Things have happened quickly since the unauthorised referendum called by Catalunya’s regional government on October 1st. The result – a 90% yes vote on a 42% turnout, with many opposed to independence staying away – led Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proclaim independence. The Spanish government responded by completely suspending Catalan autonomy and unleashing fierce repression – which in fact began before the poll.
Ten days before the referendum, on September 20th, the Civil Guard, under the direction of Spain’s interior ministry, carried out dawn raids on regional government offices, arresting officials. Spanish judges ordered mobile phone networks Vodafone and Movistar to block access to the official referendum website and the Spanish Post Office to open ‘suspicious’ mail to check if it contains referendum-related material.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website took the unusual step of calling on the Spanish authorities “to ensure that measures taken ahead of the Catalan referendum on 1 October do not interfere with the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation.” After the poll, the UN High Commissioner called for the Spanish government to carry out an independent investigation into the violence, in which police brutality left over 900 people needing hospital treatment.
Two days later a general strike, called by a broad range of social movements and leftwing unions, gripped the region and 300,000 people took over Barcelona. Newly formed ‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’ helped organise the action across the region. The energy pouring into this participatory democracy was impressive, building on the grassroots democracy that helped elect Ada Colau mayor of Barcelona in 2015.
Her position, and that of the ‘municipal socialist’ en Comu (In Common) movement to which she belongs, is that while the referendum held was not legally valid, it was a legitimate political mobilisation. A mutually agreed legitimate referendum is the way forward, a position in fact held by most people living in Catalunya. Colau voted in the referendum, however, to show solidarity with those facing police repression, but left her ballot blank.
The following weekend, there were various demonstrations in Catalunya – and Spain as a whole – both for unity and dialogue. Free transport bussing protestors into Barcelona may have compromised the authenticity of some of these. Powerful business interests, fearing the instability resulting from a declaration of independence, threatened to withdraw from the region. Meanwhile, a leading figure from the Partido Popular (PP) which governs Spain, warned that if Puigdemont didn’t pull back, he would meet the same fate as Lluís Companys, a Catalan leader shot by the Francoists in 1940.
Even before Puidgemont’s independence declaration, the region’s police chief was summoned by a Spanish state court to answer accusations of sedition. Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez were the first separatist leaders to be detained; others soon followed.
The Spanish prime minister, Rajoy, sacked Puigdemont, and imposed someone from his own PP, which polled under 10% in the last regional elections there. The move was denounced by Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau as “an attack on everyone’s rights and freedoms”.
Rajoy claims to be upholding the rule of law. This is the same government that contacted school principals across Catalunya and threatened the permanent removal of their academic qualifications if they allowed their premises to be used for the independence referendum -what ‘law’ was that based on?
Behind the PP stand, on one side, the military and fascist elements who are increasingly visible on the streets in demonstrations for the unity of Spain, and on the other the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) who have played a roten role. In government, they held out an empty promise of greater autonomy, on which they failed to deliver, in order to head off Catalan demands for independence. Their refusal to entertain the idea of a regional referendum was the sticking point that prevented a socialist government being formed with the radical left party Podemos, which reognises the Catalans’ right to self-determination while opposing independence, following the deadlocked parliamentary elections two years ago.
Since then, PSOE have blamed the heavy-handed police repression during the October referendum on the Catalan leadership. Their support for the imposition of direct rule has provoked a wave of disgust from Catalan Socialist leaders, including one mayor who has resigned from PSOE’s national executive in protest. PSOE refused to condemn the arrest for sedition of separatist leaders – who were handcuffed, stripped naked and forced to listen to a loop of the Spanish national anthem, according to reports: treatment deliberately designed to humiliate.
Part of the left elsewhere has peddled the myth that the current dispute is primarily about Catalunya’s unwillingness, as a comparatively prosperous region, to share its wealth with the rest of Spain. In fact, it was the Spanish government, following the EU bailout after the financial crash, that unilaterally offloaded its debt onto the regions of Spain, making them permanently indebted to the national state. This was accompanied by a long-running media campaign against Catalunya, playing up tropes of Catalan meanness and haughtiness, that has polarised public opinion. These underlying factors help explain why support for independence among Catalans has surged from 15% ten years ago to where it is today.
Liberals and socialists used to believe in the right of nations to self-determination, including statehood if they so wanted. Today some argue that states are increasingly an outdated concept, transcended by an international order with global rules and institutions. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, himself from the tiny nation-state of Luxemburg, dismisses the Catalans’ right to self-determination on grounds of political expediency: “We can’t have a Europe made up of 95 different countries.”
The EU regards the demand for Catalan independence s a headache. Worse, it is green-lighting the very high level of repression being perpetrated by the Spanish state. The German government went so far as to express full support for Madrid after eight former Catalan ministers were detained without bail, on charges of rebellion, originally devised for terrorists, which carry a maximum sentence of thirty years.
The repression is spreading. Teachers who raised the issue of police brutality on the day of the independence referendum in subsequent classroom discussions are now being charged with hate speech crimes. Silence from Spain’s EU partners will only encourage this crackdown.
The last few weeks have revealed the Spanish state for what it is – an apparatus that emerged out of a dictatorship with a highly politicised monarchy and a conservative party, the PP, which continues to harbour, and is capable of mobilising, the most intolerant forces. Extreme nationalist violence against anyone supporting Catalan independence is increasing, with attacks on leftwing activists, journalists and migrants in Barcelona and Francoite falangists, rarely seen in public, openly on the march in other parts of Spain.
The Spanish government has scheduled new regional elections for 21st December. How free and fair they will be with the Civil Guard on the streets, government offices being raided and equipment confiscated and political prisoners languishing in jail cells is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile resistance is growing – with major roads blocked and calls for a fresh general strike.
Whether you support independence or not, solidarity against the Spanish state’s repression is essential. The imposition of direct rule must be condemned and those arrested released immediately. Activists should contact their MEPs in particular to demand that the EU drop its refusal to mediate towards a negotiated solution.