In Catalonia, is independence inevitable?

Independence movement linked to rising tide of dissent across Southern Europe
Photo: Marc Puig i Perez

On Sept. 11, a week before the Scottish referendum on independence was held, hundreds of thousands of Catalans marched in the streets of Barcelona, Spain, to commemorate the Diada, Catalonia’s national day. The mood among the attendees could not have been more upbeat.

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Demanding the right to decide Catalonia’s future, demonstrators wore red and yellow shirts to form a gigantic V-shaped Catalan flag. They came from almost all sides of the political spectrum, from activists of the radical left to businesspeople and members of the right-wing cabinet of the Generalitat (the seat of the Catalan government). On the 300th anniversary of the military defeat by Spain that ended the territory’s self-rule and autonomous institutions, the rally’s giant V stood for both victory and voting.

It is certainly unclear whether Catalans will get the victory, and at the moment it is also uncertain whether they will get the vote. On Oct. 2, Artur Mas, president of the Generalitat, officially called for a referendum on Catalan independence. Spain’s government challenged the legality of the referendum, and the Constitutional Court demanded a suspension of the independence vote while it deliberated on the matter. Those deliberations could take months or years. Nevertheless, Mas has said the referendum will go ahead on Nov. 9.

The nationalist electoral alliance led by Mas and the Convergence and Union (CiU) party has also given mixed signals about the referendum vote. Barcelona-based journalist Arturo Puente told Ricochet, “This has deflated the euphoria among independentists. The question is whether this disappointment will be channeled into anger towards the Spanish establishment or towards something else.”

UPDATE: On October 13 5pm ET, the Catalan government cancelled plans for the contested November 9 referendum.

Austerity and unrest across Southern Europe

Puente places the surge in Catalan support for independence within “the context of Southern European unrest, where failing economic models create a breeding ground for rupturist movements.” The Spanish state, like the Greek one, is weaker and less able to generate consensus internally. Puente asserts that the “post-Franco system in place since the 70s based its stability around three pillars: an economic, a political and a territorial model. Now all three are in crisis, but the actors putting pressure on them are different, which creates a sort of everybody against the regime momentum.”

Positions in the Catalan conflict are not determined by national identity or language spoken at home. A large number of working-class Catalans are Castilian-speaking migrants from southern Spain, or their offspring, and a growing portion of them favour independence, like those joining the Castilian-speaking independentist organization Súmate, which calls for building a new, corruption-free country without links to the monarchy and the old establishment. Most of these migrants from other parts of Spain used to vote for one of the pillars of Spanish soft power in Catalonia, the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and its Catalan ally the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia (PSC).

Both parties, done in by their embracement of austerity just like their Greek counterpart PASOK, became submissive to the orders of the Troika — the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund. PSOE and PSC were heading the Spanish and Catalan governments respectively when the 2007–08 recession hit. The prime minister of Spain at the time, PSOE’s José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, was a follower of the Blairite Third Way and promised to accept a new Statute for Catalonia exactly the way the Catalan parliament delivered it to him. However, he failed to deliver on his promise when the Spanish Supreme Court vetoed the proposal, just as he also failed to deliver on his pledge to end unemployment. With Zapatero’s fall, there was no longer a Spanish good cop. PSOE and PSC sank in the polls, paving the way in 2011 for the prime ministerial election of Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People's Party, a great fit for the role of bad cop. With its Francoist roots it is a party, it has been said, which never misses an opportunity to strike a new blow against women, workers and minorities.

One of the most relevant new actors is the anti-austerity movement Podemos (meaning "We Can" in English), which in only a few months of existence has been able to connect with the general sense of unrest all over Spain. It has shown growth similar to that experienced by left-wing party SYRIZA in Greece.

Marc Bertomeu, spokesperson for the Barcelona circle of the movement, told Ricochet that unlike PSOE, Podemos “defends the right to decide as an inalienable human right” and believes that “society must express not only what state they want to live in, but what social policies are needed, and whether spending cuts must or must not be done, and that is why Podemos defends the referendum vote as a means for empowering society.”

Podemos, like local movements such as Guanyem and other voices on the left, demands not only the right to decide, but also the right to decide everything in a European Union where unelected technocratic elites override elected representatives, imposing austerity and economic hardships on the peoples of Europe.

What kind of independence for Catalonia?

Recently, Catalan MP David Fernàndez, the most known face of the anti-capitalist and independentist party Popular Unity Candidates (CUP), explained in Madrid that “independence does not mean creating new states similar to the nineteenth-century ones, but framing new ways of co-existence as a means for leaving obsolete regimes behind.” The independent Catalonia that Fernàndez has in mind, however, is very different from the one Mas and the Catalan right have in mind. The list of Mas’ international friends is revealing; he has met with Roberto Maroni, the racist leader of the Italian Northern League, and has visited Israel and California, citing them as models.

Some observers believe that Mas can get away with heavy spending cuts to public health care and violent repression of protests, as long as he wraps himself in the independentist flag. Guillem Martínez, a Catalan author and journalist, wrote recently that “the Mas government is the only one in Southern Europe that is able to do what it wants. It is the only government moving to post-democracy — that is, swapping democracy for debt — while its society and culture applaud it.”

It is unclear how credible Mas and CiU, with a long tradition of backroom dealing and compromises with Madrid, will be now that they have backed down from holding the independence referendum. Opinion polls say the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a centre-left independentist party, would gain the most votes in an election. For Arturo Puente, “a CiU that is not independentist is not viable in the future.”

At the moment, the idea of holding snap plebiscitary elections with a common list of all pro-independence parties (mainly CiU and ERC), instead of a referendum vote, is floating in the air, but Marc Bertomeu dismisses the idea, saying “it would not be a significant enough change” and that the model for the new Catalonia should also be voted upon.

Meanwhile, there is no soft and cuddly campaign to woo separatists back into the fold, as we saw with the “Better Together” campaign in the United Kingdom. Instead the unionist and right-wing social media are full of memes asking for the Spanish army and security forces to repress the independence movement.

The Spanish establishment seems incapable of answering the aspirations of the Catalan people with more than threats, and as a result of this tone-deaf approach is at its weakest point in decades. What remains to be seen is whether the Catalans’ demand for self-determination will be co-opted, as so often happens, or accomplished. If it is, it will be thanks to an unprecedented level of grassroots mobilization, a mobilization which can be felt bubbling just below the surface here in Barcelona.

Editors’ note: all quotes, unless noted otherwise, have been translated from Spanish.
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