success given the circumstances. That’s one fifth of the voters. Obviously, they’re trying to lower the expectations to create a climate in which they can declare victory no matter what.
Especially younger pro-independence Catalans are fed up with this narcissistic chase after moral victories, which they call ‘processism’ – they want outcomes, not ‘a process’. They feel the regional government has done too little to fight back, and relied too much on ‘muh Europe’ that doesn’t care.
They’re sharpening the knives of generational renewal. Real radicalisation is yet to come.
Tomorrow’s their time.
Self-organized ‘defence committees’ will try to take over polling stations before the police arrive.
Tractor drivers plan to create road blocks to prevent police units from reaching the polling stations before the defence committees get there.
Most schools remained open through the weekend for extracurricular activities, preventing the police from moving in early.
The state has finally realised it’s losing the public relations war. To remedy, they closed the air space over Catalonia for private helicopters and all planes. They don’t want aerial pictures of huge queues, obviously. In the age of drones …
Yesterday, Google was forced to remove an app helping people to get info on where to vote.
It’s Saturday evening, and Hèctor López Bofill, professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, pointed out a detail everyone apparently missed in these frenetic days. The Constitutional Court hasn’t debated the Referendum Law yet.
All these draconian measures were taken in order to prevent voting in a referendum which is technically not unconstitutional (yet).
Let that sink in for a moment.
Today, it was the unionists who took to the streets all over Spain. In Madrid, so many waved Francoist flags and raised Fascist salutes that even the liberal nationalist outlet El Español felt the urge to denounce it with concerned headlines.
Many adolescents were in the crowd. The Fascist anthem Cara al Sol was sung.
I wonder how many of them know that the author of the lyrics, Dionisio Ridruejo, became the most important Spanish dissident in the 1950s. It was Ridruejo, the chief of Franco’s propaganda during the Civil War and a volunteer on the Eastern Front during WWII, who started a dialogue with Catalan intellectuals in the attempt to forge a broad democratic alliance. In 1964, he explained his political U-turn:
‘I decided to immerse myself in the reality of a problem that I had only known from books and cheap political polemics, and whose human dimensions I ignored. From that moment onward, I have become a more or less proficient, a more or less insightful sympathiser of the Catalan people and their freedoms.’
Sunday, 1 October at 11:3711
At this point you can read about what’s happening in all major outlets. No need for me to keep posting these short summaries.
– Until now, all sides avoided violence. The repression was almost entirely non-violent, and so was of course resistance. It was, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, purely a clash of powers.
– The state’s violence is a response to an exercise of political power – casting a ballot – and was unprovoked by any threat or act of violence by the people.
– Arendt says violence is what you resort to when you have no power. The Spanish state has lost power over Catalonia. It has lost Catalonia.
– There is now a democratic state within the EU that has lost legitimacy over one of its territories, just as liberal Britain lost legitimacy over Ireland in 1916-1919.
– This is unprecedented. It can’t be solved with the user manual of European politics. The EU will no doubt try to resort to it. It must become clear, as it was already with Greece and then with the migrant crisis, and Polish and Hungarian authoritarian rollback, that this sort of non-political, ad hoc bureaucratic and quasi-legalistic approach will gradually erode the basis of the European project. The EU must wake up from the 1990s and start finding political solutions, or in 10 years, there will be no EU.
– Therefore, a) politicize this issue at your national and local levels. b) Try to keep informed about it after, three days from now, the headlines will forget about Catalonia. c) Be reassured that every pro-authoritarian force in Europe has been watching closely. The message they have taken is crystal clear: in the name of national interest, you can do whatever you want, even if ‘the world is watching’.
– What’s happening was entirely predictable (those who know me know that I predicted it as early as in 2012, was warning about it from 2009 onward, and had seen it coming since at least two years earlier).
– It might sound harsh but ‘the weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel not what we ought to say.’ Those public figures and intellectuals from Spain who have woken up to the magnitude of the problem this morning or two weeks ago, are not to be trusted on this issue.
Don’t think that if someone comes from Spain, is intelligent and educated and well-intentioned, has a better grasp on the issue than you. It’s quite likely that although s/he knows more facts, s/he in fact understands as little or less than you.
If you get your facts from Al Jazeera, the Guardian, The Independent or Washington Post you understand the situation better than if you get them from El País.
If you want a deeper understanding, you can rely on the school of English historians and experts of Spain: Sebastian Balfour, Paul Preston, Luke Stobart. Most of them have written about recent events, and will continue to do so. All of them are fluent in Catalan (few Spanish intellectuals are).
Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here! I love Spain and am very fond of its people and culture, including intellectual culture. Just a simple reminder that ‘I’m from Spain therefore I know what I’m talking about’ is a fallacy.
– When chaos – an eruption of potentiality – breaks loose, smashing apart previous conceptual frames, the first instinct is to come up with ersatz explanations to keep chaos at bay. The most common one you’ll hear in the next weeks will be the argument of equidistance. Blame is on both sides, cynical nationalist politicians manipulated the good people, etc.
This is bullshit.
The main culprit is the Spanish state. Not the People’s Party, the state – its political elites, its judicial system, its institutions. But also its information systems and intellectual elites.
All keys for the solution have been in Madrid all this time.
There were so many occasions to prevent this from happening, between 2008 and 2015, that I could *literally* spend an entire afternoon just listing them by heart.
It became pretty much irreversible after November 2014 but the worse could have still been prevented at any point until September 6th.
At least violence could have been prevented by just declaring the referendum invalid, instead of physically trying to chase people away from polling stations.
– Now it’s too late. The jar is broken.
There is only one way out, and this is bilateral negotiations between the two powers, with guarantees for the weaker partner.
– This a very inconvenient truth for *it demands* some sort of intervention by the EU, at least at an informal level. But it’s *the only* way out. Or else, what you are seeing will be just the beginning. Make no mistake about that.
– Sure, it might not be all an upward escalation, at one point, secessionist forces might even lose their parliamentary majority, etc., but it won’t go away by itself. It will get worse, with periods of apparent calm. If Europe looks away, it will blow Spanish democracy apart. Most Spanish analysts will say that is ridiculous. They are wrong.
– In December 1990, when the results of the Slovenian plebiscite came in, the parliamentary leader of the ruling coalition (and in many ways the architect of secession) Jože Pučnik, was exultant: ‘Yugoslavia is no more! Now, it’s about Slovenia.’
Three years ago, I interviewed his son, the journalist Markus Pučnik, who’s been living in Barcelona for two decades now. He’s allergic to Catalan nationalism and was very critical of secessionism, dismantling its ideas with the typical Rechtsstaat arguments one can expect from the son of a former political prisoner who grew up in Germany. Two weeks ago he announced he’s going to vote in the referendum, which he considers ‘perfectly legitimate’ and ‘high enough in legal guarantees’.
Two hours ago, he tweeted: ‘Spain is no more. Now, it’s about Catalonia’. I think it was meant as an observation.
PS As you might remember from my previous post, the referendum hasn’t been ruled unconstitutional yet. Look at the images that are coming in, and try to say ‘rule of law’ without laughing or throwing up.
Sunday, 1 October at 17:4412
What comes next? We have no clue about the participation, and thousands of ballots have been confiscated. In the good old school of totalitarian tactics (I’m thinking of Arendt here), the Spanish Government warned, ad nauseam, this was a referendum ‘sin garantías’, without proper legal guarantees – then, it did everything to make it so.
It might be a bold speculation but I don’t think that many of the people who had their heads smashed and fingers broken (one by one, as two girls testified on camera) by the police did so in order to express their wish to stay in Spain. Everyone hopes for a relatively high No vote (for reasons of legitimacy) but Yes will win. The Generalitat (the collective name given to the Catalan autonomous institutions) will be under enormous pressure from the bases to declare independence, as stated in the Law of Juridical Transition and Foundation of the Republic adopted on September 8.
However, according to a previous document from 2013 (abolished by the Constitutional Court but still considered valid by the Generalitat), the Catalan Parliament has full sovereignty and can very well decide not to rush into a unilateral decision.
If you believe in rational actor theory, there’s no other step than an immediate declaration of independence. They are now the good guys, the issue is on the verge of internationalisation but not quite; if they declare independence now, there will be no other frame to interpret this rather than a reaction/consequence of excessive repression.
The central government will have to take the next step and suspend Catalan autonomy, and maybe even arrest the Catalan government who might take refuge in the parliament.
Storming of the parliament would have an enormous symbolism, as the building stands on the site of the old Citadel, built after the siege of Barcelona in 1714 in order to exercise military control over the rebel, pro-Habsburg city – an entire neighbourhood was torn down to make place for the mastodontic fortress; and that is a story every Catalan schoolchild knows (but PR consultants of the Spanish Government don’t, and those who do are probably quite content with the symbolism).
Both parties will face condemnation from abroad. That is exactly what the Generalitat wants. Forced to negotiate, they will jump to say ‘Yes!’
For two reasons: a) they will finally be recognised as an interlocutor; b) when you negotiate, every side has to give up something, and although the best the Spanish government would offer right now would be a return to the status quo ante, this won’t be a tenable position for long: we can expect Rajoy’s government to fall soon, as the Basque nationalists will have no choice but to withdraw their support.
A new election would be a chance to start broader negotiations, in which the moderate wing of the independence movement will be quite happy to ditch its radical leftist allies, claiming that it has done everything in its power.
The thing is, I don’t believe in the rational actor theory.
Believe it or not, current Catalan leaders are anything but radicals. They were raised in a mentality of compromise, consensual politics and generous gestures. More than excitement, I think they feel a nauseating sense of vertigo on the edges of the crater that has just opened in front of them.
They don’t want to step forward. But they are not stupid. They know that the longer they wait, the higher the risk of their coalition breaking apart. The more they wait, the higher the chance of the images of repression being sidelined by Trump’s next stupid tweet or by the arithmetic of German coalition making; and when they finally make the step, they will be the villain of the story, the ones who escalated an already precarious situation. But if they don’t do anything, the more radical part of their constituency will revolt, the fragile pro-independence coalition will break apart, and ‘Spain – this Spain we saw today – will have won’.
I’m not a radical at heart. I’m very saddened to say that if I were asked for advice by the Generalitat, I would have to say: you have no other choice but to escalate right now. It’s extremely risky but you’ve run out of options. That’s your moment, go for it.
If I think from their perspective, if I think as a Catalan independentist – that’s what I’d advise.
Everything is counselling them against such move. Their upbringing, the press they trust, their personal interests, historical precedence: on October 6, 1934, president Lluís Companys unilaterally declared the Catalan Republic. It lasted one afternoon. His government was arrested, autonomy abolished. Lacking institutional authority, radicalism took over Catalan politics between 1934 and 1936, with the consequences we all know.
Companys was shot by a Francoist firing squad on October 15, 1940.
They don’t want another October 6, another one-day republic followed by a civil war and 40 years of repression.
This was the cautionary tale that structured the entire Catalan political culture of the Franco and post-Franco eras.
All forces now push them to repeat exactly the same step which they were taught to avoid at all cost.
I think this is the classical definition of tragedy.
PS Piqué has just announced, in tears, he is ready to leave the selection.
¡España se rompe!, ‘Spain is about to break!’ unionists have cried for a decade and a half. And they did everything they could to make it happen.
There can be no end of history – man doesn’t change.
Monday, 2 October at 00:0113
2,200,000 votes could be counted. 90% voted Yes. An estimated 770,000 ballot papers were confiscated by the police, putting turnout at at least 55%.
It’s reasonable to suggest that the actual turnout was around 60-63%, as predicted by the latest opinion polls, with many voters turned away (or having had their heads smashed) by the police, or by fear.
The Generalitat will interpret the results in this light. 2 million is a clear majority, even with a 55% or 65% turnout. It’s a majority even with an 80% turnout – never reached in the history of the country.
They wanted to prevent a referendum at all costs – they got a plebiscite.
The results will be handed over to the parliament. I now expect it to declare independence. In this jubilant climate, where millions feel they have defended democracy with their bare bodies against all odds, it can’t do otherwise.
The central government will apply article 155 of the Constitution, suspending autonomy. Nobody knows what that means in practice. There is simply no constitutional precedent, not even the most rudimentary legal theory about it.
In many ways, it’s a much bigger step into the unknown than a declaration of independence.
The Generalitat was re-established almost exactly 40 years ago, in October 1977, in a bilateral agreement between the Spanish Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez and the Catalan president-in-exile Josep Tarradellas.
It thus precedes the constitution in the name of which it will be suspended. It is the only political institution in Spain with a direct continuity with the Republic.
The Generalitat was born together with the Spanish Republic in April 1931.
On April 14, the King renounced the throne. Cities all around Spain had already started proclaiming the Republic. Francesc Macià, leader of the Republican Left of Catalonia, a political émigré and former colonel of the Spanish Army, stormed the Palace of the Generalitat in Barcelona, headquarters of the provincial authorities, and proclaimed the ‘Catalan Republic as an integral part the Iberic Federation’ from its balcony.
A delegation from Madrid was sent. By the next morning they negotiated that Catalonia would remain subject to the authority of Madrid, but would immediately regain full internal autonomy. But under which form? As a federal unit? As a separate republic, associated with Spain? The delegates from Madrid said this meant prejudging the form of the new state, which was to be decided by a constitutional assembly. So would calling Catalonia a region, the Catalans rebuked. Among the fiercest defenders of Catalan sovereignty was a young Josep Tarradellas.
Negotiations went nowhere: would the new republic be stillborn over a dispute over Catalonia, the same dispute that helped to bury the old liberal regime?
In the end, Marcelino Domingo, a Catalan in Madrid’s delegation, came up with an idea: ‘Why not just calling it Generalitat, after the venerable medieval institution of self-government which once occupied this majestic palace?’
So it was. As the columnist Enric Juliana wrote after the raid on Catalan institutions last Wednesday: ‘Even when they disagree with their government, a great majority of Catalans feel a strong attachment to the Generalitat. It’s the history of the country, and it’s the legacy of Josep Tarradellas. The nation embodied in an institution.’
Its imminent suspension will be seen as the end of that pre-constitutional pact that anchored Catalonia to Spain after the downfall of the two dictatorships which marked Spain’s short 20th century.
The senate, which will give the green light to the application of Article 155, has an absolute majority for the PP, which got 30% of the vote.
And Rajoy’s government is likely to fall. The Basques can’t support it any more. A general strike is called for Tuesday.
In few days, the Spanish constitutional order, as a material reality and system of legal legitimacy, will be over. Exactly as I predicted. What a nice, bitter-sweet way to end the arc of these posts.
C’est une révolte? – Non Sire, c’est une révolution.