No sooner had Catalan president Artur Mas guided his nationalist coalition to victory at Catalonia’s plebiscitary elections on Sunday night than a court in Madrid announced that Mas would face formal charges relating to civil disobedience and the ‘usurpation’ of Spanish constitutional powers.
The complaints were filed against Mas before Sunday’s vote and refer to his involvement in an unofficial – and, in all likelihood, illegal – independence referendum staged by the Catalan government on 9 November last year.
But the timing and symbolism of the announcement could not have been worse for Spain.
One of the chief motors of Catalan nationalism is the desire, held by a significant section of the Catalan population, for Catalonia to ‘have its say’ on the nature of its relationship with Madrid. And, over the last few years, Madrid’s equally steadfast refusal to let the Catalans ‘have their say’ has reinforced Catalan nationalist sentiment.
So the prospect of Spanish authorities prosecuting Mas for trying to facilitate a democratic poll on independence will consolidate the view many Catalans have of Spain as institutionally anti-democratic. To round off this spectacular Spanish publicity disaster, Mas’s court date has been set for 15 October – the 75th anniversary of the execution of Lluis Companys, who served as president of Catalonia between 1933 and 1940, by Franco’s army.
What I find most striking as I watch this crisis unfold from my flat in Sants, a sprawling working-class district of Barcelona, is how little the sense of crisis seems to extend beyond Spain’s borders. Europe is either indifferent to or complicit in Spain’s belligerent dismissal of Catalan democracy.
On Monday, Gianni Pittella, president of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists in the European Parliament, described Sunday’s poll as “a regional election and not a referendum on independence.”
“The real challenge is not fragmenting national states but to make the whole of Europe stronger together,” he said. “The demands for further autonomy can be fulfilled, but within the [framework of] national unity.”
Pittella may not have realised, or simply didn’t care enough to know, that Catalan demands for enhanced autonomy have been consistently ignored by Spanish governments of both the left and the right for more than a decade.
In 2003, the Catalan parliament chose to update and strengthen the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, a document protecting Catalonia’s status as a distinct political community within Spain.
At first, the Spanish Socialist Party and its leader Jose Zapatero, then in opposition, welcomed the idea. But once elected, Zapatero’s enthusiasm cooled. In 2005, after the new Statute had been approved by the Catalan parliament, Zapatero announced that he wouldn’t endorse anything that undermined the Spanish constitution, which includes a provocative clause enshrining the ‘indissoluble unity’ of the Spanish nation.
Five years later, the Spanish constitutional court struck down key passages of the Statute and, in 2011, Mariano Rajoy, leader of the abrasively right-wing Partido Popular (PP), took power in Madrid and promptly shut-down any discussion of extending Catalan devolution.
The election on Sunday, and November’s non-binding plebiscite, were attempts to break the resulting deadlock. Both were denounced by Madrid as illegitimate.
The noises now emanating from the Spanish capital are increasingly sinister. On Spanish TV yesterday Ramon Rodriguez, a former vice-president of the Spanish supreme court, remarked that “as a last resort [against Catalan independence], our police have machine guns.” Rodriguez’s comments echoed those of Spanish defence minister Pedro Morenés, who warned just prior to the vote that military intervention in Catalonia would not be necessary “as long as everyone does their duty.”
Under different circumstances, rhetoric of this sort might elicit an international response. But Europe remains silent. There has been no call from Angela Merkel or David Cameron to respect the outcome of a fair and transparent election; no statement issued by the European Commission pleading with Spain to resolve its dispute with Catalonia non-violently; and no European effort to address a political conflict at the heart of Europe that threatens to turn nasty.
As far as Europe is concerned, Catalonia is an internal problem for Spain – even if Spain decides to deal with that problem in ways that are inconsistent with ‘European ideals.’
It is not likely to come to that.
Catalan nationalists have set-out an 18 month timetable for independence during which they hope to wrench a legally-binding referendum out of Madrid. And before then, on 20 December, there is the Spanish general election. Although the Socialists, whose approach to Catalonia is less aggressive than that of Rajoy, currently trail the PP in the polls, they could still end-up in power. With the support of Podemos, the insurgent leftwing party led by Pablo Iglesias, the left may have enough seats to lock Rajoy out of office.
Even then, however, a legal referendum may not be possible. In order for a referendum to be authorised, the Spanish Congress would have to vote by a two-thirds super majority to change the Spanish constitution. And the prospect of that happening, as the situation deteriorates, seems vanishingly slight.
Writing yesterday, Catalan academic Josep Valles summarised the forces in Spain gathered against Catalan independence and explained the effect the break-up of Spain would have on the Spanish political psyche.
“The Spanish state’s high bureaucracy, the main economic and financial powers, the most important media and cultural groups and, finally, a large majority of Spanish public opinion [are all opposed],” Valles wrote. “The interests and mindset associated with Spanish nationalism judge an eventual Catalan separation as an unacceptable defeat.”
But Spain is already acting as though it has suffered an unacceptable defeat. How will it behave if negotiations fail and a divided Catalonia unilaterally heads for the exit door?
At 10pm last night, some of my neighbours in Sants leaned out of their windows and began clattering their pots and pans together. This is an old Catalan (and Latin American) tradition, used to express political dissent, and I have heard it on previous trips to Barcelona. But last night was, I think, the first time it had happened since I arrived in the city ten days ago.
There will be a lot more clattering in the weeks and months to come.