Forming government after the Catalan elections: Who is left? Who is right?

By Dick Nichols

March 19, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The standard political terms “right” and “left” originally grouped supporters and opponents of the French monarchy according to their place in the National Assembly born of the 1789 Revolution: monarchists sat to the right of the speaker, revolutionaries to the left. Since then, the terms have been used to classify parties and elected representatives according to their attitude to the prevailing political order. 

These necessary words must be used with great care when that order is constituted by a multinational state that denies the right of self-determination to its various peoples, as in the case of the Kingdom of Spain. Politics in states like Spain is a minefield because it operates on a double axis: it moves “left and right” along the scale of social and class interests but also “up and down” the scale running from full recognition to total rejection of the right of stateless peoples to choose their relation to the regime ruling over them.

Especially in this political universe, “left”, “right” and their finer shadings are not inert terms from academic social studies, but live ammunition fired in party-political warfare. Shifts along the axis of national rights are usually accompanied by shifts along the social axis, and vice versa, with betrayals on one front often being camouflaged by advances — real or imaginary — on the other. Struggles for social justice can be sabotaged in the name of national rights and struggles for national rights undermined in the name of social justice. Present-day politics in the Spanish state, most critically regarding Catalonia, is an endlessly unsolved Rubik’s Cube of these movements and will remain so until the right to self-determination of its component nations is won.

The ground is even more treacherous because of the main peculiarity of the Catalan case: this oppressed nation within the Spanish state is not a typical result of conquest and colonisation in which labour and resources exploited by an imperialist centre have produced an impoverished periphery (as with Ireland or Latin America’s “open veins”). On the contrary, Catalonia, while partially bled by an unjust fiscal regime, has long been one of the richer parts of the Spanish metropole, with a society, politics and culture resembling those of other nations in Western Europe. 

The Principality of Catalonia’s defeat by Spain’s Borbon monarchy in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) was followed by sadistic campaigns of suppression of Catalonia’s traditional rights, language, culture, and customs. Yet once Catalonia’s merchants were granted access to Atlantic trade routes from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, they grew increasingly wealthy, first from trafficking in slaves and then from early industrialisation centred largely on the textile industry and its exports to the Americas. By the late nineteenth century, a fully-fledged Catalan capitalist class had been consolidated, based on the country’s increasingly broad-based industrial development.

Economic growth in turn spurred immigration within the Spanish state. Particularly after the Francoist victory in the 1936-39 Civil War, hundreds of thousands of landless rural workers, peasants and urban poor left the poverty-stricken South (Andalusia, Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha, and Murcia) to seek a better life working in Catalonia’s factories and workshops. Catalan capital simultaneously hunted for profit opportunities in the rest of the Spanish state, helping form Spain as a capitalist economy while provoking the enmity of its main business rivals in Madrid and the Basque Country (Euskadi). Both these trends were accompanied by the growth of a widespread popular prejudice — often stirred up by these same competitors — against “the Catalans” as rapacious moneygrubbers. Anti-Catalanism — catalanophobia — remains a powerful factor in Spanish politics, a rich vein that defenders of Spanish state unity mine without respite.

This economic reality produced the political reality of a Catalan nationalism with a strong conservative wing, expressed in movements like Francesc Cambó’s Regionalist League in the early twentieth century and Jordi Pujol’s Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) in the post-Franco era. As a result, many left-inclined people in the Spanish state — including many Catalan leftists, from reformists to anarchists — have mistakenly seen Catalan nationalism as simply the ideology of the Catalan rich and an equal but opposite version of its Spanish-patriotic tribal enemy: supremacist and exclusionary if not downright chauvinist and racist. 

In what sense, after all, can well-off Catalan professionals who support their country’s independence from a Spanish state denying them an independence referendum be described as “oppressed” — especially when compared to a Spanish family that has immigrated from the misery of rural Extremadura, lives in Barcelona’s semi-slum outskirts and whose breadwinner must toil for some penny-pinching Catalan boss? When the aspirations of these different layers of Catalan society have been expressed politically, the implicit tension between them has produced serious conflict (see Appendix A).

The scene is further complicated by Catalans’ views of their own politics. The December survey of the official Centre of Opinion Studies (CEO) once again confirmed the case since the rise of the Catalan working-class movement in the late nineteenth century led to waves of struggle that at times shook the established order to its foundations: around 70% of Catalans see themselves as between centre-left and far left, with nearly half (48.3%) describing themselves as simply left. These figures — and others reflecting expressed attitudes on touchstone issues like refugees and Islam — would make Catalonia one of the most progressive regions of Europe.

Sergi Perelló, the secretary-general of the pro-independence union confederation Intersindical-CSC, stressed this reality in a July 24, 2020 interview with web-based daily Nació Digital:

The political centre of gravity of this country, which is pro-sovereignty, is much further to the left than the rest of Europe and the [Spanish] State — even as regards right-wing parties in Catalonia. If we look at the positions of the post-Convergence world [i.e., of forces descended from the formerly ruling conservative CDC], they all try to adopt much more progressive positions than European right-wing forces, which do not disguise their radical conservatism. Being on the right is not very fashionable in Catalonia. It exists, but society here has come a long way from the point of view of rights…

Because of this history, Catalan politics exhibits its own peculiar mutants: right-wingers who call themselves “of the left” and “left-wingers” — including “communists” and “revolutionaries” — who deny a basic democratic right like that of national self-determination. Red-baiting, standard practice for intimidating and isolating political opponents in other countries, is less effective than “blue-baiting” or “black-baiting” — accusations of connections or secret sympathies with the Catalan ruling elites or the far right. Catalan politics also exhibits a marked tendency towards fragmentation  into groupuscules and intra-party tendencies, driven by the range of combinations available from multiplying positions on the left-right scale with those on the scale of national rights. The shelf labelled “Solutions to the Catalan Question” offers the consumer an extensive choice.

Reflection in February 14 election

This reality was again visible in the campaign for the February 14 Catalan election. The ruling Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and its Catalan franchise the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) continued to deny any Catalan right to self-determination (and to support the Spanish monarchy). They waged a successful campaign for the unionist vote by calling for “turning the page on ten wasted years” [of independence struggle] while assuring their still mainly working-class supporters that a vote for them was a 100% guarantee against the right-wing policies of the parties descended from the Franco dictatorship. 

But were the PSOE and PSC to the right or to the left of Together for Catalonia (Junts), the party of exiled ex-president Carles Puigdemont that was launched in August 2020 as a political home for all independentist Catalan republicans? (Junts should not be confused with the 2017 election platform of the same name, also headed by Puigdemont, and abbreviated here as JxCat[1].) 

Junts brought together Catalan independentists from different political backgrounds, mainly but not only from that of the CDC. The Junts membership includes workers, small and medium businesspeople, Catalan nationalists of various stripes and non-nationalist supporters of independence. Some key figures come from a left background, including general secretary and political prisoner Jordi Sànchez, the former president of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC); and exiled former health minister Toni Comín, coordinator of the umbrella Council for the Catalan Republic (see Appendix B for further background on the origins of Junts). 

The choice voters were facing here was not just a tricky exercise in ideological classification. The unambiguous election message of Together We Can (ECP), the socially progressive coalition that is generally called the Commons and whose best-known figure is Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, made that perfectly clear: ECP would never take part in government with the “right-wing” Junts. 

Lead ECP candidate Jessica Albiach described Puigdemont’s party in a February 6 interview with pro-independence web based daily VilaWeb:

With Junts we not only have a different programmatic approach and vision of what the country should be, but we see on its ticket people who directly find certain Catalans to be in excess supply. Declarations of an exclusionary nationalism, branding those of us who come from outside Catalonia to work as “colons”. Expressions that should have no place on election tickets, and definitely not in a force like Junts. It is important to point out that this is not an isolated case, as with Mr Sort, but that we are talking about Joan Canadell, about Donaire [references explained in next section]. 

In contrast, former business minister Àngels Chacón, the lead candidate for the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat, a 2016 rebirthing of the CDC) had this to say of Junts:

Positions are getting clarified, there are clearly left parties — ERC [Republican Left of Catalonia], the CUP [People’s Unity List] — and we have others that are clearly to the right — Citizens, the People’s Party (PP) and others whom it is best not to comment on [a reference to the far-right, xenophobic Vox]. We have another party, Junts, that is so all-embracing that it has had us confused. Right? Left? We could not see what model of country was being proposed. But yesterday [Junts lead candidate] Laura Borràs clarified its position for us — thanks Laura! — by saying Junts was part of a left pro-independence triple alliance.

PDECat president David Bonvehí stressed where his party stood: “This country deserves a political force of the centre, that is pro-independence but not left-wing because not all independentism is left-wing.” However, with only 77,000 of independentism’s total vote, the election left the PDECat outside the parliament that its CDC forbear had dominated for more than two decades. Did Bonvehí conclude that the other 1.38 million pro-independence votes were — apart from the 5000 of the far-right National Front of Catalonia (FNC) — all left-wing?

The result of the election made the argument over the character of Junts even less theoretical because it produced two notionally possible parliamentary majorities for the next Catalan government. The first was a “nationalist” alliance of the pro-independence parties: Junts, the centre-left ERC and the left-independentist alliance CUP-Let’s Win Catalonia (CUP-GC), with 74 seats. The second was a “left” alliance of the PSC, the ERC and ECP, also with 74 seats. If all three parties participated in the government, this coalition would be a re-edition of the tripartite administration that ran Catalonia from 2003 to 2010.

For the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), the guiding force in the United Left (IU) coalition, the choice was a no-brainer: any progressive person would favour a “left” government over a “nationalist” government, especially one including the “right-wing” Junts. IU is one leg of the Unidas Podemos (UP) coalition that functions as junior partner in the PSOE-led Spanish government. ECP is UP’s Catalan partner.

A February 16 PCE declaration stated:

The coming months will be especially important in deciding whether Catalonia continues to be stuck in a permanent reaffirmation of identity offering no perspective of a negotiated way out of the political and social conflict that is tearing Catalan society apart, or whether an advanced version of the governmental agreement underpinning the government of the State can be consolidated by bringing the left together.

In a February 15 media conference, IU spokesperson and PCE member Sira Rego was explicit:

We are dealing with the most left-wing Catalan parliament in history, and this cannot translate into governing with the right ... Catalonia has spoken in a clear way and a government is needed that puts an end to Junts’ journey to nowhere and, above all, opens a new period of social rights, dialogue, and fraternity.

A “left” or a “nationalist” government — the choice seemed clear enough. However, the inattentive follower of post-election declarations might well have missed one curious and vaguely troubling piece of information: according to the February 21 edition of Barcelona’s mainstream daily La Vanguardia, Catalan big business was also demanding that the parliament invest a PSC-ERC-ECP government — the same as the Communists. Had the boardrooms swung left or had the reds swung right?

Three examples of…

For the PCE-IU, the PSOE-UP government of the Spanish state is the model for a left Catalan administration and ECP has an important role to play in mediating between the PSC and ERC to bring it about. Part of that job involves instilling automatic acceptance of the view that Junts really is “the right”; hence the reference by Jessica Albiach to its candidates Sort, Canadell and Donaire as proofs of the ECP case.

There is no doubt that these three figures on the Junts ticket have expressed right-wing positions on issues like immigration and taxation, and hostile attitudes towards “the Spanish”, taken as an undifferentiated whole. Here is a summary of their positions, with their description of how they view themselves politically, mainly drawn from the left-leaning web-based journal Crític, which in the run-up to February 14 ran investigations on the presence of xenophobia and other right-wing attitudes in Junts candidates.

Josep Sort

Josep Sort, originally on the Junts list for Barcelona, is the president of Reagrupament (Regroupment). Regroupment originated as a platform in the ERC opposed to participation in the 2003-2010 tripartite government with PSC and Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV, now part of ECP), demanding that the party give primacy to the independence struggle. After departing the ERC and travelling about the independentist universe (including a stay in alliance with PDECat), the association ended up supporting Junts when it was founded by Puigdemont in mid-2020. During the recent election campaign, Sort produced tweets under the identity @gracchus such as “We’ll clean out the Spaniards, that I promise you”, “Colau is nothing more than a hysterical Spanish whore” and “Nazis and Spaniards out of Catalonia”.

Once these outpourings became known Sort was sacked as a Junts’ candidate and stripped of membership. Stating that he had been acting “as an individual”, Sort then tweeted: “I apologise to the people who have legitimately felt offended by the tweets. I am aware that I have facilitated the dirty war that someone said would take place in these elections. And that is already happening. It is my fault, knowing as I do what our enemies are like. I have always been pro-independence and on the left. So, it is up to me to take responsibility, right away.”

Joan Canadell

Businessperson Joan Canadell won the Junts’ primary to decide the party’s candidate list for Barcelona province, and on February 14 became a Junts MP. He had previously won the presidency of the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, defeating the cosy club of the city’s business elite with a campaign backed by the ANC. 

Canadell’s political line, expressed in the book Catalonia: Own State, Rich State (co-authored with Albert Macià), is that “only with a state of our own will we have the structures that support a model of overall insertion for Catalan businesses into the world economy, and, as a result, economic development that will bring us the level of welfare that we Catalans deserve for our way of working and creating.” His victory in the Junts primaries was due, apart from his media and social network presence, to a simple message that reverberates with a considerable part of the independentist rank and file: if we Catalans get out of the Spanish state, which has been robbing us for decades, we can be the Austria, Holland or Denmark of the Mediterranean.

Canadell opposed inheritance and wealth tax increases agreed between the former JxCat-ERC government and the Commons for the 2020 Catalan budget, tweeting in January that if the decision were his, he would eliminate them as soon as possible. ERC MP and feminist author Jenn Diaz replied: “I promise to work so that this decision doesn’t depend on him.”

Four themes stand out in Canadell’s history of tweeting for an independent Catalonia: Spain (with “the Spaniards”) as thief of Catalan labour and ingenuity; defence of disgraced former CDC premier Jordi Pujol, who in 2014 confessed to tax evasion; comprehension for Trumpism’s desire to “Make America Great Again”; and support for the theories of the revisionist New History Institute (INH), which expounds that figures like Marco Polo, Leonardo da Vinci and Miguel de Cervantes were in reality Catalans whose achievements were appropriated by others, chiefly the Spanish.

The INH’s presentations about systematic Spanish faking and perversion of Catalan history have been quite popular and even provided content for a documentary on the public television channel, TV3. However, historian Agustí Alcoberro, former ANC vice-president and one-time director of the Catalan History Museum, had this to say about the INH in the March 2019 edition of Sapiens, Catalonia’s popular history magazine: 

The INH is a religion: more than readers it has followers […] There is a section of independentism, luckily a small minority, that has converted theses like that of the Catalan conquest of the Americas into a kind of taboo subject, a secret code for sorting out the “authentic” patriots from the rest. Obviously, we — the more than two million citizens of Catalonia who want the republic — don’t share that viewpoint. But there are a certain number of politicians and media personalities prepared to give it a run. Then again, the media that gives most airing and credibility to these theses are unionist, because they constitute a magnificent argument against the independence cause.

After his preselection, the January 2 el diario confronted Canadell with his tweet history. His response was that these outpourings had to be taken in context:

Tweets I did seven or eight years ago as an activist, maybe I wouldn’t do today. It depends. There’s a tweet that talks about colons because it’s a reply to someone who asked me about colonisation in those terms and I followed his thread. I’ve never again used the world ‘colon’ at any time. It has a very negative connotation and is a word that I will not use either as president of the Chamber or as a politician.

Canadell continues to contribute financially to the work of the INH because he believes there are many unanswered questions in official history. He would create “a department for the recovery of historical memory” in the Catalan government, adding that “what I say is that our history should be revised to know which of its theories stand up and which do not, because I’m convinced that some of them do.”

When asked how he would describe himself politically, Canadell said: “I don’t know if I’m on the left or the right, what I do believe is that I stand for common sense and that when I talk about economic progress, I address a mass of people. Extremists don’t attract masses.”

Albert Donaire

Catalan police officer (mosso d’esquadra) Albert Donaire heads the association Mossos for the Republic. Unlike Canadell, he is not defensive about using the term “colon”, employing it in hundreds of tweets. Donaire justified its use in this tweet:

Why do I utilise the term “colon” to define a Spanish nationalist (espanyolista)? If Catalonia is treated as a colony and there are people prepared to colonise it and eliminate the territory’s own culture and costumes to impose their own while denying us ours, such people are colons.

With Donaire, however, the term applies to immigrants who are still speaking Spanish in public after years in Catalonia:

50 years have passed since you came here from the Spains[2]. Adapt. Here, before you came, everyone spoke Catalan. And then you complain when we describe you as colons...”

Donaire’s use of the term colon is indiscriminate, referring not only to the Spanish state and its police forces, or to Spanish-centralist parties like the neoliberal Citizens, but to anyone who continues to publicly speak Spanish while living in Catalonia. It even becomes a term of abuse for the ERC (rebaptised as “Colonised Spanish Regionalists”, also “ERC” in its Spanish initials) because of that party’s strategy of wanting to expand independentism’s base of support (“attract the colons towards them”, in Donaire’s words) before relaunching the conflict with the Spanish state.

Donaire also believes that ERC’s pressure to reconvene the Spain-Catalonia dialogue table means deceiving the people by giving them false hopes. He also calls for the expulsion of immigrants who are proven to be “repeat offenders”. “There are countries like Germany that have applied restrictive measures against immigration, and that act on repeated offences.”

For Donaire, interviewed in the November 11 issue of pro-independence weekly La República, October 1 was a true referendum:

For me, we won independence on October 1 and we showed on October 3 that we were controlling the territory […] I think we must be up to what the people did that October. The laws of disconnection were approved. Why weren’t they applied? Why did we stop? That is the road to follow. And it is what the people want.

As for the left-right distinction, Donaire says: “I consider that nowadays the right-left concept is an old-fashioned term.”

Opponents of Junts and its strategy in the Spanish congress of effectively refusing support to any measure of the PSOE-UP government (such as its 2021 budget) have had a field day with the positions expressed by Sort, Canadell and Donaire. When Canadell’s win in the Junts’ candidate primaries became known, former Catalan TV presenter and author Jaume Barbarà remarked in his column in the La Vanguardia:

Seeing the results of the Junts primaries, I reckon that [political prisoners and former ministers Josep] Rull, [Jordi] Turull and [Joaquim] Forn must have arrived at the conclusion that the day they decided to leave PDECat to swell Puigdemont’s ranks was not a good day.

Junts, right-wing, or what?

Given such positions, it might seem that tagging Junts as “right-wing” is justified, and that ECP might have principled reasons for wanting to erect a cordon sanitaire around Puigdemont’s party. However, before ostracising Junts, we need to ask questions about what the presence of such elements in a catch-all party really means about its support base and real political practice. What is the evidence?

  1. Does the average Junts’ voter have the same outlook as these three figures? 

In the February 22, 2020 issue of VilaWeb, Catalonia-based data analyst Joe Brew reviewed Catalan attitudes on immigration, other races, and cultures, and towards other peoples in the Spanish state, as captured by various surveys of the official Centre of Opinion Studies (CEO). This evidence revealed the following about the Catalans who had voted for Together for Catalonia (JxCat), Junts’ predecessor, in the April 2019 Spanish general election:

  • 48.1% wanted to see more spent on programs for immigrants (second behind Commons’ voters).
  • 84% agreed with the statement “I like to learn from other cultures” (second behind ERC voters).
  • 86% agreed with the statement “No culture is particularly superior to any other” (third behind Commons and ERC voters).
  • Only 21.4% agreed with the statement “Migrants should abandon the culture of their country of origin and adopt the culture of their country of adoption” (third lowest score, just above ERC and the Commons’ voters).
  • 32.9% agreed with the statement “With so much immigration you just don’t feel at home anymore” (fourth lowest score, just above the PSC, Commons and ERC voters); and
  • Only 16.1% wanted to “put strict limits on the number of foreigners that can come here” or “ban their arrival completely” (third lowest score, just above the Commons and ERC voters).

Not only was there no qualitative difference between the data for JxCat voters and voters for the parties that describe themselves as most to the left (ERC, the Commons[3]), JxCat voters consistently showed a more progressive response to these issues than voters for the self-styled left PSC. The most backwards voters supported the PP and Citizens and the most progressive, in order, the ERC, the Commons and JxCat, with the average PSC voter in the middle. 

When the average attitude of pro-independence Catalans to people from Spain’s other 16 autonomous communities[4] was compared to their average attitude to all Catalans, pro-independence Catalans found people from other regions more sympathetic than these found all Catalans, with one exception, that of Madrid. On a sympathy scale of 0 (“not at all sympathetic”) to 10 (“totally sympathetic”), people from the rest of Spain scored an average of 6.48 with pro-independence Catalans, while all Catalans scored an average of 5.63 with people from the rest of the state. Brew’s conclusion:

Those who maintain the narrative of Catalan hatred and supremacism towards the rest of the Spanish state would do well to try to understand the difference between anecdote and facts. Given the data on the question, the fact of insisting, as the main political parties [in the Spanish state] do, that Catalans and independence supporters profess antipathy towards Spaniards suggests either that they are talking in ignorance of the data or intentionally lying.

The relevant data, then, confirms Sergi Perelló’s observation about the left centre of gravity of Catalan politics and locates the average Junts’ voter within this mainstream.

  1. Were the positions reflected in Junts adopted program or its proposals for the February 14 election?

The exclusionist attitudes expressed by Sort and Donaire are in no way reflected in the document adopted at the founding congress of Junts: in fact, they were explicitly condemned in its introduction:

We also eschew the new populisms that have appeared with the political, economic, and social crisis and which have become entrenched in many countries, threatening the future of democracy, and putting social cohesion at risk through the exaltation of hatred, the denial of diversity or the permanent resort to scare-mongering, blaming all problems on that which is different or which expresses itself differently (whether individuals, cultures, religions, or social collectives). 

As for relations with those within Catalonia opposed to independence:

Against those who affirm that the independence project divides the country and endangers its civil unity, we affirm that the Republic reunifies us as a people, independent of everyone’s ideology or national preferences, all of them equally legitimate. We are conscious that one of the main reasons we have reached this point is the inability of Spain to understand its own plurality and we shall not make the same mistake: we shall have to guarantee that people not directly committed to the Republic feel included and that this union among Catalans that despite all difficulties has lasted through time is maintained (Bloc 2. Towards the Catalan Republic)

There is not a shred of racism or xenophobia in Junts’ documents and proposals. Where the tag “right-wing” most applies — and where Junts shows most continuity with the CDC — is to its economic proposals: supportive of private enterprise as the motor force of economic growth and open to public-private partnerships in education, health, and pensions. However, there is a contradiction between this commitment to its conception of a “social market economy” and its declared goals and proposals in the areas of democratic rights, feminism, environment and inequality and poverty reduction, formalised in its commitment to the United Nations’ 2030 goals (just like the “left” PSOE-UP administration in the Spanish state).

Together for Catalonia stands for the defence of individual initiative as driver of prosperity in the framework of the market economy specific to an open society: at the same time, to guarantee a radical reduction in social inequalities and the elimination of poverty, we give maximum commitment to the role of the public institutions in reinforcing and making more efficient the four pillars of the welfare state (health, education, pensions, and services).

Junts’ program for February 14 proposed 50 priority measures for the incoming Catalan government (Generalitat), including proposals to:

  • Restructure the Catalan government to give priority to action on the climate emergency, women’s rights, the elderly, and the rural world.
  • Progressively increase education spending to 6% of GDP with a view to making education free and universal from pre-school (0 to 3 years) up to university level.
  • Guarantee that all migrants and refugees are included on the municipal register, essential for their integration and the exercise of their basic rights and apply in full the progressive Catalan law on the reception of migrants and refugees.
  • Ban Catalan government contracts being offered to Spanish big capital as represented by the Ibex 35 stock market index of the largest Spanish firms: and
  • Create a National Bank of Catalonia.

Noteworthy for its absence is any mention of the need for an independent Catalonia to have its own armed forces and any reference to an independent Catalonia remaining in NATO. The most the program proposes is the development of a national security agency to meet the country’s obligations in the international struggle against pandemics and terrorism.

Regarding the European Union, Junts’ “Europeanist” proposals border on the subversive. The tenth in the party’s list of “principles and convictions” reads: “In favour of a Europe of rights, of persons, and of peoples. Against the Europe of technocrats and elites.” Specific proposals for the February 14 election included: promotion of a Canadian-style Clarity Law to formalise the conditions for creating a new state within the EU; an “authentic federalisation” of Europe to be created by a directly elected European Commission that relates to regions and stateless nations as well as to member states; and increased legislative power for the European Parliament by revising the Treaty of Lisbon.

Junts’ contradictions

The details of Junts’ policy have been moulded by three interacting forces: defending and extending the struggle for independence from a Spanish state that is backed by the present ruling elites in the European Union; meeting the progressive needs and aspirations of the Catalan social majority; and developing an efficient, modern economy—seen as necessarily capitalist. 

Positions supportive of innovative and patriotic Catalan business are hegemonic in Junts, from Puigdemont down. This outlook is represented by spokesperson and economist Elsa Artadi, former business minister Ramón Tremosa, and Aleix Sarri, former adviser to Tremosa in the European Parliament and coordinator of the Catalan government’s international policy. Canadell operates as a semi-maverick within the same camp.

The three imperatives moulding Junts must come into conflict at some point in time, with tension already being felt in tax policy — how can Catalonia become a “Denmark of the South” without Scandinavian levels of tax on income and wealth? For example, after last year’s negotiations between the JxCat-ERC coalition government and the Commons, the 2020 budget introduced a new tax bracket of between €90,000 and €120,000 annual income and increased the tax rate applying to it from 21.5% to 23.5%. It also increased the rate on the €120,000 to €175,000 bracket to 24.5% as well as lifting the inheritance tax rate on persons already holding assets of €500,000 and above.

These modest measures produced a lot of protest from the wealthy, anger that got channelled into parliament by some JxCat MPs before they dutifully “swallowed the toad” so that Catalonia could finally have a budget after three years, a period that began with the Spanish government’s 2017 suspension of its self-rule. Canadell said in January that if it were up to him, he would abolish the inheritance tax entirely, at which point PDECat, sniffing a chance to drive a wedge into Junts, made elimination of the tax its central election proposal. Junts got out of the dilemma — with Canadell backing down — by reaffirming its support for the 2020 budget on the grounds that its tax hikes were made necessary by Catalonia’s discriminatory fiscal treatment at the hands of the Spanish government. They could go with independence. Canadell later tweeted that he could not accept the economic recovery program being proposed by ERC for the incoming government, but that tweet disappeared almost immediately.

One of the key figures in forging Junts’ economic policy is outgoing business minister Ramón Tremosa, formerly an independent Member of the European Parliament who was first elected in 2009 on the ticket of Convergence and Union (CiU), the conservative governing alliance of CDC and the defunct Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC). An economics lecturer at the University of Barcelona, Tremosa’s published work focuses on how Catalonia, given its position on the Mediterranean and its level of technical development, could be the “logistics hub” of southern Europe — were it not for the sabotage of the Spanish state. This is best exemplified by the unending row between Spanish and Catalan governments over the incompletion of the “Mediterranean corridor” of high-speed road and rail links between southern France and Morocco. The parts of the Junts election platform that propose making Catalonia even more attractive as a regional base for multinationals would clearly have Tremosa’s support.

In a pre-election article in Crític, journalist Manel Riu reported on his search through Tremosa’s writings, blogs and tweets, done with a view to turning the spotlight on his most right-wing positions. Riu uncovered the standard orientation of a neoclassical economist with a Friedmanite bent: against public education supposedly dominated by teaching unions; against public childcare centres; against public subsidies to private operations like Barcelona’s bicycle system Bicing; in favour of the PP’s 2012 labour market “reforms”; in favour of privatising forest and woodlands to reduce the fire hazard; in favour of the Troika’s “rescues” of Greece; and, in 2011, against increasing public expenditure to combat the European economic crisis, and in favour of reducing public sector wages in the EU’s Mediterranean countries.

In addition, Riu alleged that Tremosa had expressed sympathy for the far-right Belgian Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest), on the basis of an article in the January 30, 2007 issue of El Temps in which Tremosa pointed out that the Belgian Socialist Party had held off the Vlaams Belang in an Antwerp local election by giving 115,000 migrants the right to vote. Tremosa denied that noting this fact in any way meant he supported the Vlaams Belang.

In 2017, Tremosa, member of the European Parliament’s economy, commerce, and transport commissions, became the coordinator of the Liberal group’s economic commission before finishing his second term as an MEP in 2019. Why, with such an impeccably mainstream profile and curriculum vitae, was Tremosa in Puigdemont’s camp of intransigent independentism? He explained the reason in a December 2, 2019 interview with El Temps:

[I have been an independentist] since July 15, 2005, when I accompanied [PSC finance minister] Antoni Castells to Barcelona’s Havana Hotel for a meeting with professors of public finance from all of Spain. Castells had to explain the new Statute [of Catalan Autonomy] and the benefits of adjusting the autonomous communities’ finance system. The professors, friends of his, showed such a degree of hostility towards the Catalan position of the time, very reasonable and objective, that I was left in a state of shock. If these were the professors, imagine the people who had no knowledge of the issue. There is nothing to be done, I thought.

Junts and the Catalan far right

For opponents of Junts, its alleged softness towards the far right was confirmed by an incident in December, when JxCat deputy president Josep Costa took part in a meeting of pro-independence groups called by the platform Donec Perficiam (Latin for “Until We Succeed” and motto of Austrian Archduke Charles the Third’s Catalan Royal Guard in the War of the Spanish Succession). The platform consisted of seven ex-secretaries of the ANC who had left it because their proposal that it endorse only unilateralist candidates for the February 14 election had been rejected. The platform aimed to create a united ticket advocating the relaunch of a unilateral strategy for reaching independence, starting with “reviving” the October 27, 2017 Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI). 

According to the December 7, 2020 edition of Crític, the platform had invited eight organisations, among whom were the Catalan ethnicist groupuscules the FNC and Força Catalunya (Go Catalonia), as well as Junts’ affiliates Democrats of Catalonia and Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI). When the news became public, ERC parliamentary caucus leader Sergi Sabrià demanded Costa’s resignation as deputy-speaker of the parliament for meeting with the Catalan far right.

Costa replied said that he had attended in a personal capacity and was unaware that xenophobic forces would be present at the gathering (the organisers had not volunteered this information to the individual invitees): had he known he would not have gone. Junts’ spokesperson Elsa Artadi also denied that Costa was acting as its representative. However, Santiago Espot, champion of Catalan national sporting teams and leader of Go Catalonia, which asserts that the Catalan government’s ”multiculturalism” dilutes the country’s language and culture, said that Costa showed no signs of discomfort when he saw who else was at the meeting. 

On February 26, the Catalan daily Ara interviewed Joan Coscubiela, former spokesperson for Catalonia, Of Course We Can (CSQEP), the name of the parliamentary fraction of the Commons in the 2015-2017 legislature. On September 6 and 7, 2017, Coscubiela had vehemently opposed the laws enabling the October 1 referendum on the spurious grounds that they violated the rights of Catalans opposed to independence. Coscubiela, who had won a standing ovation from Citizens, the PP and the PSC for his stand, told Ara:

To the degree that independentism is at a dead end, increasingly xenophobic and supremacist attitudes emerge. We’ve seen it with some parts of Junts. The difference [with Vox] is that the Catalan far right is inside Junts and other parties, while the Spanish far right has emerged from the maternal womb of the PP. Let’s not rule out that possibly happening in Catalonia if matters end in more frustration. The National Front of Catalonia has already emerged. More than making comparisons, I call for this risk not to be underestimated.

Coscubiela was wise to avoid making comparisons: it would only have drawn attention to the fact that “the difference” between the Spanish-chauvinist far right and its Catalan counterpart is not a matter of party-building tactics, but one of their level of social support. At this election it was exponential: 218,000 votes (7.6%) and 11 seats for Vox and 5000 votes (0.18%) and 0 seats for the FNC.  

Coscubiela talked of the far right within Junts (and other unnamed Catalan organisations) but avoided being specific. Of the seven currents affiliated to Junts for the February 14 election, which could he have mentioned? The Movement of the Left (MES), former PSC members opposed to its jettisoning the Catalan right to self-determination? Left Independentists (IEsq), members of former left-independentist organisations who promote the creation of a unified Catalan national bloc? The Greens-Green Alternative (EL-VA), the small Catalanist ecological current? Action for the Republic (AxR), advocates of a broad republican front supporting “a republic open to the world and in solidarity with the challenges facing humanity”?

Moving rightwards, what about Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI), unilateralists who emphasise Catalonia’s fiscal deficit and opponents of the privileges of the political elite? Or Democrats of Catalonia, the pro-independence split from the defunct UDC that insists on “implementing the mandate of October” and whose spokesperson Titon Laïlla describes herself as “leftist”? Or Regroupment, committed to “leaving ideologies of left and right aside to achieve freedom”?

In the election for the Junts National Executive in August 2020, the far right was non-existent: of 26 members, 16 are followers of Puigdemont with a CDC and/or PDECat background, four are independents from the National Call for the Republic (the non-party all-republican platform that was a precursor to Junts), two come from an ICV background, two from ERC, one from the PSC and one from Action for the Republic.

And how well did identity-based Catalanism — in all its variants, from that which mistakenly talks about “the Spaniards” when it means the Spanish state to those who harbour real hispanophobic sentiments — do in the Junts primaries for February 14? Tremosa, whose rightist positions are concentrated in economic policy, won lead position for Lleida province and Canadell number two position for Barcelona. In general, candidates with a profile as activists did better than those with a background as political professionals. This had already been seen in the Junts’ primaries for lead candidate, in which Catalan cultural activist and organiser Laura Borràs — who describes herself as “a social democrat” and “more to the left than some people in ERC” — easily defeated infrastructure minister Damià Calvet, a win for a militant independentist woman newcomer over a “post-Convergent” suit-wearing male administrator.

However, once the final lists, as adjusted by the Junts national executive for gender, regional and ideological balance, had been adopted by membership vote, the result for the most xenophobic elements was very poor. Donaire was listed an unelectable 39th in Barcelona province, Sort (65th) was expelled, while Mark Serra, a “more-patriotic-than-thou” “influencer” previously exposed by the left independentist website Directa as a manager of illegal tourist flats, was placed last…and promptly resigned at his downgrading.

Is there, then, any truth to the story of the growth of far-right influences within Junts? When Junts was launched as a party of all supporters of the Catalan Republic identifying with October 1 as a genuine referendum, all sorts of Catalan nationalist currents and individuals joined, each inevitably with different views of what “being Catalan” is, but united by three very strong sentiments: the first, that “we’ve voted, now it’s time to implement the independence we voted for”; the second, that while negotiation with the Spanish PSOE-UP government can’t be ruled out, nothing should be expected from it; and the third, support for Puigdemont as undisputed leader of the independence fight.

Within such a milieu, the exclusionary and xenophobic elements that are present in all national cultures sought to gain influence by presenting themselves as the bravest and most committed fighters in the crusade to complete the job of October. This sentiment is obviously much broader than the far right and is no proof of far-right positions: it is shared by thousands, gets strongest expression through the ANC, is present among the most activist layers, and as a current of opinion has even acquired a name— “Octoberism”. 

Inevitably, in such a culture medium, the most exclusionary trends in Catalanism have their best chances of growth and candidates expressing such views can get support. One example is the support won by Donaire as leader of Mossos for the Republic in Democrats’ primaries for the February 14 poll. Another — perhaps — was the election to third place in Junts’ Girona province ticket of activist Salvador Vergés, who is not clear when he speaks of “them” whether he’s referring to the Spanish state or people of Spanish origin and who, while supporting the independence movement’s strategy of mass peaceful civic disobedience, isn’t reluctant to appear in military guise.

Junts and ERC — a right-left division?

A common characteristic of the most militant currents within the camp of independentism is their impatience with — even intolerance of — the argument put by the ERC that the October 1 referendum result and the October 27 UDI did not provide sufficient basis on which to re-ignite the battle for independence with the Spanish state. This is the basic dividing line between Junts and the ERC, compared to which their differences on social and environmental policy are less important. The ERC points out that only 43% of the electoral roll participated on October 1 and that the highest abstention rate was in the areas where the No vote was also highest: in the mainly Spanish-speaking working-class “belts” surrounding Barcelona and industrial Tarragona.

In their book We Will Win Again—and How We Will Do It, jailed ERC president Oriol Junqueras and exiled national secretary Marta Rovira write:

[W]e failed to make Catalans opposed to independence feel that the referendum was theirs. The vast majority followed the unionist media-political universe’s call not to take part. With a participation rate below 50% it was very hard to obtain the consent of the losing side. That opened a serious problem of legitimacy for us inside Catalonia, but also outside. Our diplomatic teams found themselves facing an insurmountable wall: the foreign affairs ministries roundly condemned the police behaviour but did not recognise any popular political mandate. Or, at least, they had the perfect excuse not to do so.

Clearly, the more identity-based a tendency’s Catalan nationalism is, the less conviction this argument holds: “we” all had a chance to vote on October 1, if “they” did not vote it was their choice. It cannot affect the result, especially as other referenda (such as that in 2005 on the European constitution) have had a similarly low participation rate. This argument is spelled out in the umbrella Council for the Republic’s draft document Let’s Get Ready and gets repeated by many Junts members, supporters, and voters: they understandably want to embrace the October 1 “day that will live for years” as the heroic founding moment of an independent Catalonia, the first time in over three centuries the Spanish state has been dealt a defeat at the hands of the Catalan people.

Within Junts this argument — and the corollary that it is time to revive the UDI — was put with varying degrees of vehemence and conviction in the February 14 election campaign. The main Junts’ proposal was to revive the UDI if the pro-independence vote exceeded 50%. It did but lost relevance because Junts was replaced as lead party in the independence camp by the ERC, mainly because of its gains in working-class neighbourhoods. This was despite the Junts’ scare campaign about ERC preparing an alliance with the PSC, neutralised when all pro-independence candidates signed a public commitment not to form a government alliance with Illa’s party.

Given the unyielding Spanish state offensive against the Catalan movement and the pressing need to form a united pro-independence government after February 14, this strategic difference will have to be addressed and contained through compromise. In that context, the likelihood of gains for any far-right current within Junts — even if one exists as such — is, in the immediate term, microscopic.

The difficulty of pigeon-holing JxCat-Junts was brought home by the minor melodrama produced by the attempts of Puigdemont and former ministers Toni Comín and (after Brexit) Clara Ponsatí to find a home in one of the European Parliament’s seven political groups after their election as Members of European Parliament (MEP) in 2019. If Junts were simply a continuation of the CDC and PDECat they would have joined the Liberal group (renamed Renew Europe). But, how could they? Although he had convened its economics commission, Tremosa had said he was already uncomfortable in the Liberal group because it was also home to Citizens, similarly neoliberal but arch enemy of Catalan independentism.

The group with which the three MEPs felt most identified was that of The Greens—European Free Alliance (EFA, the sub-group of MEPs representing nations without a state). However, their application to join the group provoked resistance within the Greens. According to Günther Dauwen, former EFA director, writing in the February 12, 2020 edition of VilaWeb:

The German Greens, who consider that three exiled MPs will be a headache and a threat to their “political credibility”, say: “Their values do not fit in with ours.” Because of their aspiration to become part of the German government, the Greens do not want Puigdemont, Comín and Ponsatí to join the group. They do not want to tread on the toes of European allies like Spain and France.

Given the division their application was causing within the Greens-EFA, the three MEPs eventually withdrew it, stating that “the last thing we would want is to enter the group after a process that could have caused serious discrepancies among some of its members and that our acceptance should be an element of discord in a political space to which we feel very close and to which we feel linked.”

Despite this withdrawal, the Greens-EFA group discussed the issue and felt obliged to offer a public explanation of the difficulties involved in accepting the three. Co-convener Philippe Lamberts (Ecolo, Belgium) had previously cited Puigdemont’s closeness to the conservative Flemish nationalist New Flemish Alliance (NVA) as the obstacle, while co-convener Ska Keller (German Greens) said. “We have always defended a strategy of dialogue and our impression is that their strategy is different from that of calling only for dialogue.” Commons MEP Ernest Urtasun, when asked by VilaWeb if he had intervened in the Greens-EFA discussion in favour of Puigdemont and Comín entering the group, said he had not spoken in the group’s discussions: “It’s a decision I’ve left in the hands of the co-conveners, so it doesn’t become an issue in Catalan political brawling.”

Ponsatí, Comín and Puigdemont presently sit in the European parliament as “unassigned”. Given the contradictory dynamics within Junts, it would be best for anyone trying to reach an objective classification of a party forged above all in the struggle against the antidemocratic Spanish state to do the same, keeping the party in the category “Still to Be Determined”.

The decade-long mass movement for Catalan sovereignty and independence has had a profound and complex impact on Spanish state politics, but its basic tendency can be readily summarised: it has driven the parties of the Catalan right to the left (accompanied by desertions to its right) and it has driven the parties tied to the all-Spanish left to the right (accompanied desertions to its left).

Conclusion: with the besiegers or the besieged?

From all the above it should be clear that the ECP’s veto of Catalonia’s umbrella party of republican independentism is not based on any rigorous theoretical placement. The ECP insistence on Junts’ right-wing nature was and is a smokescreen for its actual agenda — to deflate the movement for Catalan self-determination to the point that a Catalan version of the PSOE-UP alliance governing Spain becomes possible. Of course, in this program the “territorial question” is not abandoned but downgraded from a mass struggle for a democratic right to an issue for horse-trading at a Spain-Catalonia dialogue table and subordinated — hopefully — to Spain-wide economic, social, and environmental advance. The real problem with Junts, then, is not the allegedly reactionary nature of its social policies or some of its members but its intransigent commitment to Catalan sovereignty and independence.

As is the norm in Spanish left politics, the anti-Junts position is put most bluntly by the Communist Party of Spain (PCE): the millions-strong movement for Catalan self-determination and emancipation from the Spanish state at some point in time morphed into “Junts’ journey to nowhere” (words of IU spokesperson Sira Rego) that is “tearing Catalan society apart” (PCE statement). The metamorphosis has a date: it took place on the day the PSOE-UP government arrived in Madrid. Of course, ECP leaders, being Catalans, do not express their position with this crassness, typical of allergic unionist reaction to the Catalan struggle. For example, Jaume Asens, ECP leader in the Spanish congress who has been fighting to extract a promise of pardon for the Catalan prisoners from the PSOE attorney-general Juan Carlos Campo (so far in vain), has lately acknowledged that “Junts isn´t CiU”. Nonetheless, the ECP veto remains in place. 

In ECP dreaming, a “left” government in Catalonia would not necessarily take the form of PSC participation in government (as during the 2003-2010 tripartite administration) but an ERC-ECP government supported from without by the PSC. The odds on such a government materialising were always zero, having been rejected by both ERC and PSC. That is because both understand something that the ECP is reluctant to acknowledge — the primary, all-conditioning, conflict in Catalonia (and Spain) is the Catalan struggle for national emancipation. On the one side stands the PSOE-PSC, presently the Spanish establishment’s main instrument in this war of attrition and, on the other, the multi-class, socially variegated movement for a Catalan right to decide. In this war the PSOE-PSC’s heaviest weaponry is Spain’s €140 billion of Next Generation EU funds, which will be applied to demonstrate the beneficence of the Spanish state and to stress the Catalan sovereignty movement and government at their weakest points. At the same time, the PSOE is happy to make use of the light arms supplied by the ECP: on February 17, prime minister Pedro Sánchez was telling the Spanish congress that Junts is an equivalent in xenophobia to Vox, citing Donaire’s utterances as proof.

There can be no mistaking the PSOE-PSC position: leaders of both parties have repeatedly stated that a Catalan right to self-determination does not exist and that, while there must be “dialogue” between the Spanish and Catalan governments, neither a Scottish-style referendum nor an amnesty for the Catalan political prisoners and exiles is possible. Moreover, the PSC’s campaign for the February 14 election, targeted at hunting down unionist voters who had previously supported Citizens, repeated ad nauseam the slogan that “it’s time to turn the page on a wasted decade”. That catchcry was not just aimed at winning votes: it expressed the PSOE-PSC’s support for the Spanish state siege of Catalan independentism, in particular its acquiescence in the “lawfare” run by the PP-dominated upper echelons of the Spanish judicial establishment. 

Lawfare’s casualties not only include the Catalan political prisoners, exiles and parliamentarians who have been hit with massive fines. To these must be added the 3000-plus individuals facing court proceedings and the Catalan Parliament and government: 34 of their pieces of legislation have been struck down or suspended awaiting decision by the Spanish Constitutional Court. They include progressive laws on popular consultations, fracking, consumer protection, energy poverty, rent control, evictions and climate change, and progressive taxes on banks, nuclear energy, internet operators and real estate companies keeping housing empty. 

On the night of February 14, PSC lead candidate Salvador Illa said: “Change is unstoppable. It’s time to write a new page, time to change and rediscover ourselves. Time to listen to each other again, to look at each other again, to meet each other again. Catalonia is back.” However, the reality beneath this rhetoric of reconciliation was revealed just three weeks later, in the votes of the PSOE MEPs on the request of the Spanish Supreme Court to lift the parliamentary immunity of Puigdemont, Comín and Posatí. The champions of reconciliation, along with the PP, Citizens and Vox, approved suspension, a move to make it easier for the vindictive Supreme Court to get its claws on elected representatives they call “fugitives from justice”.

The Commons, in the name of bringing about a “government of the left” with the PSOE-PSC, have been diluting their verbal commitment to Catalonia’s right to self-determination ever since mid-2019, when Colau chose to govern Barcelona in alliance with the PSC, relying for her majority on the vote of former French prime minister and crusading Spanish unionist Manuel Valls. 

In the 2016 Spanish general elections, the then-leader of the Commons, Xavier Domènech, had promised that “if Podemos enters the Spanish government [with the PSOE], there’ll be a referendum”, adding that it would take the form of a “yes” or “no” to independence. However, by the November 10, 2019 Spanish general election, the proposal was that the referendum be on a negotiated “federal” restructuring of the Spanish state.

Interviewed in December 30 edition of La Vanguardia, Jéssica Albiach explained the Commons’ present position:

We defend the right to decide and call for a dialogue table, because we had in the government a force, JxCat, that didn’t believe in the dialogue table and regarded it as dead and buried. Our commitment is to negotiations from which an agreement emerges that Catalans vote on. We can’t wait, arms folded, as the problem becomes chronic while we’re waiting for a referendum.

Question: So now you don’t want a referendum?

We do, but the correlation of forces is what it is, and the referendum isn’t urgent: we need to make progress with self-government, lock in the Catalan language, reform financing. Catalonia must get out of the isolation of recent times and establish ties with other peoples in the State.

Question: And amnesty?

As is the case with the referendum, the correlation of forces doesn’t allow it to be progressed. 

With this shift, ECP, following UP, has for all intents and purposes abandoned the right to self-determination: its catchcry “Yes, We Can!” has become “No, We Can’t!” and any consultation of Catalan opinion it proposes will take the form of “yes” or “no” to a still-to-be-born text on amending Spanish state structures.

On February 18, the ERC moved a motion in the Spanish congress calling on the Sánchez government to negotiate an independence referendum with Catalonia. The ECP justified its abstention in this vote by saying a negotiated referendum was a matter for the Spain-Catalonia dialogue table. The Commons had previously abstained on a resolution before the Catalan parliament calling for amnesty for the political prisoners. 

The Commons justify their policy on the grounds of “overcoming the dynamic of blocs” and “tearing down the barriers that separate us”, ambitions that any progressive person would agree with, provided the destruction of the barriers — whose size is always exaggerated by the Commons — is not bought at the price of sacrificing the right to self-determination and weakening the real movement with a chance of winning it.

The only left policy available for a party that sincerely supports Catalonia’s right to self-determination is to strengthen the left pole within the pro-sovereignty and pro-independence camp, while patiently explaining to working people opposed to Catalan independence why it is still in their interest to support the right to self-determination. That would mean, in the case of the Commons, dropping their policy of “equidistance”, which in real-world politics has converted ECP into unionism’s left flank. 

A policy of unconditional and resolute support for a referendum and amnesty is not just a statement of principle: it also opens up strategic and tactical options. On such a basis, for example, the Commons could have proposed a minority left pro-sovereignty government of ERC, CUP-GC and itself, and pressured Junts to join it or support it from without. What would Junts have then done? Its votes would have been necessary to invest such a government, but would Junts have wanted to allow the creation of an ERC-ECP-CUP-GC administration, knowing it would introduce left social and economic policies? The tension within Junts between its left and progressive trends and its right would have sharpened greatly.

Such a possibility, however, vanished when the genuine (but divided) pro-sovereignty forces within the Commons were progressively marginalised following the October 1 referendum. The politics of what remains of the original Commons — an alliance of ICV and Colau’s Barcelona Together (BeC) — is grounded in the view that the PSOE-PSC is “of the left” and Junts “of the right”, a line that helps both the besieging forces of the Spanish state and the right within the independentist camp.

Only a policy of unyielding support for the Catalan right to self-determination weakens the Spanish powers-that-be and strengthens the position of all working people and oppressed nationalities. Only from such a position can the left gain the authority and popular support needed to oppose the policies of right-wing layers within the camp of independentism. And only such a policy can truly be called left — both nationally and socially. 

Dick Nichols is European correspondent for Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. 


[1] Since its founding as a party Junts per Catalunya has adopted the abbreviation Junts, in contrast with the abbreviation JxCat, regarded as referring to the 2017 platform, which also included the Catalan European Democratic Party (PDECat). However, media in Catalonia and the Spanish state continue to use both abbreviations to refer to Puigdemont’s party. This article uses the abbreviation Junts to refer to Puigdemont’s party and JxCat to refer to the 2017 coalition. See Appendix A for background.

[2] Les Espanyes (Catalan). Las Españas (Spanish). The term derives from the structure of the Castilian empire after the 1492 expulsion of the Moors from Al-Andalus and the subsequent “discovery” of the Americas. The “Spains” included the other kingdoms and principalities of the Iberian Peninsula, whether conquered by the Castilian crown or with whom it had made treaties, and the Castilian crown’s Latin American conquests, which were ruled by viceroys.

[3] There are no data entries for CUP voters, because the interviewee’s choice of party in the April 2019 Spanish general election is used to classify opinion according to vote, and the CUP first stood for the Spanish Congress of Deputies in the November 2019 general election.

[4] States in Australia and the US, provinces in South Africa and Canada.

Appendix A. The all-Spanish left and Catalan nationalism

In the 1920s and 1930s in Catalonia the relation between the class struggle and that for national rights was reflected in antagonistic and even violent relations between the two main currents embodying these forces: on the one hand, the anti-nationalist anarcho-syndicalism of the National Confederation of Labour (CNT) and its political wing, the Iberian Anarchist Federation (FAI); on the other, the ERC, which ruled Catalonia from 1931 until the 1939 victory of the Francoists in the Civil War.

After the negotiated end of the Franco dictatorship, consecrated in the 1978 Spanish constitution with its formal recognition of the Spanish state’s component nationalities, the conflict between the movements for national and social emancipation eased. Within the working-class and popular movements, a consensus emerged that was based on the twin pillars of adhesion to the struggle for social justice and to “popular Catalanism”—an elastic term interpreted according to intellectual and political convenience and based on the idea of the popular, working-class majority in Catalonia being “a single people” irrespective of origin. Expressed most insistently by the United Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSUC), the Catalan sister party of the PCE, it predominated over the left independentism of its main ideological rival, the Socialist Party of National Liberation (PSAN).

At the same time, the leading trade union confederations in post-Francoist Catalonia both acknowledged the principle of a Catalan right to self-determination. They were (and are) the General Union of Workers (UGT), historically aligned to the PSOE-PSC and the Workers Commissions (CCOO), initiated by the PCE in the underground fight against the Franco dictatorship.

However, this in-principal commitment to self-determination was to be tested in the run-up to the October 1, 2017 “illegal” referendum. Would the all-Spanish left grouped around IU and Podemos and the main trade union confederations support the actual movement in its struggle for a referendum that the Spanish state and government was refusing to concede? 

Both confederations were members of Catalonia’s broad National Agreement for the Right to Decide, which mobilised support for a negotiated and internationally recognised referendum, and both had supported the mobilisations in support of that right since 2010. However, the CCOO opposed the adoption by the Catalan government of the legislation enabling the October 1 referendum, and when the Civil Guard conducted raids to stop referendum preparations on Catalan government institutions on September 20, 2017, the all-Spanish CCOO called for the referendum to be suspended. For its part, the Catalan UGT made no criticism of the referendum preparations and said its members could participate and vote according to their convictions.

The most telling shift at this moment within Catalonia’s trade union confederations was that of the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour (CGT). Although coming from an anti-nationalist background, a special congress of its members across the Spanish state voted to support the October 1 referendum. On the day of October 1, CGT members could be seen alongside Catalan nationalists defending the polling stations from Spanish police and Civil Guard attacks.

It was the decision of the Puigdemont government to press ahead with October 1, in line with its commitment to “either [a negotiated] referendum or [a unilateral] referendum”, that forced differences in the sovereigntist camp into the open. The most dramatic split took place in the parliamentary fraction of Catalonia, Indeed We Can (CSQEP), which divided between those supporting participation, Podem (Podemos Catalonia) and the United and Alternative Left (EUiA), and those opposed, ICV. 

Within Podemos itself, the decision of its Catalan membership to take part in October 1 set off alarm bells in Madrid, where leader Pablo Iglesias had said that if he were Catalan, he would not vote on the day. However, the membership of the Commons and Podem, grouping together all the forces to the left of the PSC, both voted to take part in the referendum, even though the Commons stated that it had not met the standards of a true referendum as laid down by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission.

Afterwards, the leadership of Podem sought to create a united ticket of left pro-sovereignty and pro-independence forces, a move that was headed off by the Iglesias leadership of Podemos when it carried out a rigged plebiscite of Podemos members in Catalonia. This led to Podem joining the Commons and standing on a single ticket with its other affiliates at the December 21, 2017 Catalan elections.

Appendix B. From Convergence and Union (CiU) to Junts

When the PSC, ERC and ICV formed the tripartite Catalan government under PSC hegemony in 2003, very few, if any, objected to its being called “left”. That was especially the case after the 23-year rule of its predecessor, the conservative Catalan-nationalist (but not independentist) administration of Convergence and Union (CiU), the “right”. 

CiU had been happy to do deals with the all-Spanish right so long as it got a big enough slice of the proceeds for its government in Catalonia, a policy known colloquially as getting “the fish in the basket” (i.e., getting a done deal). Among the more notorious events associated with the CiU administration of premier Jordi Pujol were:

  • The “Majestic Deal”, done in 1996 between Pujol and People’s Party (PP) leader José María Aznar, in which a dinner between the two in Barcelona’s Hotel Majestic secured CiU support for investing Aznar as Spanish prime minister in exchange for the Catalan government getting increased funding and powers. The PP’s Catalan branch subsequently voted for CiU to become government in Catalonia after the 1999 regional elections.
  • The Palace of Music scandal, in which the accounts of this emblematic Art Nouveau concert hall in central Barcelona were massaged so developer Ferrovial’s funding of CiU (amounting to at least €26 million between 1990 and 2009) could be laundered. In exchange, Ferrovial won Catalan government public works contracts.
  • The 2014 admission by Jordi Pujol that he had deposited family funds in tax haven Andorra, and a series of corruption trials involving his sons, including former CiU secretary-general Oriol Pujol. Jordi Pujol, seen by many as the father of post-dictatorship Catalonia, was subsequently stripped of all his honours.

During the period 1996-2003, the relation between the PP Spanish administration of prime minister José María Aznar and its CiU Catalan counterpart had basically been that of gangs in an American city—the PP ran the West Side and CiU ran the smaller East Side while both took care to safeguard the interests of big business in their bailiwick. The PP in the Valencian Country and the CiU in Catalonia practised the same racket—a fixed percentage (usually 3%) of contracts awarded to developers had to be fed back into party coffers. Both organisations mounted, in the words of a National High Court judgment in the Gürtel case on PP corruption, “a criminal conspiracy to defraud the public purse”. Moments of tension between the gangs were unavoidable, as when the Aznar government blocked Catalan big business from getting too large a slice of the €32 billion pot of Spanish public assets privatised by his government, but self-interest kept such conflicts from breaking out into open warfare.

In this period, when independentism managed 16.5% of the vote at most and was overwhelmingly concentrated in the ERC, it was natural and inevitable to group the PP and CiU together as “the right” as against the all-Spanish and Catalan parties of “the left”: the PSOE and the PCE-led IU in the Spanish state and the PSC, ERC, ICV and EUiA, IU’s Catalan equivalent, in Catalonia. (Both ICV and EUiA were descendants of the PCE’s Catalan sister party, the PSUC, and later became affiliates of ECP.)

The rise from 2009 onwards of the mass movement for Catalan sovereignty and independence atomised this schema. After the Constitutional Court’s judicial coup in 2010, which ruled parts of the 2006 Catalan Statute of Autonomy invalid despite its adoption by both Catalan and Spanish parliaments and referendum in Catalonia, the immense movement forced all political forces to state where they stood on a Catalan right to self-determination. More to the point, did they support the actual burgeoning movement for that right, even if its exercise might produce Catalan independence from the Spanish state?

“Left-wingers” now openly opposed the movement for self-determination and “right-wingers” now supported it. An eloquent example was that of former PCE general secretary Francisco Frutos, who in 2014 signed a manifesto against the Catalan right to self-determination and in 2017 was a featured speaker at a major unionist rally in Barcelona.

At the other end of the spectrum, conservative CiU premier Artur Mas—member of a party that had never been independentist—was driven by the pressure of the movement first to organise an “illegal” consultation of Catalan opinion (on November 9, 2014) and then to call the “plebiscitary election” of September 27, 2015. This poll produced the Catalan parliament’s first pro-independence seat majority. 

As reward for his work in allowing Catalans to express their opinion, the Spanish courts barred Mas from holding public office until February 2020 and fined him €36,000 for ordering the 2014 consultation. The Spanish Public Accounts Tribunal later had his house embargoed until he paid his share of the €4.9 million it ruled had been spent on the consultation.

The 2015 election also produced the first major earthquake under the seemingly solid house of conservative Catalanism, when the national council of the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), partner with the CDC in CiU, decided by 50.5% to 49.5% not to support the road map to independence that had been agreed between ERC and CDC. As a result, major UDC figures deserted their party for Together for the Yes (JxSi), the single umbrella under which CDC and ERC successfully stood in the election. For its part, UDC failed to get across the 3% threshold needed to enter parliament and dissolved two years later. Its last leader, former CiU attorney-general Ramón Espadaler, formed a fragment called United We Advance, which ended up being handed a couple of seats by the PSC.

Mas was to be followed by Puigdemont after the CUP rejected investing Mas as premier following the 2015 election. Puigdemont’s determination to pull off a referendum, negotiated or not, spurred a series of his ministers to resign after effectively confessing their lack of courage in the face of the looming fight with the Spanish state. At the same time, the corruption-afflicted CDC rebadged itself as PDECat in 2016.

After the referendum, when the ERC decided not to renew JxSi for the December 21, 2017 elections imposed by PP prime minister Mariano Rajoy because of the sacking of the Puigdemont government, PDECat and Puigdemont launched Together for Catalonia (JxCat) as their electoral platform, a deliberate echo of the name Together for the Yes. Its success led to JxCat pushing ERC into second place within the pro-independence bloc. The infrastructure for the campaign was provided by PDECat.

Intent on finding the way to unify independentist forces and restart the stalled march towards independence, in mid-2018 Puigdemont initiated National Call for the Republic, a non-party platform with deliberately structured spaces for independence supporters who identified as “liberal”, “social-democrat” or “left”. The platform was designed to pressure the ERC and the CUP into coming under a single umbrella. It failed, but the failure made clear that this non-party platform would have to become an actual party if it were to have any chance of gathering the maximum number of supporters of independence and the Catalan Republic into one tent.

That step was taken with the July 2020 decision to launch Together for Catalonia (Junts) as a party, a move which immediately posed the question of what relation it would have with PDECat. Puigdemont insisted on a complete break with the tradition of the corrupt CDC, concretised in the rule that there could be no special relation with it as a party, even while individual PDECat members could maintain double membership of their party and the new force. It was this insistence that produced a break between Puigdemont and Artur Mas, who remained with PDECat.

PDECat had officially registered JxCat as a party name in mid-2018, with a PDECat local councillor signing as its president. However, just before the announcement of Junts as a party for all supporters of the Catalan Republic, Puigdemont succeeded in recovering official registration of the name after the PDECat-appointed president asked to be relieved of her position. This opened a legal battle between Junts and PDECat. On October 5, the Barcelona magistrate hearing the PDECat appeal against Junts being allowed to use the name ruled that Puigdemont’s party could adopt it until a final sentence was brought down on the PDECat appeal.

This was the immediate background against which the PDECat stood on February 14 as the moderate wing of independentism, heir of the “best of the CDC”, low-taxing and business-friendly. Its failure to enter parliament, repeating the fate of the UDC in 2015, left Junts as the broad party of independentism and the Catalan Republic.

Appendix C. The PSC on the Catalan right to self-determination

Up until 2012, the PSC supported the Catalan right to self-determination. In that year’s Catalan election, it committed to “promote the reforms needed so the citizens of Catalonia can exercise their right to decide in a referendum negotiated within a lawful framework”. In February 2013, the PSC MPs in the Spanish congress broke with the PSOE to support an ICV and CiU motion demanding a negotiated referendum on Catalonia’s future.

In July of the same year the PSC switched to supporting the PSOE’s falsely termed “federal” model for the Spanish state, as outlined in its Declaration of Granada. This projected a remodelling of Spanish territorial structures to be voted on by all Spanish citizens, discarding any right to self-determination by the state’s component peoples. With this decision, the trend to desertion of the PSC by its Catalanist wing began, most notably by former ministers in the 2003-2010 tripartite government such as Ernest Maragall, now ERC leader on Barcelona council.

For a while the party, from 2014 under new secretary-general Miquel Iceta, tried to stop the bleeding. The draft document for its 2016 congress proposed developing a “law of clarity” modelled on the Canadian High Court’s ruling on Quebec: it would specify the conditions under which a Catalan independence referendum could take place. The howls of protest from within the PSOE saw the proposal removed from the final text for voting.

A similar uproar greeted Iceta’s suggestion in a 2019 interview with the Basque daily Berria that if 65% of Catalans wanted independence “democracy will have to find a way to express that”. Even though Iceta added that this meant no referendum would be possible for 10-15 years, the subsequent uproar again forced him to back off. In October 2020, Iceta admitted in a radio interview that if pro-independence forces ever won 50% of the vote it would be “a relevant political fact” and that it would strengthen its case for a negotiated referendum but not guarantee it.

That was Iceta’s last attempt at assuaging sentiment for the Catalan right to self-determination. In the November 10, 2019 Spanish general election, he was already supporting PSOE leader Sánchez’s proposal to again make the calling of referenda illegal. The relevant law had been removed from the statute book by the 2003-2011 PSOE government of prime minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero, but Sánchez in his hunt for the votes of supporters of Citizens, thought they might find the prohibition of democracy in Catalonia a reason to vote PSOE. Only when Citizens was devoured from the right by the PP and the far-right, xenophobic Vox and the PSOE’s one chance of governing Spain was with UP, did this proposal disappear from public view.