“Who is the real bad guy?” Spain’s political game in Catalonia

Catalonia's regional leader Carles Puigdemont has ceded moral ground - but now faces disproportionate punishment.

When Catalonia’s separatist president, Carles Puigdemont, made his most potentially fateful decision yet, on 26 October, he chose the elegant, Gothic surroundings of the interior gallery of the Generalitat Palace in Barcelona. This was the moment he retreated from calling regional elections, thereby triggering a unilateral declaration of independence from the Catalan parliament the following day and, shortly afterwards, direct rule from Madrid. He chose, in effect, to ramp up the confrontation.

By Monday, Catalonia was under direct rule and a deposed Puigdemont had fled to Brussels, while Spain’s attorney general sought to charge him with sedition and rebellion, crimes that carry up to 30 years in jail. His only declared allies in Belgium are the rabidly anti-migrant Flemish nationalists.

Those who expected the head of the rebel Catalan republic to remain in Barcelona and lead a campaign of civil disobedience that matched the stoicism of voters – who were beaten by police at the chaotic independence referendum he organised on 1 October – can be forgiven for feeling perplexed, or worse.

That feeling will be heightened by the decision of the separatist parties not to give up their parliamentary seats (or salaries) in Madrid and to campaign in the snap regional elections that the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, called as soon as he sacked Puigdemont. Even Puigdemont’s influential deputy, Oriol Junqueras, recognises that such strategic ambiguity and game-playing produces “contradictions” that are increasingly hard to explain.

The political game being played out in Catalonia is all about demonstrating the wickedness of the other side. Both sides are remarkably good at handing their opponents opportunities to do this. The police violence on October 1 gave the separatists their biggest clear win in this “who is the bad guy?” narrative. But the decision to force through a declaration of independence on the basis of an untrustworthy – and illegal – referendum, while riding roughshod over the basic rules of their own parliament, charter of autonomy and constitution, put Madrid back in front. Puigdemont's flight to Brussels only helped. 
 
But then Spain’s hardline attourney general José Manuel Maza – a government appointee - stepped in. At his request, an investigating magistrate jailed seven former members of the Catalan government on Thursday, claiming they might flee the country while under investigation for various alleged crimes. Given Puigdemont’s disappearance, that may seem reasonable. But the charges of rebellion and sedition are, according to many experts, wildly disproportionate to the crimes they undoubtedly committed by flouting the constitution and the rights of all Catalans – including those who disagree with them.
 
Puigdemont will now challenge the European arrest warrant in a Belgian court extradition court. The separatist side, in other words, wants a Belgian court to declare that they are being unjustly pursued. On lesser charges that would have been impossible.  On rebellion and sedition – which require the use of “force” and the creation of “tumult” – he has a better case. 

Another key part of the debate is whether the independence movement is inclusive or chauvinistic – with separatists claiming their form of nationalism is progressive, while painting Spanish nationalism as a legacy of Francoism.

The day after his speech at the Generalitat Palace, Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper angrily denounced Puigdemont and his predecessor Artur Mas for hitching their previously moderate right-wing party (once known as Democratic Convergence but, after a damaging series of corruption scandals, refounded as PDeCAT, or Catalan European Democratic Party) to the independence movement and turning it into a force willing to rebel against Spain’s constitution.

The newspaper painted Artur Mas as a cynical manipulator who had set the sensible middle class of the wealthy Catalonia (the newspaper’s natural readership) on a reckless course that had brought direct rule, social division, EU scorn and the flight of its biggest companies and banks.

This version of the Catalan story begins on 15 June 2011, when an angry crowd blocked the gates to the regional parliament in Barcelona as Mas’s austerity government prepared to slash spending on health, education and other services, in a vote that required the connivance of Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party. Mas had to arrive at the building by helicopter and his party demanded prison sentences for those who had barred his way. The government sent riot police to eject the indignado protesters occupying Barcelona’s central Plaza Catalunya. Nowhere else in Spain were the indignados treated with such violence.

With his popularity plummeting, Mas aligned himself with the growing nationalist movement. His party urged Catalans to rebel against Madrid, rather than their own austerian government, even if that meant defying Catalonia’s mini-constitution (the charter of autonomy, which requires major changes to its rules to be approved by two-thirds of the parliament).

It could be argued that Mas was simply swept up by a popular wave of support for independence. But it is a reminder that this so far peaceful rebellion would have been impossible without Catalonia’s once hegemonic conservatives. It was their support that provided critical mass to an independence movement that already had a strong left-wing element – including anti-capitalists and the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). These latter groups envisage a new Catalan state that would be radically and constitutionally progressive.

Others on the left, in both Catalonia and the rest of Spain, see a racist, elitist movement. “When it is the wealthiest regions who demand self-determination, you have to be suspicious,” says Spain’s most popular communist deputy, Alberto Garzón. Joan Coscubiela, a veteran left-winger in the Catalan parliament, drew on his experience of opposing Franco to accuse the independence parties of trampling over the rights of parliamentarians in order to force through their controversial – and later banned – referendum law. That one of the major separatist gripes is that taxes paid in Catalonia go to propping up the poor south only intensifies the accusations. Take Catalonia away from Spain and the poor of, say, Andalucia, will inevitably get poorer.

Some of the international cheerleaders for Catalan independence are an embarrassment for those who see it as a progressive movement. They include the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage and xenophobic Flemish nationalists (though the former French Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is backing Rajoy). Farage told an eager Daily Express, “The European Union backed Spanish brutality and turned the Catalans against the EU.” He had not bothered to look up the name of Puigdemont’s radically pro-EU party.

On 21 December, Catalans will vote at regional elections. This is the option that Puigdemont discarded, ceding part of the moral ground to Rajoy. It is not the legal referendum that 80 per cent of Catalans (including many of the majority who oppose independence) want and deserve, but it will show how they feel about the recent events. Rajoy has chosen a risky path. If the separatists achieve a clear win, support in the rest of Europe will grow. But if the separatists lose, and Puigdemont finds himself imprisoned for flouting the rules of Spanish democracy as laid out in the constitution, then he may come to rue his decision. Either way, Catalans will finally have a proper debate about what independence really means.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Boris: the joke’s over