In the face of the dismissal of the Catalan Government by the Spanish State, many people in the rest of the World wonder what is the best way to support Catalan, Spanish and European Democracy. Sadly, social media noise and pro-independence enthusiasm prevents us from having a better understanding of the issues. Not all the information of this puzzle is readily available and digestible. A brief alternative interpretation of the significance of the Catalan Process of Independence, informed by the views of many of those who do not support independence, is therefore necessary in this debate. I am conscious of the complexity of this topic and happy to elaborate in future contributions and engage with the readers.
Since 1980, the Catalan State (one of the most powerful of the non-sovereign States in the World) has been ruled largely by Catalan nationalist governments who have promoted a mono-national Catalonia, not necessarily independent, through public media and education. Some in the Spanish Right consider the Catalanist Government’s nationalist policies a form of indoctrination. The Left in Spain accepted them as a legitimate reaction to Francoism, between 1939 and 1975. I simply call them “nation-making”, or “fer país” (“make country”), which is how many Catalan Nationalist call it themselves when they refer to the promotion of their ideology (this is something that we all have experienced in our respective nations in one way or another). As a consequence of this, for decades, “Spain” has been officially regarded in Catalonia, at best, as a political structure that Catalans lived under, not as a nation that its people should be happy to adhere to. Catalonia is “the country”. This is despite the fact that since surveys began more than 25 years ago the vast majority of Catalans felt, to varying degrees, both Spanish and Catalan. Thankfully, society was much richer than the Catalan State. People continued to speak during this time both Castilian Spanish and Catalan.
However, Catalan Independence became the official ideology of the Catalan State in 2012 as a result of a complex set of internal circumstances and dynamics coupled by serious errors by the Spanish Partido Popular. At that point, the relationship between the Catalan Government and civic mass organisations supporting independence, mainly Òmnium Cultural and the ANC (National Catalan Assembly), became instrumental for the current Catalan Road Map to Independence. Support for independence rocketed. From a modest 15%, 20% as a maximum, throughout decades, independentism went up to around 45%. In parallel to this, support for a legal and negotiated referendum grew among those voters in the left who did not support independence.
The very colourful and well-organised demonstrations, the wise use of social media, the penetration of seasoned pro-independence activist in all sorts of civic organisations (parents associations, professional groups, student unions, etc) contributed, as much as concerted Government action, to the creation of an environment in which being loud and proud about independence was not only encouraged but seen as the right thing to do. Independence was cool.
Interestingly, the ethnic and cultural arguments for independence held by many in the Catalanist movement in the past, which contained an element of supremacist belittling of poor, underdeveloped Spaniards, were bundled up, and thankfully tamed, with a wider range of political, democratic, emancipatory, economic, globalists discourses, attracting broader sectors of society. Each cluster of the Catalan political spectrum was offered a reason to leave Spain. Old and new grievances, from the 1714 defeat and the Franco dictatorship, to the rejection by the Constitutional Tribunal of parts of the 2006 Catalan Statute, were integrated in a successful and heart-felted narrative of victimism. The disastrous handling of the illegal Referendum by the Spanish Government on the 1st of October immediately joint the list of issues. It is worth noting that there is no alternative Catalan official narrative for their history that incorporates long periods of peace and development as part of Spain.
In this “Independent Catalan Atmosphere” the other Catalans, those who do not want independence, could hardly be seen. They had relied for years on the Spanish Constitution and the Spanish and Catalan institutions to protect them. They had generally avoided public dialectical confrontation with a fired-up sector of society backed by activism, Government and Media who had appropriated the name and symbols of Catalonia for their particular political ends. Rational debates were hard to hold when political claims of a seamless and economically promising independence were blended with passion and pride. The most radical pro-independence activists named and shamed local Catalan politicians authorities or artists who showed their disconformity with the independence process. For them, anyone resisting independence was a fascist, a friend of Franco, even if they actually had fought against its regime. Sadly, in an atmosphere of State-backed street populism like this, many people choose to go quiet. Pluralism was cynically forgotten, just left to flourish naturally at the level of society.
Another reason for concern: some right-wing movements are now taking advantage of the collective pain inflicted on Spanish society in order to resuscitate authoritarian Spanish nationalism. Let us bear in mind that there has never been a Spanish nation, as a modern sovereign social imaginary, that did not include Catalonia in its territorial frame. This Spain, with Catalonia, is the only nation for a majority of Spanish people. Not everybody in Spain has another nation, like Catalonia or the Basque Country, to which to direct their loyalties. That is why this is different from the Scottish case. If Scotland go, English people still have an intact core nation, England, to identify with. But if Catalonia goes, Spain breaks up and a whole set of emotional and cultural realities are, from the point of view of Spanish people, severely damaged. Such is the nature of nations.
What happens next
At the time of writing this article, the now dismissed President of Catalunya is calling for democratic resistance and has announced his intention to hold on to power. Meanwhile the ANC (Catalan National Assembly) and Òmnium Cultural prepare for street resistance. They have asked their people to “keep the energies” and take it to the “bars, cinemas, gyms and night club” in defense of their republic. The leaders of these two key groups are in prison for allegedly committing sedition by organising a mob protest of thousands who sieged an official building in Barcelona for almost 24 hours, attempting to prevent a judiciary investigation (radical left and pro-independence parties believe their imprisonment to be part of State political repression).
Regrettable as it may be, at some point the Catalan Government had to be made accountable for this serious breach of Catalan and Spanish law, as well as collective and individual rights, no matter how democratically elected they may be. In a situation of parallel legalities, stalemate, brinkmanship and social conflict, fresh elections in Catalonia are, democratically, the less damaging of the short-term options.
Europe needs to realise that support for this Catalan Process would be an unforgivable rendition to a form of ethno-populism that challenges the Rule of Law from within the institutions themselves and endangers pluralism and even the foundations of our peace. We need to rebuild our governance, in Spain and Europe, to ensure that, whatever we evolve into politically, democracy is not about the survival of the loudest. Governments, at all levels, must embrace cultural and national pluralism. Constitutional changes to borders and forms of government must only be accepted when there is a cool inclusive debate and a solid majority in support of them. Rule by referendum is tantamount to disposable, one-off democracy. National emotions, as we have seen in the case of Brexit and throughout the history of Europe, are a dangerous matter. A serious long-term project of alter-national healing and education needs to start in Spain and in Catalonia.