Have Spain and Catalonia Reached a Point of No Return?

Republished with permission from The Nation

Pro independence supporters wave “estelada” or pro independence flags with Basque and Navarre flags during a rally in support for the secession of the Catalonia region from Spain, in Bilbao, northern Spain, Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. Last week, Spain’s constitutional court decided to suspend an independence referendum that Catalan leaders had penciled in for Oct. 1 while judges decide if it is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

The bitter struggle over an independence referendum has pushed the country into a grave constitutional crisis.

On Sunday, September 17, Juan Ignacio Zoido, Spain’s Twitter-happy minister of the interior, posted a strange video on his feed. The 24-second clip showed scores of boxes the authorities had seized, most still in their original packaging, located in a nondescript warehouse. Had they found drugs? No. Money? Also no. As the camera approached, it showed a poster with “” in bold, block letters. The Spanish police, it turned out, had confiscated 1.3 million posters, fliers, and pamphlets calling for a “Yes” vote in the upcoming Catalan referendum on independence, which is scheduled to take place across the region on October 1. Hours later, Interior Ministry officials posted a DEA-style picture on Twitter of their entire loot.

The police confiscations indicate the degree to which tensions between the central government in Madrid and Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona, known as the Generalitat, have escalated in recent weeks. As it turned out, they were only the first salvo in a series of draconian measures that have left many Catalans and Spaniards reeling, pushing the country to the edge of its most serious constitutional crisis since the end of the Franco dictatorship.

Once Catalonia announced the referendum in early September, Madrid immediately launched an appeal with the country’s Constitutional Court, which then proceeded to suspend the measures while it considered their legality—a process that can take many months. Spain’s 1978 Constitution grants the region limited autonomy, including the right to its own parliament, language, and police force, but also declares Spain “indivisible.” As such, there are no provisions for regional secession, and referenda of any kind can only be issued by the central state, for the entire state.

President of the Generalitat Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders have declared their intention to proceed with the October 1 referendum anyway. According to leaders in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s administration, the Catalan president and his cabinet’s brazen acts of disobedience may be punished with stiff fines and prison sentences, including years of disbarment from active politics. (Some of them have been prosecuted for conducting a similar referendum in 2014.)

“We will apply the law in its full force,” Rajoy, the conservative leader of Spain’s Popular Party (PP), announced in early September. The key word, it turns out, was “force.” On September 13 and again on September 16, the national police shuttered Catalonia’s official referendum website. On September 14, the Supreme Court of Catalonia ordered the national police to compile a list of media organizations that were running referendum ads, marking them as possible targets for criminal proceedings. On September 19, the Spanish Finance Ministry took over the Catalan treasury; it even ordered that banks block the credit cards of the Generalitat in compliance with the national court’s suspension of the referendum. On September 20, Madrid announced that it was sending some 4,000 riot police to Catalonia to help “maintain order” in the run-up to the referendum. (Given the lack of housing, they are being lodged in several chartered cruise ships anchored in Catalan harbors; the fact that one of them features gigantic images of Looney Tunes characters has provided some comic relief.)

Also on September 20, the national police raided several offices of the Generalitat and arrested 14 officials, including the second-in-command of Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who were charged with disobedience, misuse of funds, and sedition. The Constitutional Court then proceeded to impose individual fines of between $7,000 and $14,000 for every day they continued to work on the referendum. To shelter the officials from this liability, the Catalan government had no choice but to relieve them of their duties—in effect dissolving the governing body responsible for safeguarding the referendum’s integrity. On September 23, Zoido’s Interior Ministry announced it was taking over command of Catalonia’s autonomous police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, although the measure was presented as a mere issue of “coordination.”

According to article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, the central government may revoke a region’s autonomy if it poses a “serious threat” to the country’s interest. Despite not formally invoking the article, which would require a previous parliamentary procedure, Rajoy’s summary decision to take control of Catalonia’s finances and security apparatus has effectively revoked any autonomy the region had. To many, his bypassing of Parliament and reliance on a politicized judiciary point to an erosion of Spanish democracy.

Throughout the entire process, Rajoy has insisted that his government is simply “enforcing the law” and not “entering into the provocation” that the Catalan government is angling for. But many would argue that it is Rajoy who is the provocateur. His administration’s disproportionate measures have not only showcased its tone-deafness, but have, for many, also conjured the specter of Spain’s dictatorial past. Speaking at a meeting of left-wing parties looking to negotiate a state-sponsored referendum, Alberto Garzón, the leader of United Left, a left-wing coalition that includes the Spanish Communist Party, called the central government’s measures “characteristic of the Francoist dictatorship.” Rajoy, he said, was “a coward” for “hiding behind the law instead of taking a political position.”

Indeed, were Rajoy to pronounce his political position on Catalan independence, he’d have to confess to his deep-seated attachment to a unified Spain. His brand of Spanish nationalism is eerily close to that of erstwhile dictator Francisco Franco, a diehard centralist for whom the unity and cultural homogeneity of Spain was sacred. “Without doing so formally, Rajoy has decreed a state of exception,” Benet Salellas, a member of the Catalan parliament for the left-wing, assembly-based Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), told us, referencing the concept developed by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in Weimar Germany. In his indignant reaction to the arrests on September 20, Catalan President Puigdemont used the same phrase.

Given the battery of confiscations, prohibitions, and arrests, will the Catalans get to vote at all on self-determination on October 1? “It’s anybody’s guess,” Guillem Martínez, a journalist in Barcelona who writes for the weekly CTXT, told us the day after a million Catalans took to the streets on September 11, Catalonia’s National Day, to defend their right to vote. “Literally no one knows what will happen.”

While the repressive measures taken so far have certainly made a region-wide vote more difficult, the Catalans refuse to give up. In a nationally televised interview aired on September 24, Catalan President Puigdemont vowed to go ahead with the referendum. Meanwhile, the arrests of September 20 have prompted massive, ongoing demonstrations in Barcelona and elsewhere. More remarkable even is the fact that Rajoy’s heavy-handed response has sparked acts of solidarity across the country. Bilbao and San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, have seen protests over the past fortnight in support of the Catalan referendum. The Basque group Gure Esku Dago (“In Our Hands”), which organized the protests in Bilbao, has called for a major demonstration on September 30, the day before the scheduled vote in Catalonia. (Elsewhere, in Zaragoza, radical-right Spanish nationalists took to the streets to demand that the Catalan “traitors” be executed.)

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