Cata­lan cri­sis

The Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Iain Macwhirter

‘If the in­de­pendis­tas re­main united they will never be de­feated’

In the age of lib­eral democ­racy, stag­ing what is po­ten­tially a mil­i­tary takeover of a re­bel­lious re­gion seems anachro­nis­tic, al­most ab­surd

IT was hard not to be in­spired by the sight of those beam­ing Cata­lan may­ors wav­ing their sticks of au­thor­ity as they cel­e­brated their coun­try’s dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence in Barcelona on Fri­day. Project Fear? They don’t know the mean­ing of the word. The Cata­lan par­lia­ment has been dis­solved, the EU has re­fused to recog­nise their new coun­try, Span­ish po­lice are on their way to beat them up, and their po­lit­i­cal lead­ers face long jail sen­tences. Yet the peo­ple on the streets don’t seem wor­ried.

This tells you some­thing about in­de­pen­dence move­ments: when peo­ple are re­ally se­ri­ous about it they don’t bother about the kind of breadand-but­ter is­sues that so ob­sessed Scot­land be­fore the 2014 ref­er­en­dum, like fis­cal black holes or what currency to have after in­de­pen­dence. Around 1,000 firms al­ready have left Cat­alo­nia in­clud­ing the big banks, Caix­aBank and Sabadell. The stock mar­ket has crashed and many Cata­lans may find them­selves out of work.

But it doesn’t seem to bother the in­de­pendis­tas. When it re­ally is a ques­tion of “Lib­er­tad”, or free­dom, those tech­ni­cal is­sues cease to be im­por­tant. Cata­lans face fi­nan­cial ruin by weep­ing tears of joy.

The Span­ish state (like BBC in­ter­view­ers) ap­pears to be gear­ing up for a con­ven­tional street con­fronta­tion, even a civil war. After all, Cat­alo­nia was orig­i­nally in­te­grated into the Spain by force in 1715, and again in 1938. But the Cata­lans are much too sen­si­ble to try to take on the mil­i­tary might of the Span­ish state. They will in­stead al­low Madrid to tie it­self in knots as it tries to take over and run the prov­ince. There will be pas­sive re­sis­tance and there will be marches and strikes. If Spain pros­e­cutes and im­pris­ons Car­les Puigde­mont, as it has threat­ened to do, a dozen oth­ers will ap­pear in his place. It’s no easy mat­ter to run a gov­ern­ment when the var­i­ous arms of the state, like the civil ser­vice, po­lice, and judges, are un­will­ing agents.

As Madrid im­poses cen­tral au­thor­ity its moral au­thor­ity will wilt and it may come to be re­garded by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity as al­most a colo­nial power, or like the Ser­bian gov­ern­ment after the break-up of Yu­goslavia. At least, that is the game plan of the Cata­lans, who ap­pre­ci­ate the power of his­tor­i­cal prece­dent. Al­ready, TV re­ports are run­ning grim footage of Cat­alo­nia be­ing sup­pressed by the dic­ta­tor Franco in 1938.

If Spain ap­pears, in the eyes of the world, to be em­u­lat­ing the fas­cists in 2017 then it will rapidly lose its claim of right over Cat­alo­nia. Al­ready, prime min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy has un­der­mined Spain’s case in three ways: by hav­ing been the first to re­sort to vi­o­lence, by re­fus­ing to au­tho­rise a ref­er­en­dum, and by abol­ish­ing the demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment in Barcelona.

What the Span­ish state is try­ing to do is old-fash­ioned, even a lit­tle quaint. In the age of lib­eral democ­racy, stag­ing what is po­ten­tially a mil­i­tary takeover of a re­bel­lious re­gion seems anachro­nis­tic, al­most ab­surd. Gov­ern­ments just don’t be­have this way any more.

The Span­ish state is re­port­edly plan­ning to take over the Cata­lan pub­lic broad­cast­ing ser­vice, Catalun- ya Ra­dio and the tele­vi­sion com­pany, TV3 – a cu­ri­ously ana­logue form of re­pres­sion. In the age of so­cial me­dia it is al­most ir­rel­e­vant who con­trols TV and ra­dio. All it will do is pro­vide is an au­thor­i­tar­ian spec­ta­cle, a to­tal­i­tar­ian photo-op, which will be end­lessly retweeted to malign Ra­joy.

Coun­tries faced with their own in­ter­nal di­vi­sions, like the UK and France, have been quick to dis­own the Cata­lans and the European Union has re­fused to recog­nise its in­de­pen­dence.

This is only to be ex­pected. But the un­ease in Brus­sels is pal­pa­ble. The pres­i­dent of the EU Coun­cil, Don­ald Tusk, has said the mat­ter should be re­solved “by force of ar­gu­ment not by the ar­gu­ment of force”. In other words: jaw jaw.

And this is why it is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult for the Span­ish gov­ern­ment to re­store cen­tral au­thor­ity by force. The Cata­lans are not go­ing to play that game.

Through­out this cri­sis, the in­de­pendis­tas have avoided vi­o­lence, ei­ther rhetor­i­cal or ac­tual. The streets of Barcelona are not lit­tered with bar­ri­cades. There are no para­mil­i­tary na­tion­al­ist groups or­gan­is­ing on the side­lines. Car­les Puigde­mont, the Cata­lan pres­i­dent, has re­peat­edly called for di­a­logue with the Span­ish state over the con­sti­tu­tional im­passe.

It is most un­usual for rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies – and that is what the Cata­lan na­tion­al­ists are – to be­have like this, es­pe­cially after the re­pres­sion by the para­mil­i­tary Guardia Civil and after some of the move­ment’s lead­ers have been im­pris­oned. But this is a very post-mod­ern revo­lu­tion, and its lead­ers have a shrewd un­der­stand­ing of how power op­er­ates in demo­cratic so­ci­eties. To con­duct this kind of strug­gle re­quires an ex­tra­or­di­nary level of self-dis­ci­pline, if not turn­ing the other cheek.

Had there been any hint of vi­o­lence from the huge and ex­cited crowds after their par­lia­ment was ex­tin­guished, the Cata­lans knew they would be play­ing into the hands of the Madrid au­thor­i­ties and the European Union.

Vi­o­lence or ex­treme civil dis­obe­di­ence would have le­git­imised the crack down un­der the Span­ish uni­tary con­sti­tu­tion. The Cata­lan ques­tion is a bat­tle of rights, and who wins may largely be de­ter­mined by which side con­ducts it­self most in ac­cor­dance with the con­ven­tions of lib­eral democ­racy.

The Span­ish con­sti­tu­tion does not recog­nise right of se­ces­sion, and Madrid has ev­ery right to up­hold that prin­ci­ple in law. How­ever, the demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment of Cat­alo­nia (now dis­solved) be­lieves the right of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion is a higher law.

So long as they can demon­strate, be­yond doubt, that the peo­ple of the prov­ince, freely and with­out co­er­cion, de­mand the right to be an in­de­pen­dent coun­try they will ul­ti­mately pre­vail. This is be­cause, in the mod­ern age, it is not pos­si­ble to gov­ern with­out con­sent.

A state may have the right to up­hold its con­sti­tu­tion, but it does not have the right to crush dis­sent by force.

There is no so­lu­tion to this prob­lem that does not hap­pen by demo­cratic process.

The will of the peo­ple has to be the fi­nal ar­biter, and the Cata­lan ques­tion will ul­ti­mately have to be re­solved in a ref­er­en­dum, as in Scot­land, Que­bec or any of the hun­dred-odd coun­tries that have be­come in­de­pen­dent since the Sec­ond World War. Madrid’s re­fusal even to talk about a ref­er­en­dum, or in­deed about restor­ing the 2006 Statute of Au­ton­omy, has placed it firmly on the wrong side of his­tory.

Mar­i­ano Ra­joy hopes that he can le­git­imise di­rect rule by hold­ing re­gional elec­tions on De­cem­ber 21. But he has to get there first.

It is not that easy to im­pose elec­tions un­der duress, when po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are in jail or be­ing pros­e­cuted in the courts for sedi­tion. The Cata­lans will in­sist that the elec­tions can­not be free and fair when their demo­crat­i­cally-elected par­lia­ment has just been dis­solved.

Nev­er­the­less, they should ap­proach the elec­tions con­struc­tively for they present an op­por­tu­nity to get the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in­volved. An in­de­pen­dent au­thor­ity, the EU or the UN, will surely have to over­see these elec­tions to en­sure they are in­deed fair. This could pro­vide a show­case for the in­de­pendis­tas to demon­strate that they do in­deed speak for the peo­ple. As the old slo­gan says: the Cata­lan peo­ple united can never be de­feated.

Pho­to­graph: Jack Tay­lor/Getty Im­ages

It is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult for the Span­ish gov­ern­ment to re­store cen­tral au­thor­ity in Cat­alo­nia by force

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