Affair of state

by Timo Berger

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)

Shredded umbrellas lie in rubbish bins, palm fronds strew the streets. A winter storm has paid a call on Barcelona. A large part of the city’s outskirts has been washed away. But it’s not just the freak weather that lends the Catalonian capital an atmosphere of tension.

Catalonia has been seeking for several years now to realign its relationship with Spain’s central authorities. More competencies transferred, greater autonomy for the region – the demands are such that a share of the populace can even entertain the possibility of secession from Spain. Over the preceding months, the simmering conflict, which has seen Spain’s judicial and security arms clamping down hard on supporters of Catalan regional autonomy, has escalated to new levels. The nation’s highest court has sentenced 12 leaders of the independence movement to prison terms of up to 12 years.

Even though the Spanish government under the Socialist Party’s Pedro Sánchez is in damage limitation mode, the relationship between Catalonians and Spaniards is all but shattered. For both sides it touches on the foundations of the democratic principle. But which principle weighs more? A state’s right to defend its territorial integrity, or the rights of a minority that wishes to unilaterally (out of necessity) alter a part of that state?

Someone who has a clear picture of what should happen in Catalonia is Txell Bonet. “I’m demanding a referendum, so that the people can decide.” She’s talking about a popular vote regarding whether the region can be an autonomous republic in the future. Bonet is a journalist who has reported for the Catalan media about the freedom struggle in Myanmar, and she has interviewed prisoners and become involved in climate protection. But since her husband was imprisoned she has been occupied above all with the situation in Catalonia. Jordi Cuixart, father to her two children, has been in jail since 2017. He’s one of the leaders of the independence movement, serving nine years for “sedition”, a sentence that professor of law Joan Queralt sees as far too harsh. “This penalty applies to people who’ve committed murder.”

But how did Cuixart find himself in the crosshairs of the judicial authorities? The businessman is the head of “Òmnium Cultural”, a cultural organisation founded in the Franco era, whose goal is to safeguard and support Catalan culture. “With 180,000 members, Òmnium Cultural is the largest association in Spain,” Joan Queralt explains. Together with the “Asamblea Nacional Catalana”(the “Catalan National Assembly” or ANC), it brought around 2.5 million people onto the streets to cast their votes on Catalonia’s future. 

“Part of Catalonia’s population can envisage complete secession from Spain” 

In the run-up to the referendum, which the Spanish government had forbidden to take place, the Guardia Civil searched Catalonia’s Economics and Finance Ministry on September 20th 2017. Cuixart and the also-convicted Jordi Sánchez of the ANC called for resistance. Thousands of citizens blockaded government buildings, and three police vehicles were trashed. Queralt launched an appeal against the court that had deemed this action to be “sedition”, calling it “a judgement that stands on the brink of legality; there’s no insurrection because insurrection is violent and tumultuous”. But there wasno violence. Amnesty International, which had been observing the court case, found at the end of the previous year that the sentences handed out to Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart had infringed their rights to freedom of speech and to free association, and demanded their release.

The present conflict between supporters of independence and Spain’s central authorities has its roots in a dispute about a new autonomy statute by which Catalonia would attain more autonomy within the Spanish state, in particular financial autonomy. This came into force in 2006, but four years later the constitutional court declared 14 of the 223 articles to be wholly or partly unconstitutional. The judges objected to the term “nation” that the Catalonian side had written into the preamble of the statute. On July 10th 2010, more than a million people flooded onto Barcelona’s streets. The regional government shrank from taking the path of independence and eventually scheduled a referendum for 2017. Because this was declared illegal, activists mobilised to enable a popular vote to take place, fire brigade officers protected voters from truncheon-wielding members of the Guardia Civil. For Queralt, that’s what’s so special about the Catalan independence movement: “A part of the authorities were doing things together with the protest movement.”

The independence movement reacting to the sentences of individual protagonists with actions that were coordinated anonymously, for example over the Telegram group “Tsunami Democratíc” that now has over 400,000 members. Jan Oliete, a sociology graduate who has just applied to the Catalonian firefighting service, tells me that he has himself taken part in such actions. He got a message over Telegram that the AP-7 motorway, the key connecting road between France and Spain, was going to be blocked. Equipped with rucksack and food, Oliete journeyed to the border town of La Jonquera. “It was really cold and windy. And sleeping out there on the ground was difficult.” 4,000 people came, he reckons. They erected barricades on the motorway and traffic ground to a halt for three days. Oliete’s convinced that people, outraged, have now awoken. “Catalonia has always chosen the peaceful path. We’d go out and demonstrate but we wouldn’t discard paper on the ground.” Maybe now and then some paper needs to be thrown or a rubbish container set alight “if we want people to take us seriously.”

If you ask why people involve themselves in the Catalonian movement, they often talk about their grandparents. It was forbidden to use the Catalan tongue in the time of Franco. “I was able to take my school-leaving exams in my own language,” Txell Bonet says, “because for 40 years my grandparents continued to use our banned language.”

“What’s unclear is which concessions can Pedro Sánchez make so that he doesn’t lose the economic powerhouse of Catalonia?”

But there are also critical voices. Biology teacher Daniel Miñano Valero, whose mother comes from Aragón, grew up speaking two tongues. “I’m what pro-Catalonia people call a ‘charnego’, a mongrel”. In his surroundings he mainly sees people who find any form of nationalism suspect. He worries that other social demands are being pushed to one side by the independence movement and that votes for right-wing parties increased in the last elections.

Catalonia’s regional authority is keeping to its independence course. Alfred Bosch is a member of the “Esquerra Republicana Catalunya” (the “Left Party of the Catalan Republic”, or ERC) and the region’s foreign affairs minister. He studied history, wrote his doctorate on Nelson Mandela, and has written 17 books of fiction and non-fiction. In his office near Barcelona’s cathedral, he counts the ways that relations between Catalonia and the Spanish government have been shattered. Behind the friendly smile, flashes of helplessness occasionally break through. “Things that for a long time we used to deal with by dialogue have now shifted to the realm of police authorities, courts and prisons.” But the conflict needs to be resolved politically and not judicially, Bosch argues.

In his view, the fact that Pedro Sánchez has now invited a Catalonian delegation for talks in Madrid is “a significant change of direction”. Of course Sánchez is doing this because he wants to stay in office. “But maybe a window will open because of this,” he says, thinking in realpolitik terms. “It’s not love, it’s politics.”

What’s unclear is which concessions can Pedro Sánchez make so that he doesn’t lose the economic powerhouse of Catalonia? Or does Spain have a duty to democracy, because so many Catalonians are going onto the streets? Or are their demands for a new referendum excessive? For the legal professor Joan Queralt, the issue is clear. “There’s a dilemma in Spain. Does the constitution take precedence or does democracy? The standard way of doing things has greater priority than genuine democratic procedures.”

However, the historian and expert on Spain, Walther Bernecker, doesn’t see a democratic deficit in the country. “Spain has been formally acknowledged by international bodies and by the UN as a fully developed constitutional state. As long as that remains the case, you can’t of course go against the constitution and say, ‘Yes, but meanwhile there’s a minority that wants this thing or that’.” And Bernecke also reminds us that supporters of independence have never been a majority in Catalonia. In the 2017 regional elections, they made up 47.7 percent of votes cast.

But Bernecker can nevertheless imagine Catalonia becoming an independent nation. But the path to achieve this must be opened by means of constitutional change in tandem with the authorities in Madrid and not by unilateral actions taken in Barcelona. 

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