Political struggles demand that you take sides, but there are some political confrontations that you just wish weren’t happening. Watching the struggle for Catalan independence unfold over the last seven years, I have certainly not felt like a neutral or indifferent bystander. Indifference is not possible when dealing with a country – Spain, that I love – and a country within a country – Catalonia, where I lived for nine of the best years of my life and which I also love.
Throughout the last seven years I have often felt that I was watching a political tragedy unfold with potentially devastating and uncontrollable consequences for both Spain and Catalonia. I have never believed that Spain would allow a ‘divorce’ like the one agreed between the Czech Republic and Slovakia – or which would have almost certainly happened here had Scotland won the independence referendum.
Not only is Catalonia too important politically and economically for Spain to let it go, but a successful Catalan separatist movement would open the way to secessionism in the Basque Country and other regions. There is no way that the Spanish state or army will allow that to happen.
Knowing this does not mean that I could side with the Spanish state, especially a state represented by one of the most corrupt political parties in Europe, the Partido Popular – a party so riddled with sleaze and corruption that it constantly amazes me to find it still in power, and which combines these failings with a political cloven-footedness and instinctive authoritarianism that too easily reveals the party’s Francoist lineage.
The Partido Popular’s corruption, coupled with the overwheening centralism that led it to rescind the reform of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010, has led millions of Catalans to embrace the secessionist cause to an extent that was unimaginable when I lived in Barcelona in the 1990s. Contrary to the arguments of Thatcherite reactionaries such as Mario Vargas Llosa – Catalanism does not represent some retrograde and anachronistic retreat into ‘nationalism’.
Nationalism and self-determination can take many different forms, from the racist US Confederacy and the ethnonationalist chauvinism of the Bosnian Serbs to the progressive political and socioeconomic aspirations that were partly responsible for the rise of the SNP – and the Catalans.
Personally, I would prefer to see such aspirations pursued outside a nationalist framework, but regardless of what people like me might think, millions of Catalans see an independent state as a means of pursuing them, and when it comes to the issue of self-determination, their opinions are what counts. Because self-determination is exactly what it sounds like; it means the right of a particular people to define its own political future.
The secessionist movement which has now coalesced around the Junts pel Sí coalition has campaigned peacefully with skill and passion, and built a genuine popular movement. It has compelling political, cultural and historical arguments on its side for an independent Catalan state – even if the arguments about ‘paying too much to Madrid’ are not amongst them, to my mind at least.
That said, the case for self-determination has not yet been won. Independence cannot be decided on the basis of a 51 percent vote and previous surveys have not even reached that. A political transformation of this magnitude requires a much higher participatory threshold and a much higher majority – and a broad consensus within Catalonia.
For all that the secessionist movement has achieved these last seven years, it is by no means clear that such a majority exists. Nevertheless the movement has certainly made the case for a broad democratic consultation, and the Spanish government’s repeated refusal to allow this has been a monumental political error.
Now, showing the political tin ear that it has always shown, Rajoy’s administration has turned to repression, whether confiscating ballot papers, arresting Catalan officials, threatening members of the Catalan government with sedition, or attempting to subject the Catalan police the Mossos d’Esquadra to the direct control of the Interior Ministry
Such actions are grist to the separatist mill. They have further discredited Spanish institutions in the eyes of many Catalans, bringing back old memories of the Francoist era, and threatened to turn the ongoing confrontation into an explosive crisis with grave implications for the future of Spanish democracy.
Rajoy and his supporters have used the law and the constitution to justify the government’s clunking response, but legalistic arguments aren’t a valid response to a popular movement of this scale, and repression will not succeed in extinguishing it. The only way this confrontation can be defused and worked through – one way or another – is by a process of democratic consultation, which allows the Catalans to decide their own political future.
If the secessionist movement has not yet won its case for independence, it has surely won its right to put its case to the same kind of popular vote that we saw in Scotland and the UK, and which the Kurds are currently demanding in Iraq.
That shouldn’t mean a referendum with no participatory threshold. Independence is too serious a business to be decided by a first-past-the-post race in which whoever gets 51 percent ‘wins.’ The parameters should be agreed on, the referendum should go ahead, and Spain should accept the result.
Because, if the government doesn’t allow this, and continues on its present course, then it is by no means beyond the bounds of possibility that Catalonia will be placed in a state of emergency and that we will once again see the Spanish army in the streets of Barcelona. And as ambivalent as I might feel about Catalan independence, that is not something that I will ever support