Catalan National Day. Photo: Wikipedia Catalan National Day. Photo: Wikipedia

What’s going on in Catalonia? Chris Bambery investigates

Next Monday, 8 May, the President, the equivalent of the Speaker of the Catalan Generalitat or Parliament, is due to appear before the Constitutional Court in Barcelona. The Spanish government has brought this prosecution against Carme Forcadell. Her crime? Allowing the assembly to debate the matter of Catalan independence – not advocating a breakaway but simply allowing it to discuss the matter, something a majority of representatives supported.

She is deemed to be in breach of a ruling by the court that outlawed any move towards independence. What is interesting is that if this was occurring in Russia, Iran or Turkey there would be howls of protest from the European Union and others. Instead, there is silence.

I’ve written about Catalonia before but what is happening there is a major assault on democracy by the Madrid government of Mariano Rajoy. Some 400 local councillors and mayors are facing prosecution for things like flying the Catalan flag from a municipal building or going to work on Spain’s national day. Former Catalan President, Artur Mas, was tried and banned for office for three years for permitting an indicative referendum to take place three years ago.

Francesc Homs, Catalan, Minister of the Presidency and Spokesperson of the Government of Catalonia (Generalitat de Catalunya) was stripped of his parliamentary immunity so he could be prosecuted for the same “crime.”

The Spanish government claims these cases were brought by individuals and have nothing to do with an official campaign to silence pro-independence figures in Catalonia, but these “individuals” happen to be members of the ruling right-wing Popular Party (PP). Currently, the Spanish parliament is investigating ‘Operation Catalonia’, an alleged smear campaign against pro-independence politicians, conducted under the last PP government.

Tapes leaked before the 2016 Spanish general election allegedly show Jorge Fernández Díaz, former Spanish Interior minister, plotting with the director of the Catalan Anti-Fraud Office to fabricate corruption scandals around certain pro-independence leaders. He was also head of the PP list in Barcelona. In December the Supreme Court in Madrid halted its investigation into this matter. One Catalan newspaper responded with an editorial saying “Spain, that country where conspiring against political adversaries isn’t a crime”.

What has happened, as I previously argued, is that the popular tide in Catalonia has in recent years moved towards independence. In 2014 the unofficial referendum returned a no vote and pro-independence parties won in the last regional election. The Catalan government, a coalition of the centre right and centre left which can also rely on the votes of a smaller radical left party, is clear it will only move in a non-violent way towards implementing the right to self-determination which requires a referendum.

It has decided it will proceed with a referendum on independence in early September.

The Madrid government argues this is a clear breach of the Constitution of the Spanish state, agreed in a 1978 referendum, and which, while granting autonomy to the regions of Spain, stresses “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.” The only referendum possible it says is one involving all the population of the state having a vote on Catalonia’s future.

The Spain’s Minister of Justice, Rafael Catalá, has advocated scrapping Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution granting autonomy to Catalonia.

The 1978 constitution was agreed in a national referendum as part of the transition from the Franco dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. This was overseen by the European Union, West Germany’s Social Democratic government in particular, but relied on the involvement and agreement of the Spanish Communist Party, a central force in the opposition to Franco.

In 1978 people voted, as they were urged to do by all parties, for democracy as they saw it. For Catalonia, the granting of democracy was seen as a major advance at a time when independence was not seen as a popular option.

In reality by granting equal rights to all regions of Spain the articles of autonomy were seen as a way of reducing the desires of people in both Catalonia and the Basque Country, where opposition to Franco had been strongest, to the level of those in Castilian (Spanish) speaking regions where independence was never going to be an issue.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. The transition following Franco’s death also rested on drawing a line under the vicious repression of the Franco dictatorship, the victors of the 1936-1939 Civil War the military initiated with an uprising against an elected Republican government. Again that relied on Communist support.

After two decades of silence, there is an interest about the Civil War and a growing demand that the bodies of Republicans executed by Franco and dumped in unmarked graves should be exhumed for identification so their families can know their fate. In Barcelona, the deep air raid shelters built to protect the population from German, Italian and Franco’s bombers have been re-opened amid growing interest in the fascist bombing campaign unleashed on the city. The PP government, whose origins can be traced to Franco’s regime, have resisted this.

There are raw memories of what happened in Catalonia after it fell to Franco: the mass executions, repression, the banning of the language and the hunger.

Support for independence has mushroomed since it became clear that the PP and the centre-left Socialist Party would block further devolution and because of the huge economic crisis which hit Spain in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, and the austerity measures put in place as part of the supposed cure.

These were urged on by the European Union and that brings us to the question why Brussels remains silent over what the Rajoy government is doing in Catalonia?

A couple of weeks ago I listened to Laura Pous, the Catalan News Agency’s EU correspondent in Brussels, explain its attitude toward Catalan self-determination. She was contrasting it with their attitude to Scottish independence post-Brexit.

Brussels, she argues, is making it crystal clear that if Scotland goes independent and applies to join the EU this will be fast-tracked. Under pressure from the other EU states, the Spanish government is going along with that. Obviously, EU politicians and diplomats see Scotland as a card they can play in the Brexit negotiations with Theresa May.

In contrast, those same politicians and diplomats are making it crystal clear there will be no such favour shown to Catalonia if it becomes an independent state.

All the Catalan parties are agreed on a non-violent fight for independence, based on a significant record of mass mobilisation. That contrasts with the Basque Country where ETA, which originated in the opposition to Franco, maintained its armed campaign for independence after the dictator’s death. It, helped by Sinn Fein and Irish and British politicians, has tried to bring about a political accord with Madrid after dropping the armed struggle, declaring a permanent cease-fire and last month decommissioning its weapons. Despite that Rajoy keeps its prisoners behind bars and various political groups on the Basque nationalist left have simply been banned.

Catalonia has a right to self-determination. The Spanish government, however, is quick to contrast Scotland with Catalonia, arguing in Spain, unlike the UK, there is a constitutional block on such a referendum and that was not the case in 2014 in Scotland. That overlooks the fact that self-determination is a fundamental democratic right, and that Theresa May has just blocked the Scottish Parliament deciding on a referendum until the Brexit deal is done. In both states, there is a clause in the legislation enacting autonomy which allows Madrid and London to abolish the Catalan Generalitat or the Scottish Parliament.

For those in Scotland, I personally would not trust the Rajoy government to honour any promise not to block Scottish independence and its re-entry into the EU. ‘Spain supports the territorial integrity of the UK and doesn’t encourage secessions or divisions in any of the member states’, said Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis. ‘We prefer that things continue the way they are’.

Scotland, he said, ‘would have to join the queue, meet the requirements, go through the well-known negotiations and the outcome will be whatever those negotiations produce’.

If Catalonia votes to back independence in September that can only help those campaigning for Scottish independence.

What Catalonia’s current treatment at the hands of the EU shows is that small nations and autonomous “regions” within the EU need to start joining together for democratic changes which ensure their voices are heard and not just pushed away by the bigger states.

In the meantime, let us give support to Carme Forcadell and others being dragged before the Constitutional Court by the PP. And let’s say loud and clear Catalonia must have the right to self-determination. 

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.