Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Monday, 10 september 2018



A year ago, almost to the day, Col·lectiu Emma warned about an escalation of the conflict between Spain and Catalonia and argued for a negotiated solution involving at some point a referendum on independence. The same view was voiced by some of the better informed international observers. The Spanish government, however, remained inflexible in denying Catalans the right to express themselves through a vote. After all the efforts made to that end had failed, a referendum was called unilaterally by the Catalan government.
The Spanish authorities immediately declared the vote illegal and tried to prevent it by all possible means. Some 6,000 riot police and paramilitary officers were brought into Catalonia from different parts of Spain in all the trappings of an occupation force. In the morning of October 1st they were ordered to assault polling stations in several towns, villages and city neighborhoods. The resulting violence inflicted on peaceful citizens waiting to cast their ballots could be watched on live television by millions around the world. Many then saw for the first time a facet of Spain that they hadn't been aware of.
At the end of the day, neither side could claim total victory. Around 2.3 million had managed to vote, 90 per cent of them in favor of independence. The Spanish government had failed in its attempt to prevent the referendum, but the disruption caused gave grounds to question its validity. And yet, over 2 million votes for independence simply couldn't be ignored. On the strength of those results, and following a vote in the Catalan parliament, president Puigdemont proclaimed independence. But at the same time, amid threats of military intervention and perhaps counting on an external mediation that had been hinted at but never materialized, he announced that the declaration would be put on hold pending a negotiation with the Spanish government.
Rather than seizing the opportunity to defuse tensions and seek a deal with the Catalans, the Spanish government took the most confrontational option: before the end of the month the Catalan parliament had been dissolved, the executive dismissed and the administration taken over by the central government. Nine politicians and civil-society leaders were charged with crimes of rebellion and placed in preventive custody. Fearing the same fate, seven others, including president Puigdemont, opted to leave the country.
Using his extraordinary powers, Spanish president Rajoy called an election to the Catalan parliament. With politicians in prison or in exile, a strict control over Catalan media and a barrage of unionist propaganda coming from every Spanish channel, those were not the best circumstances for a fair election but, to the surprise and frustration of almost everyone in Spain, the pro-independence parties renewed their majority. In May a new president was sworn in who pledged to go ahead with the independence process, remaining in permanent communication with president Puigdemont and the other politicians in prison or in exile.
In June, hit by a string of corruption scandals in high places and also as a result of the failure of its policies toward Catalonia, the ruling Popular Party lost a motion of no confidence in the Spanish parliament, and a government led by the socialist Pedro Sánchez was installed in Madrid. Since then, the new president has been sending mixed messages – stating his readiness to tackle the Catalan situation through dialogue but doing very little to undo the harm done by his predecessor. This is essentially how things stand on the political front.
In the meantime, more than a thousand public officials and private citizens are being investigated or have been charged in relation with their presumed role in the referendum. Seven elected representatives, including president Puigdemont, remain in the three European countries where extradition requests by the Spanish supreme court were either turned down or withdrawn. The other politicians and civil-society leaders arrested between October and March are still in prison awaiting a trial that no one in Catalonia expects to be fair. Regardless of the result, the whole procedure will be brought before the European Court of Human Rights and the human rights mechanism of the United Nations, where a condemnation of the Spanish government's actions is taken for granted. Both in Catalonia and abroad, the defendants are largely considered political prisoners and a guilty verdict in the Spanish courts would trigger a popular outcry and a response by the Catalan government. What might follow is anyone's guess.
Many in Catalonia today haven't given up hope on the civilized solution that a growing segment of European public opinion is also wishing for. In the international arena, the battle of ideas is slowly but steadily being won by the Catalan camp, not least because the path that the Spanish state has taken so far is undermining its credentials as a genuine democracy. By its government's actions – the dirty war on politicians and the flouting of individual rights, the barbarity of October 1st, the virtual state of emergency imposed through the takeover of Catalan institutions, the tolerance of the vigilante tactics employed by small but aggressive unionist gangs and even their endorsement by some parties, or the continuing judicial onslaught against elected representatives, making a mockery of the separation of powers – Spain has placed itself in the same category as other illiberal states – Turkey or Russia come to mind – hovering on the fringes of democratic Europe.
The new Spanish administration has a chance to repair that image, but only if it shows the necessary political will to change course and avoid the same mistakes made by its predecessors. This requires engaging in a truly bilateral debate in which no subjects are off-limits and no red lines are drawn beforehand. Catalans would need little inducement to sit at that table. In fact, that's what they've been demanding at every turn. It is the Spanish side that might want some serious prodding from outside, if only to help president Sánchez overcome the hostility of the opposition and the reluctance of some in his own party for whom any deal with Catalonia is tantamount to high treason.
At the end of that process of dialogue, if it finally goes underway, the political representatives would need to go back to the people with the outcome of their negotiation. This means an official referendum where the choice would be between independence and whatever alternative the Spanish side is willing to put forth. Then the people's decision should be respected by all, at home and abroad, and all should work to implement it.
European governments may be unsure about or openly averse to the idea of independence for Catalonia, but they certainly should worry about the disregard for basic human rights that is being witnessed in Spain. And they can hardly evade upholding essential principles of good governance, including the right of self-determination for all peoples together with the primacy of peaceful and democratic solutions for all political problems. In the present climate in Europe, passivity is not an option. Putting the decision on independence in the hands of the people is the course of action supported by more than three quarters of Catalans. It is also the outcome that Spain's partners should support as the best way to prevent a further descent into authoritarianism of yet another European country and the comeback of an undemocratic past that should be feared also for its repercussions on the whole continent.


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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

We aim to be recognized as a trustworthy source of information and ideas about Catalonia from a Catalan point of view.
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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia