Looking at the Catalan Situation Five Days after the Referendum
Five days after the referendum the tension between the Spanish and Catalan governments as the former defended the brutal actions of its security services as legal and proportionate and the latter, boosted by the results and the success of the general strike on October 3rd, moved closer to making a declaration of independence.
It was always clear that the referendum didn’t go ahead under normal circumstances so it wasn’t surprising that the team of international observers declared that the results could not be taken as completely valid. However, neither the Catalan government and their supporters nor the Spanish government and their supporters were prepared to back down and the brinkmanship continued. I still believed that the issue had important implications for sovereignty, for the rest of Europe and for the rest of the world.
This was supposed to be a referendum on independence from Spain but the circumstances it was held under were particularly difficult because it had been declared unconstitutional and therefore illegal. This resulted in the violent behaviour of the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard on referendum day.
The most iconic photograph was the one of an elderly woman with grey hair. She is facing the camera, eyes closed with a pained expression on her face as blood pours across her forehead, down her nose, across her mouth, off her chin and onto her clothes from a massive wound above her hairline. Behind her the armoured helmeted police officers face off against two middle-aged housewives, who are staring back at them, unable to believe what had just happened. According to the Spanish government, these middle-aged and elderly women were violent protesters and the police had acted proportionately.
There were many more images of this kind with the Spanish police attacking people with truncheons and behaving with a level of violence inappropriate in any country that calls itself democratic. In fact, before the referendum, Julian Assange had tweeted that the Catalan conflict would lead to the next Tianamen Square.
The final results were: 2,262,424 votes were cast of which 90% were in favour of independence. However, 770,000 were unable to be cast because either ballot boxes were confiscated by the police or polling stations were closed. So the real figure ought have been more than 3 million which is over 50% of the 5.3 million census. My estimations of the real figures, based on the Catalan parliamentary elections of September 2015, were that around 50% of Catalans supported independence, 35% were against it and 15% were still undecided.
The publication of the results led to an escalation of brinkmanship between the Catalan and Spanish governments because despite the opinion of the international observers, the Catalan government believed the results were enough to declare independence. I had been doubtful about this on Sunday and Monday but the general strike in favour of independence and against police brutality on Tuesday, which was backed by the major trades unions and the pro-independence grassroots organisations, the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural and brought hundreds of thousands of people out onto the streets of villages, towns and cities all over Catalonia.
The reason why the general strike convinced was that it was an even stronger show of the Catalans’ peaceful civic commitment to independence than the referendum had been. The turnout was massive, not just in Barcelona but all across Catalonia.
Later that evening, flushed with the success of the referendum and the general strike, Carles Puigdemont, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, gave an interview to the BBC. One of the interesting things about the interview was he gave it in Spanish and not in Catalan, his native language and that of his supporters, nor in English, the language of the interviewer and the international community. The reason why he spoke in Spanish was because he was sending a message to the Spanish people and this meant that any clips shown wouldn’t have to be overdubbed or subtitled when shown on Spanish TV. The message he was sending was that as soon as all the result were in from the postal vote abroad, he and the Catalan government would be making a statement, which would probably be after the weekend.
He also denounced the police brutality and said that this showed the lack of Spanish democracy. He also called Europe into question asking how the European Union could claim to be democratic when it allowed one of its member states to behave this fashion. He also said repeatedly that he would be prepared to negotiate with the Spanish government and called for international mediation so he definitely showed that the Catalans were open to dialogue.
However, later that evening, King Felipe VI made a statement on Spanish television accusing the Catalan government of “inadmissible disloyalty” and “dividing the Catalan people” and also said that Catalonia was heading towards “a very grave situation”. It was pretty obvious that this speech had been prepared by the Spanish government and many people here in Catalonia felt the King had missed an opportunity to be a mediator between the two sides. He could have said that the Spanish government would also be open to dialogue and thereby decrease the tension. However, he continued preaching the authoritarian centralist Spanish line, which only made the Catalans even more annoyed with the Spanish government.
Meanwhile, later that night, disturbances began in the coastal towns of Pineda and Calella, which are well-known holiday resorts about an hours drive north of Barcelona. Both the Spanish National Police and the Civil Guard had booked hotels in these towns and used them to house their officers. I’d heard reports that some of the officers had been drinking in bars around the towns and bragging about what they’d done on Sunday, which had really upset the local residents. As a result, they began demonstrating outside the hotels and putting pressure on the owners to eject the police.
The police officers finally left the hotels on Thursday but rather than leaving Catalonia, they drove to a town called Sant Boi de Llobregat just south of Barcelona, where some disused army and police barracks had been rehabilitated to house them so many Catalans I know considered the country to be under military occupation.
This sentiment grew even stronger as the Spanish judiciary got typically heavy handed and brought charges of sedition against Josep Lluís Trapero, the chief of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, Jordi Sànchez, the president of the main pro-independence organisation Catalan National Assembly, and Jordi Cuixart, the president of the other main pro-independence organisation Òmnium Cultural. One can understand why they’d go after Sànchez and Cuixart because they’re the leaders of the independence movement.
However, bringing charges against Trapero was completely unacceptable to most Catalans. He was accused of telling his officers not to do their job properly on referendum day. They had been ordered to go to the polling stations and close them down as long as this wouldn’t result in an outbreak of violence. This is what they did, which was in complete contrast to the Spanish National Police and the Civil Guard, who went in batons flailing and firing rubber bullets at innocent voters. What’s more they were all unidentifiable because they were wearing helmets. It’s been many years since we’ve seen such totalitarian images in a so-called European democracy. Bringing charges against the three of them only served to escalate tension and bad feelings.
Later on the same day, Thursday, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, made astatement on Spanish television saying he wasn’t interested in any kind of mediation and wasn’t prepared to negotiate on the referendum and various other ministers came out and said more or less the same thing. It was clear that the Spanish government’s plan was to continue with the heavy handed tactics.
Thursday was a bad day for Catalonia as representatives of the Catalan Parliament announced they would be holding a plenary session the following Monday to discuss the referendum once all the results had finally been counted. The purpose of the session was debate and they hadn’t even suggested that there would be a declaration of independence because there was still disagreement between the independence parties about what would be said.
However, the PSC, the Catalan affiliate of PSOE, the Spanish socialist party, took the motion to the Spanish Constitutional Court, which immediately banned the plenary session. Once again, like in the referendum, the situation was one of ne’er the twain shall meet. The Catalan Parliament believed it had the right to meet to discuss, debate and then take a decision about how to act on the referendum results. The Spanish Constitutional Court had stated that this was unconstitutional and therefore illegal.
I wondered what would happen the following Monday and thought that perhaps there would be another mobilisation to insist that the plenary session would go ahead. We had seen on the day of the general strike how quickly people could be mobilised when necessary. My view was that if the people came out onto the streets it would be almost impossible to stop them.
The Spanish police hadn’t gone anywhere, though, and were particularly annoyed at having been thrown out of the hotels in Calella and Pineda. Various police representatives had been on the news complaining about being insulted by Catalans, which was hardly surprising given that a few days earlier they had been beating up old ladies and shooting rubber bullets at people.
Another important piece of news that week was that companies, most notably Caixabank and Banc Sabadell, the two most important Catalan banks, had decided to move their head offices outside Catalonia to Palma de Mallorca and Alicante respectively. A number of other smaller companies said the would be moving to Zaragoza in nearby Aragón. The Spanish news had gleefully reported on all of this suggesting that Catalonia was about to go bankrupt. However, moving headquarters is not actually the same as leaving Catalonia. In the case of the banks, the move was to assuage the paranoia of their customers in other parts of Spain, who were being told by media in the rest of Spain that Catalonia was about to go bankrupt and that they would lose all their money.
As I was optimistic about the success of the Catalan push for independence, I felt that the fact that companies were leaving meant that they were also taking the possibility of independence seriously. It was also significant that the only companies moving were those with a strong client base in the rest of Spain. Companies that relied on Catalan clients or international companies were going nowhere.
The final item in the news was the position of the European Union and the other major European countries. I had seen people in the streets carrying banners with “Europe are blind? Democracy is dying.”, “893 victims and many more victims. What else do you need Europe?” and other similar slogans written on them.
I was convince that as the dispute continued, the only option was some kind of international mediation but the EU, Germany, France, Italy, Holland and quite a few other countries had all said they supported Mariano Rajoy and the unity of Spain. Europe was seriously being called into question.
A lot of people had asked me what the Catalans opinion on the European Union was. My opinion was that the Catalans had always been very pro-EU, firstly because they’d never really had to think about it and Spain is a net receiver of subsidies and secondly, because they had rather disingenuously expected the EU to protect them from military occupation by Spain. If Europe were to fail them, I felt that Euroscepticism would rise very quickly. I also thought it left the door open for other major actors on the world stage, such as Russia, Turkey, the UK, the US or even China, to come in and fill the vacuum.
This was my view of things five days after the referendu. I couldn’t see either side backing down and feared that it would be difficult to avoid more violence. Some kind of external mediation was necessary in order to get both sides to sit down at the table.