Homage to Catalonia

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History will repeat itself unless politicians learn from it

Palau Nacional, Barcelona, Spain

Palau Nacional, Barcelona, Spain.

The first thought that came to my head upon witnessing events in Catalonia during the independence referendum on October 1 was to wonder whether anyone in the Madrid government had ever read a history book. If even one of them had, they might well have avoided what has become a strategic and PR blunder of possibly historic scale, handing Catalan nationalism a huge boost in the process.

The Catalan regional government organized the independence referendum to fulfill a pledge made in the party manifestos of Catalan nationalist parties. The referendum was approved by the Catalonian parliament on September 6. On September 7, Spain’s courts ruled the referendum unconstitutional on the basis that it threatened Spain’s territorial integrity. The Catalan government said that it was going to go ahead anyway, scheduling the vote for October 1, prompting the Madrid government to send in thousands of national police officers, mostly from elsewhere in Spain, to confiscate ballot boxes and try to prevent voters from accessing polling stations. Those police proceeded to act in an appallingly heavy-handed manner, firing rubber bullets, beating protesters and bystanders alike, and generally behaving more like an occupying force than a modern European police service.

800 Catalans were injured in the police assault. The only police officer made to answer for his actions has not been from among these officers, but rather the chief of Catalonia’s regional police, who has been charged with sedition for not doing enough to protect the national police! The same man had been declared a hero a few weeks beforehand for how he had responded to the terrorist attack in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas. We also saw the bizarre sight of Catalan firefighters forming a human chain to try to protect Catalan people from the national police’s thuggery. Days after the referendum Catalans are resentful of the fact that thousands of Spanish Guardia Civil and national police officers remain deployed in the region.

Catalonia is a region which has long had a separate ethno-linguistic identity — Catalan is more akin to the Occitan spoken across the Pyrenees in southern France than it is to Castilian Spanish — but it was ruthlessly suppressed during the Franco years. General Franco’s dictatorship only served, however, to compound the sense of being victimized by Madrid. His death saw Catalan nationalism become resurgent in the manner of a coiled spring having had pressure removed from it. There was never an impulse to resort to violence in the manner of the ETA organization in that other restless Spanish region, the Basque country, and indeed that violence might have served to dampen enthusiasm for regional nationalism in the post-Franco years. Though Catalan nationalism has been a strong feature of the region’s politics, the granting of strong political autonomy to Catalonia seemed to have made the desire for full independence a minority opinion — until now.

The referendum result, though obviously flawed and marked by irregularities, showed a 90% vote in favor of independence on a 42% turnout (2.3 million out of 5.3 million registered Catalan voters) — sufficient for the Catalan leader (President of the Generalitat of Catalonia), Carles Puigdemont, to state that independence would be declared within the following days. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, responded by berating Catalonians for being “duped” by the regional government and by studiously refusing to condemn the violence perpetrated by Spanish police upon Catalonians. King Felipe also appeared on television to condemn the referendum and those who organised it, also without bothering to comment on the levels of violence used in attempting to prevent the vote. Catalans responded with derision.

Spain’s constitutional court ordered that a debate in the Catalan parliament on a motion to declare independence be suspended, which it has been (out of fear that Madrid will suspend the region’s autonomy in favour of direct rule), and it seems that Puigdemont has put a decision on an independence declaration on hold for a while longer, though it could be announced in the following day’s parliamentary session.

The Prime Minister and the King seem not to have understood history’s lesson that the reaction to events can decide whether those events end up being forgotten footnotes or a catalyst for major upheaval. The classic example is the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, when the response of the British to an armed rebellion against British rule by Irish Republicans — a long-drawn-out series of firing squad executions, including that of a man strapped into a chair, already delirious and dying from his wounds — served to turn what could have been a forgotten failure by the rebels into the foundation story of the modern Irish state.

Obviously, the violence employed in that case was of an entirely different order to events in Catalonia during the recent referendum. However, the principle stands: by overreacting to such an extent, the Spanish state has changed the constitutional game and made Catalonian nationalism more appealing to Catalans (as well as engendering sympathy for Catalonian nationalism across the world). What’s worse is that they do not seem to have realized it.

The refusal by the government or Madrid establishment to acknowledge how far they went wrong in responding to the referendum — yesterday, a weak apology was issued by Spanish government representative Enric Millo to Catalans who were injured by police actions — has been compounded by a law they passed making it easier for Spanish companies to move their headquarters away from Catalonia, an opportunity taken up by some large companies within hours of the vote passing. Catalonia is Spain’s richest region, accounting for about 20% of the country’s wealth, so it will be interesting to see how far this exodus goes.

What all of this does, however, is make clear that the Spanish government views Catalonia as a seditious region that needs to be coerced into remaining within the Spanish kingdom. The response has been much more stick than carrot, with the result being a sense of “them against us” forming on both sides. To what extent the Catalan people will be persuaded by this tactic is debatable, but the signs so far point to their response being the opposite of that intended in Madrid.

What happens next? At this point it is hard to say. An independent Catalonia would give a boost to regional nationalist movements elsewhere in Spain (particularly the Basque region), but also in places such as Scotland, northern Italy and even Belgium. For that reason, the European Union and constituent EU member states’ governments have been rather muted in their response to the violence employed by the Spanish state against its own citizens, merely stating that it’s all an internal matter for the Spanish. It is unclear whether an independent Catalonia would have to apply for European Union membership or if it would simply be automatically acknowledged. Other European governments with their own regional secessionist movements might be unwilling to grant such a precedent.

Much depends on the moves made in the next few weeks by leaders on each side. At the moment, it seems that Catalonia’s nationalists have the upper hand. If they declare independence, and Madrid responds with a suspension of autonomy, or even with force, then the constitutional crisis will be very grave (though Catalonia’s ability to enforce its self-declared independence economically and militarily might be insufficient). If, on the other hand, the Spanish government begins to pay heed to history and decides to offer olive branches rather than threats and repression, the wind might yet be taken from the nationalists’ sails. Going on recent evidence, however, the Spanish government seems condemned to repeat the history that they don’t seem to have bothered learning from.

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Thomas Gilmartin

About Thomas Gilmartin

Thomas Gilmartin is a freelance writer with a degree in history, a master's in international relations and law degree from King's College London. He worked for several years at a high-profile anti-corruption tribunal in Dublin.

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