The Spanish state versus Catalonia: a decisive battle has begun

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 People wave pro-independence flags as they gather outside the Parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona. Read more on Portugal.

By Dick Nichols

On October 27, the ongoing war without guns between the Spanish state and Catalonia entered a critical new phase. On that day the newly elected pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament published a draft resolution that “solemnly declared the beginning of the process of creating an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic” (see Appendix for text).

This Catalan legislature, with its pro-independence majority of 72 seats out of 135 elected by 47.8% of the vote,  was the result of the September 27 Catalan regional election. The election was called as a substitute for a formal independence referendum along Scottish lines, denied by the People's Party (PP) government of prime minister Mariano Rajoy, supported by the official opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE).

On November 9, the Catalan parliament adopted the resolution by 72 votes to 63.  In favour were the bill's proponents, the mainstream nationalist Together for Yes coalition and the anti-capitalist People’s Unity Candidacies—Constituent Call (CUP). Against were the Catalan affiliates of the conservative People's Party (PP), the social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and Citizens (the “Podemos of the right”).

The bill was also opposed by Catalonia Yes We Can (CQSP), which groups together left forces Podemos, Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV), the all-Spanish Green party Equo and the United and Alternative Left (EUiA, the Catalan sister party of the all-Spanish United Left).

The nine-point pro-independence resolution declared that the Catalan parliament would not “be subject to the decisions of the Spanish state, in particular the Constitutional Court”. Instead, the Catalan parliament would adopt the measures needed to start the process of “democratic, massive, sustained and peaceful separation from the Spanish state in such a way as to allow the empowerment of citizens at all levels”.

Before adopting the bill, the Catalan parliament rejected a counter-resolution from CSQP that proposed that all parties supporting the Catalan right to self-determination unite to pressure the next Spanish government, to be elected on December 20, for a binding referendum to be held before the end of 2016. This proposal was only supported by the 11 CQSP MPs, with the CUP deputies abstaining.

In presenting the resolution, Raul Romeva, Together For Yes's lead candidate on September 27, said: “Some people still believe that arming the courts with legalistic weapons will silence our outcry. But there is no stopping this. If not today, then tomorrow. If not us, then it will be others. But this nation has said loud and clear that the time to go flat out has come’.

On the unionist side, the president of the PP  parliamentary group, Xavier García Albiol, said: ‘Neither Mas, nor [Republican Left of Catalonia leader Oriol] Junqueras, nor the radical left will succeed in separating Catalonia from Spain”. The leader of Citizens, Inés Arrimadas, said that the resolution showed “blatant disregard for the blood, sweat, and tears of the citizens of Catalonia”.

Why did the non-independence left and green forces in CQSP line up with the all-Spanish right and the social democracy? According to spokesperson Joan Coscubiela, because the pro-independence resolution made “a deceptive reading of the results of the September 27 election and because it aims to provide a stage-setting for the investiture of [outgoing Catalan premier] Artur Mas [of right-nationalist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia].

“September 27 doesn't give any legitimacy or democratic mandate for a unilateral declaration, neither of independence nor of the beginning of a process of disconnection,” Coscubiela said.

Within CSQP the decision to vote against the pro-independence resolution has already produced dissidence, with Podemos MP Joan Giner, who voted No under compulsion,  saying the group should have abstained. Giner received support from Barcelona deputy-mayor Jaume Asens as well as from former EUiA MP David Companyon, who tweeted: “CQSP cannot line up with the PP and Citizens”.

Immediately after the Catalan parliament adopted the pro-independence resolution,  the Spanish government set in motion an appeal against it to the Constitutional Court.

A Catalonia-bashing Spanish election

Although the pro-independence resolution—a compromise between the Together for Yes and CUP views of the path to independence—would have come as no surprise, it immediately guaranteed that the Catalan rebellion will be the central issue of the December 20 Spanish election.

People’s Party (PP) prime minister Mariano Rajoy set the tone at a campaign rally in Andalusia on October 29:

There are two primary issues in Spain. The first, people´s livelihood and jobs, citizens’ well-being;  the second, what is happening in Catalonia as a result of decisions some people have adopted, irresponsible decisions, decisions  contrary to the evolution of events, contrary to our history,  contrary to reason and common sense...

I ask everyone, political and social forces and all Spaniards, to stick together in unity; to behave with a sense of proportion, with intelligence and with respect for the law, so as to, among other things, differentiate ourselves from those who have behaved neither with prudence nor with a sense of   proportion and have wanted to liquidate the law.

They are not going to get away with this and I say to you, don’t worry, this will end well. The bad hing is  that it has started badly, but I assure you that all together we will ensure that it finishes well, as it should finish.

Rajoy formally called on all parties to join him in opposing the “secessionists” as soon as the draft pro-independence bill was released on October 27, staging meetings with political, business and union leaders for an entire week to highlight his commitment to the unity and “idea” of Spain. The stream of figures entering the prime ministerial residence, the Moncloa,  became known as the “Moncloa boardwalk”,

The Madrid conservative media was ecstatic at Rajoy’s performance. Carmen Morodo of the pro-PP La Razón wrote on November 1:

After a parliamentary term in which even some of his own people criticised his low political profile,  the independentist challenge has provided Rajoy with an opportunity to correct his line of fire in a striking way, and to do it just two months out from the elections …

In the end, by going for broke Together for Yes and the CUP will turn themselves into exactly that which they have constantly denied themselves to be—the rabble-rousing element in the biggest paroxysm around the unity and idea of Spain that has ever happened under democracy.

This outcome was inevitable. Since nothing provokes division within the PP’s rivals more than Spain's unresolved national questions, the ruling party  has always gleefully embraced the temptation to parade as the most intransigent defender of Spanish state legality.

Over the years its Spanish-chauvinist operations have included a massive petitioning campaign against the 2006 Catalan autonomy statute, which resulted in the statute’s “correction” by the Constitutional Court, even after it had been adopted by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments and confirmed by referendum in Catalonia.

PSOE falls into line

Rajoy’s invitation to the parties to join his holy war provoked the usual responses within the camp of Spanish centralism.

After meeting the prime minister on October 29, Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), agreed to “work in a coordinated way in defence of the Constitution, national unity, national sovereignty and equality of all Spaniards”.

At the same time the PSOE leader, who attacks Rajoy as “being more interested in Spain than Spaniards” launched his party’s election platform for a “federal reform” of the Spanish state: this retreats from previous already feeble PSOE proposals on the issue.  Gone is the description of Spain as a “nation of nations” or any reference to “national aspirations”. Catalonia itself is not even a “nation”, despite the pleas of the PSOE’s Catalan affiliate, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

Sánchez, who is under pressure from the most Spanish-patriotic trends in the PSOE--personified by Andalusia premier Susana Díaz and former minister Alfonso Guerra (“what is happening in Catalonia is a civil coup d'etat”)--was dropping any pretence that the PSOE would introduce meaningful changes to the 1978 Spanish constitution.

Albert Rivera, the leader of Citizens, which began life as a force within Catalonia opposing the Catalan statute of autonomy, likewise gave “firm support to the government in defence of the law and also in defence of having it obeyed”. “Spain is not to be touched”, said the “cool”, “modern” politician of the moment, sounding like any Spanish-patriotic relic from the past 200 years.

Citizens is fishing for the vote of traditional PP supporters who feel that Rajoy has been passive towards the “secessionist threat”. On meeting the prime minister Rivera proposed a five-point “pact for Spain”. This would recognise that sovereignty belongs to the “Spanish people” as a whole, that the country is a unitary state, that the constitution is the framework for any changes in institutional arrangements, that Spain supports greater European integration, and that the parties signing the pact undertake not to depend on the support of nationalist parties in order to govern.

This last point is aimed at both “dynastic” parties, but particularly at the PSOE. Given the possible close result of the December 20 election, the social democracy could well need the support or abstention of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and/or various Catalan and Galician forces to push the PP out of government. In that case, Citizens would have a pretext for making a ruing alliance with the PP, not an unlikely result if present opinion polls are to be believed.

Even more patriotic than Citizens was the Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD), which has already taken a lawsuit against the speaker of the Catalan parliament (Carme Forcadell, former leader of the Catalan National Assembly) for “possibly committing a crime of conspiracy to commit sedition”.

The UPyD leader Andrés Herzog demanded that Rajoy immediately apply article 155 of the Constitution against the Catalan parliament. This article gives the central government the power to suspend the operation of a regional administration “in case of not fulfilling the obligations of the Constitution and the law, or acting in a way that seriously damages the general interest of Spain.”

The left and Catalonia

However, the holy alliance of Spanish centralism does not include every all-Spanish party: both the United Left (IU) and Podemos have refused to join it. Moreover, their support for a Catalan right to decide should, against the background of the Catalan rebellion, guarantee that the coming Spanish election campaign will see the first mass discussion about the democratic rights of the nations that make up the Spanish state since the end of the Franco dictatorship.

Rajoy invited both Podemos general secretary Pablo Iglesias and IU lead candidate Alberto Garzón to be part of his crusade, but both pointed to the undemocratic foundation of the prime minister’s defence of existing legality, namely its rejection of any idea of nation except the Spanish.

Iglesias refused to join the “grand coalition of the three parties” (the “bunker”), because the Podemos project for Spain (“a country of countries”) is to “recognise diversity”, “build bridges” and “not be afraid of democracy”. For the Podemos leader “the PP is the reason why Spain is coming apart, because it is a factory of independentists”.

Garzon said: “We are not going to take part in this theatre of a supposed pact of state, whose purpose is to intimidate Catalonia." IU also opposes any use of the law against the Catalan parliament, even while disagreeing with the declaration of Together for Yes and the CUP. Instead, the IU proposal is to set up a table of dialogue among all political forces, with the aim of starting a discussion about how to launch a constituent process that would aim at restructuring the Spanish state as a federation and would allow for a referendum in Catalonia in that context.

In want looks certain to be a filthy election campaign, it is critical that Podemos, IU and any left coalitions that form stick to their guns in the face of the intensifying paroxysm of Spanish-centralist chauvinism.  The fundamental and unavoidable struggle is for the hearts and minds of the mass of people in the rest of the Spanish state, whom Spanish centralism is mobilising to keep enslaved to the idea of Spain “one and indivisible”. The grip of this mentality has gradually begun to weaken since the emergence of the indignado movement asserted the democratic rights of the people against the country's political elites, but there is still a long way to go.

And in Catalonia…

The opening shots in the showdown between the Spanish state and Catalonia have now taken place, with increasingly aggressive threats from Madrid combining with filibustering tactics from the PP and Citizens’ parliamentary groups in the Catalan parliament.

On November 2, foreign minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told Channel 3 that what was going on in Catalonia was “an authentic uprising” and that “when you are faced with an uprising of this type you have to suppress it, you have to stop the law from being broken.” On the same day Spanish finance minister Cristobal Montoro threatened to cut off financing to Catalonia while Spanish interior minister Jorge Fernandez described the situation as an “insurrection” and “the most critical situation since the death of Franco”, adding that all measures were in place to ensure obedience to the law.

On November 4, the Catalan parliamentary fractions of the PP and Citizens and the PSC took separate lawsuits to the Constitutional Court, claiming that the speakership of the Catalan parliament had infringed parliamentary regulations in setting Monday, November 9 as the day when the draft bill of Together for Yes and the CUP would be voted on. The basis for this claim was that the speakership had made the decision illegally, before the PP had formed its parliamentary fraction (this was a deliberate filibustering tactic of the PP).  The court ruled that the session could go ahead, rejecting the ridiculous application of the PP and Citizens that it be suspended.

Now that the resolution  has been passed and the Rajoy government has begun its appeal to the Constitutional Court, rising conflict is inevitable. What will the Catalan parliament now do? Given that the present majority of seats was won with 47.8% of the vote and that the December 20 Spanish elections could produce a new, more progressive, majority in the Spanish state, there are signs that some in the Catalan government want to take a temporary step sideways.  On October 30, a leak to the mainstream Barcelona daily La Vanguardia revealed that six of the twelve members of the acting Catalan cabinet, led by finance minister Andreu Mas-Colell, had expressed reservations about the Together for Yes-CUP resolution.

However, the pressure to maintain the momentum towards the creation of a sovereign Catalan state is so powerful, and the determination  of acting premier Artur Mas to drive ahead so strong--especially given that there has been not one concession from Madrid in the five years since the independence movement began its massive rise—that some sort of showdown between the Spanish state and Catalonia is inevitable.

The next two weeks will be decisive. Already the right-wing media talk is of Madrid reacting to any disobedience of Constitutional Court rulings against the Catalan parliament by turning off the tap of government funding and putting the Catalan police under direct control of the Spanish national police.

All this has happened before the formation of a new Catalan government. While the CUP could come to an agreement with Together for Yes to produce the resolution beginning Catalan separation from the Spanish state, it still insists on its position that it will not support Artur Mas as leader of the incoming government. The CUP argument is that Mas, despite his efforts for the independence struggle, is too associated with the cutbacks and corruption of previous right-wing governments in Catalonia.

The CUP has gone as far as suggesting other figures from within Together for Yes which it could support, a stance that is beginning to provoke hostile reactions within the broader ranks of Catalan nationalism. For its part, Together for Yes shows no sign at all of deserting Mas as their candidate as leader of the government, basing themselves on the majority support he would still enjoy  within the pro-independence spectrum.

As the candidate of the majority party, Mas has already been proposed by the speakership of the parliament as government leader. On November 9, in asserting his claim to the position, the outgoing premier gave a comprehensive one-and-a-half hour speech to the Catalan parliament on the program of a Together for Yes government that would start to create a sovereign Catalan state that would fulfill the criteria of the pro-indepedence resolution adopyed earlier in the day. It was a detailed proposal that put forward a vision of a social-democratic Catalonia (like Austria or Denmark), in which a modern and dynamic business sector would be able to fund a comprehensive welfare state .

Besides outlining the detail of this program, Mas gave the strongest denunciation ever heard from a Catalan premier of the authoritarian nature of the Spanish state, its history of ignoring agreements reached with Catalan governments, as well as its allergic intolerance of democracy. He cited the prosecution of himself and two other ministers for their role in the November 9, 2014 “participatory process” as final proof of the incompatibility of Catalan rights and the Spanish state.

Mas asked—in Castilian (Spanish), so he would be understood across the whole of Spain: ”Who would want to belong to such a state?” In so doing, he was effectively opening a front behind enemy lines, which is where the war between the Spanish state and Catalonia will be won or lost.

Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. An earlier version of this article has appeared on its web site.

Appendix. Pro-independence resolution of Together for Yes and the People's Unity Candidacies—Constituent Call (adopted 72-63)

The Parliament of Catalonia:

ONE. Hereby notes that the democratic mandate obtained in the elections of last September 27, 2015 is based on a majority of seats for those parliamentary forces whose goal is that Catalonia become an independent state and on a large pro-sovereignty majority in votes and seats that supports the beginning of an autonomous constitutional process.

TWO. Solemnly proclaims the beginning of the process of creating an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic.

THREE. Proclaims the beginning of a citizen-based constitutional process—participatory, open, involving and active--in order to lay the foundations of the future Catalan constitution.

FOUR. Calls upon the incoming government to take all measures needed to make these declarations effective.

FIVE. Considers that it is crucial to begin within a maximum of thirty days to adopt legislation covering the constitutional process, social security and the public taxation office.

SIX. As repository of Catalan sovereignty and expression of its constitutional power, reiterates that neither this Parliament nor the process of democratic separation from the Spanish state shall be subject to the decisions of the institutions of the Spanish state, in particular to the Constitutional Court, which it considers to be delegitimised and without competence following--as well as other sentences--its ruling of June 2010 regarding the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia,  previously voted for by the people in a referendum.

SEVEN. Will take all necessary measures to begin this process of democratic, massive, sustained and peaceful separation from the Spanish state in such a way as to allow the empowerment of the citizens on all levels and based on their open, active and involving participation.

EIGHT. Calls on the future government to comply only with those norms or mandates that emanate from this legitimate and democratic chamber, with the goal of strengthening those fundamental rights that might be affected by the decisions of the institutions of the Spanish state, in particular those outlined in the annex to this resolution [covering access to energy, housing, health, education, democratic freedoms, local government, refugees, the right to abortion, financing of an emergency social support plan and management of the public debt].

NINE. Declares its willingness  to start negotiations in order to make effective its democratic mandate to create an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic, and herewith to inform the Spanish state, the European Union and the whole of the international community thereof.