“I predict there will be votes, although I don’t know how many, or on which side they’ll fall,” Antonio Maestre, a journalist for the newspaper La Mareaand a frequent television commentator, told us last week. “But what has been announced so far cannot be called a referendum. It simply fails to fulfill the minimum requirements of security and juridical clarity,” he said. While the right-wing media has invoked the “rule of law,” “juridical clarity” has been the keyword for critics of the referendum on the left, who fear that too many corners are being cut.
On September 6, the Catalan Parliament rush-processed a law calling for a referendum, subsequently adopting an additional law, on September 7, allowing for unilateral secession should a majority vote for independence. Both measures passed with a narrow majority and under a cloud of protest from both the right- and left-wing opposition—part of which boycotted the vote altogether, leaving their empty seats covered with Spanish and Catalan flags. If there is a referendum, it should be done right, Antonio Santamaría, the author of a recent book on right-wing politics in Catalonia, has argued: “Like the one that took place in Scotland, it should be the product of a pact between the [Spanish] state and Catalan political parties, with democratic guarantees and a thorough debate over the pros and cons of secession, similar to the conditions stipulated in the Venice Commission or Clarity Act in Canada.” Unlike the recent referendum in Scotland, in the lead-up to Catalonia’s there has not been a “No” campaign.
Supporters of the October vote, however, have pointed to the logical contradiction involved in the idea that a binding referendum on self-determination should be approved by the Spanish state. “Clearly, those who want to become independent cannot depend on the political will of the state from which they want to become independent,” explains Benet Salellas, whose party, the CUP, strongly supports the October 1 vote. “After all, that would grant the state veto power over the exercise of collective rights.” He cites the most often used examples—Quebec in 1995 and Scotland in 2014—as evidence: In both cases, the referendums were originally announced without any prior state agreement. “Our friends on the left” who are critical of the October vote, Salellas says, have to make up their minds: “Do they think a referendum for self-determination can only happen via an agreement with the State, or may the vote be held without permission in the case of the State’s refusal? ”
While four out of five Catalans believe they are entitled to self-determination, they are divided over the wisdom of voting without approval from Madrid. Recent polls indicate that some 41 percent of Catalans currently favor independence, down from almost 48 percent in the summer of last year. (Uncertainty about whether an independent Catalan state would automatically become a member of the European Union has no doubt tempered the enthusiasm for secession.)
Against the long view of history, these numbers are high; the desire for independence long hovered around 30 percent. For more than three decades following Franco’s death, most Catalans seemed to prefer limited autonomy and a carefully negotiated series of fiscal pacts with the Spanish state rather than outright independence. But public opinion began to shift around 2010. That year, Spain’s Constitutional Court categorically rejected a new autonomy statute that the Catalan parliament had adopted four years earlier and that the Spanish Parliament had also approved. Among other things, the new statute defined Catalonia as a nation, while Spain’s current Constitution calls it a mere “nationality.” For many Catalans, the court’s 2010 decision was a slap in the face, confirming Spain’s refusal to fully respect their language, culture, and history.
Raphael Minder, the New York Times correspondent in the Iberian Peninsula, tells the story of this recent shift in his new book, The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain, which will be released on October 1, the day of the referendum. In a balanced and sympathetic account, he concludes that, beyond the political gamesmanship, the growing Catalan desire for independence runs deep among surprisingly diverse segments of the population, including many young people who have never identified with Spain. For Minder, Catalan identity has, in fact, long been marked by solidarity and class struggle against a repressive central state, dating back to the Spanish Civil War and beyond: “It’s striking,” he writes, “that modern Catalan society continues to pivot around cooperative and associative projects, often born out of necessity.” It was this same spirit that revived in the wake of the Great Recession, for example in the Platform for those Affected by the Mortgage Crisis (PAH), the grassroots organization that launched the political career of Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau.
Spain has 17 autonomous communities; with a population of 7.5 million, Catalonia represents some 16 percent of the country’s population and produces one fifth of Spain’s GDP. The 2008 crisis made Catalans more aware than ever of the fact that their region, Spain’s wealthiest, was contributing more than it received from the rest of Spain. The ruling Convergència party, meanwhile, imposed austerity measures even more stringent than those of the national government in Madrid. Artur Mas, who as Catalan president from 2010 to 2015 was responsible for the cutbacks, had never been in favor of secession. But he realized that the growing popular support for independence could be a life raft for his embattled party. In a counterintuitive move, he managed to turn the Republican Left party (ERC) and the CUP into buoys to keep the sinking Catalan conservatives afloat.
“For many political observers,” Minder writes, “Mas is…the politician who took his party from almost neutral to fifth gear on the road towards independence.” After the CUP forced Mas to stand down last year, his successor, Carles Puigdemont, also from Convergència, has continued the same tactic, promising a long series of steps meant to bring Catalonia ever closer to independence in an increasingly tense standoff with the central government. And like Mas, he’s managed to convert Madrid’s intransigence into local political capital.
Spain’s territorial question will not be solved, Minder predicts, until the country and its leadership come to terms with “the plurality of their nation”—something that’s not likely to occur any time soon. And it’s not just a problem for Madrid; Brussels should worry, too. The “Catalan challenge,” he writes, “raises wider questions about the future of the European Union.” After all, a successful Catalan bid for independence may inspire other European regions—not just Scotland or Spain’s Basque Country but Brittany, Flanders, and Lombardy—to give it a shot.
With each day that passes, it appears that more and more Catalans who would have otherwise abstained will now cast a Sí vote to express their frustration with the repressive and humiliating measures Madrid has taken to stymie the referendum. The firm-hand approach “won’t stop the independence movement,” journalist Francesc-Marc Álvaro wrote in La Vanguardia on September 21—to the contrary. “A large majority [of Catalans] have stopped being afraid,” he said. “Rajoy should know that the concept of Spain that he wishes to maintain by dint of prohibitions, suspensions, disbarments, fines, raids, and pressure is damaged goods in Catalonia.”
Meanwhile, in the rest of Spain, the Catalan question is proving a politically difficult nut to crack, particularly for the left. Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) criticizes the central government’s intransigence at the same time that it has not yet challenged its policy on Catalonia. On Friday, the PSOE, in fact, reached a deal with the PP and Ciudadanos, a new right-wing, anti-independence party, to maintain a unified front against the referendum. Podemos, which was founded three years ago on an anti-austerity platform, is struggling to manage deep internal disagreements over the Catalan question. Its Catalan branch has broken with the leadership in Madrid over the party’s official line: support for Catalonia’s right to self-determination, but only through a legally approved, binding referendum.
Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, whose governing coalition includes Podemos, has been performing a political high-wire act over the question of independence since her first day in office. As someone who supports the referendum though not independence, she has said that she intends to cast a ballot but that she sees the referendum more as an as act of civic mobilization than as an official vote. “We’ve entered into a politics of testosterone, where everything is accelerated and people speak of victories and defeats, and whoever loses appears weak,” Colau said in an interview alongside Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena. Colau supports, above all, a dialogue to “update the relationship” between Catalonia and the central government, which many involved have treated, in sexist terms, as a form of surrender.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the polarization has allowed right-wing parties to stabilize their support at a time when the left across Spain has been gaining strength. For the PP, which is governing without a parliamentary majority, the mounting conflict with Catalonia provides a welcome distraction from an unrelenting spate of corruption scandals. In July, Rajoy became the first sitting Spanish prime minister to testify in a criminal trial, this one involving the so-called Gürtel Case, which has implicated a significant number of high-ranking PP members. The October 1 referendum also helps distract from the fact that Spain’s macroeconomic resurgence, touted by the government as a great success, has failed to improve the lives of most Spaniards.
In Catalonia, the pro-independence right, too, has benefited from the region’s push toward independence, also known as the Procés (“Process”). Convergència, rebranding itself as the Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCat), has managed to hold on to power with the begrudging support of ERC and the CUP. Members of both ERC and the CUP, which respectively hold 20 and 10 seats in Catalonia’s 135-seat parliament, have explained their collaboration with the conservatives in terms of expediency: Independence takes priority, and the alliance will dissolve once the new Catalan state is in place.
For Guillem Martínez, who has written a book on the pro-independence movement titled The Great Illusion (the word for “illusion” in Spanish means both “fantasy” and “hope”), the entire Procés amounts to an elaborate, opportunistic sham. It consists, he argues, of a series of improvised, semi-legal constructions that serve to infinitely postpone actual independence while keeping the Catalan right alive long past its expiration date. In fact, he adds, the processistes hope to be saved by the bell: They are betting that, at some point, Madrid will buckle under pressure and open negotiations for a new fiscal pact. But Rajoy, so far, has called their bluff.
According to journalist Antonio Maestre, the result is that Spain is rushing toward the edge of an abyss. The situation, he wrote in La Marea in early September, reminds him of Croatia and Serbia in 1990: “Emotionally and socially something has snapped among an immense majority of the population.” The two trains are racing full speed toward a head-on collision, his colleague Martínez says, yet there are no political incentives for either to slow down or change course. “The Spanish and Catalan right are precisely where they want to be,” he notes. “One is engaged in a non-stop crusade against Catalonia; the other is wallowing in martyrdom.”
Those at the helm of the Procés point to the opportunity independence would create to remake democracy itself. “It’s a question of democracy,” Lluc Salellas, brother of Benet and a councilman for the pro-independence CUP in Girona, says. “The people will be able to vote and decide.” One thing is clear: The Spanish state “offers few guarantees to Catalans.” Many inside and outside the CUP believe an independent Catalan Republic is the only hope for progressive change. “I believe in and defend the self-determination of peoples,” filmmaker Eulàlia Comas posted on social media,
and I want to decide the model of society in which I live.… I believe this process may be one more step toward another type of society: less hierarchical, less authoritarian, more humane, just, and egalitarian.
What happens once the smoke has cleared, on October 2, is anyone’s guess. Lluc Salellas sees four options. “If there’s high turnout and the ‘Yes’ vote wins, independence will be declared and implemented in a short period of time. If there’s low turnout and the ‘Yes’ vote wins, the Procés will advance but at a slower pace. If the ‘No’ vote wins, there will be regional elections. And if the [Spanish] state manages to forcibly suppress the referendum, it’s hard to tell what might occur—but, in any case, it will mean that the state will have definitely lost all legitimacy in Catalonia,” he tells us.
In the most recent regional elections, pro-independence parties fell just short of a majority of the popular vote, although they won a majority of seats in Parliament. According to the journalist Enric Juliana, one effect of the current escalation may well be an electoral surge that, in the next elections, will push pro-independence support over the 50 percent line—a “qualitative jump.” The beginnings of such a jump were visible in the demonstrations on September 20, he explained in his column for La Vanguardia. If the government in Madrid continues to affirm its authority with the goal of “humiliating the Catalan institutions,” he wrote, “the consequences for the Spanish state may be catastrophic.”
A violent confrontation is not likely—at least not yet, Maestre, the journalist and television commentator, says. But even without it, the damage done may well be irreparable. “Until now, the demands by the Catalan government and civil society have been peaceful. But a large part of Catalan civil society has already broken with Spain. Emotionally they have reached a point of no return: An important number of Catalans no longer feel they belong in Spain.”
Martínez predicts a further wave of punitive measures in the wake of October 1. “The Spanish government seems to follow the same repressive model they applied to the Basque Country,” he says. “This means we’ll see more arrests, disbarments, and fines. The state may well outlaw some political parties and even shut down certain media.” “Whatever the Catalan government says,” Martínez wrote on September 23, “there will be no referendum. There will be simulacra, protests—and an unusual level of state violence.”
For Benet Salellas, the CUP MP, one of the biggest misconceptions about the entire independence process is that it has anything to do with nationalism at all. “I’m worried that in Spain, outside of Catalonia, people talk about nationalism…as if it were a debate over identity, over a flag. I think that is a complete misunderstanding. I’m pro-independence but I am not a nationalist.” In fact, he insists, “Catalonia as a society has overcome [the] debate” over nationalism: ”The independence process is, above all, a process for people to improve their standards of living. It originated in the people—although later certain political parties signed on, eager for votes and seats at the institutional table. But I’m convinced that the people of Catalonia rise far above its political class.”
About the Authors:
Sebastiaan Faber is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College.
Bécquer Seguín is an assistant professor of Iberian studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Read the article in its original form on The Nation