Catalan movement struggles for united strategy against Spanish state

April 2, 2018
Pro-independence supporters demonstrate in Barcelona on March 12.

[Updated on April 6.]

“General strike! General strike! General strike!” In protests across Catalonia after the March 23 jailing of five MPs and the March 25 detention in Germany of Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, these words rang out loud and appeared on placards and banners everywhere.

A general strike would certainly make the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the senior judges doing its bidding think twice about their relentless persecution of Catalonia’s pro-independence MPs.

Except that a general strike, while desirable and important as a goal, will not happen until there is an earthquake in the Catalan trade union movement.

The reasons why point to the underlying causes of the Catalan independence movement’s trouble in developing a stable and united strategy against the Spanish state’s tightening legal siege.

This siege reached its latest high point on March 23 when Spanish Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena confirmed charges ranging from rebellion to embezzlement and disobedience against 25 Catalan leaders.

At the same time, the detention of Puigdemont — after Llarena re-issued European arrest warrants for the Catalan MPs in exile — has turned the spotlight on the Spanish judicial crackdown itself.

A surge in attention from a European public is taking place. Crucially, the majority German feeling, as shown by a recent Der Spiegel poll, is that Puigdemont should not be extradited to Spain.


This rise in sympathy for the Catalan cause is feeding straight into the independence movement’s own debate. Its discussion is about the conditions needed for disobedience towards Spain to have an acceptable chance of success.

Which of the fronts of struggle — the pro-independence mass movements, the Committees in Defence of the Republic (CDRs), the Catalan parliament and the municipalities, the trade unions, international solidarity — to prioritise in any given political context? How to have them best interact?

At one pole in a complex debate that crosses parties and mass organisations are those, mainly but not only around the left-independentist People’s Unity List (CUP), who think that the conditions for success already exist. What’s more, acts of disobedience will spark a virtuous circle of revolt as more people become convinced of the chances of success.

This position stresses the victory of the October 1 referendum in the face of Spanish police repression, the October 3 general stoppage and the vast demonstrations, and confirmation of a pro-independence majority at the December 21 elections.

On this basis, the CUP gives full support to the actions of the CDRs that assert Catalan republican sovereignty against the Spanish state through actions such as removing barriers on toll roads.

On March 22, the CUP’s MPs abstained on the investiture of Together for Catalonia (JxCat) leader Jordi Turull as president on the grounds that this would simply be another Spanish regional administration and would not “unfold the Republic”. Without CUP support, the investiture failed.

The other pole, around the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and with some support within JxCat, also acknowledges the gains won in last October’s mobilisations. However, it argues that these alone are insufficient to give the movement the strength it needs to withstand a Spanish establishment determined to crush “separatist defiance”.

All the more so because on October 27, the day the Catalan parliament declared independence, the Spanish government ended Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish Constitution.

This position stresses the ongoing social and political weaknesses of the independence bloc. For example, while winning a majority of seats on December 21, it only managed to win 47.5% of the vote.

The rabidly Spanish-centralist Citizens emerged as the largest party (with about 25% of the vote) on the back of a campaign that cynically exploited Spanish versus Catalan identity sentiment.

For the ERC, the priority is to recover Catalan self-government and implement a program to improve the lives of all Catalans. In this way, it seeks to expose Citizens’ demagogic rant about the independence bloc sacrificing ordinary people’s lives to its “mad fantasy”.


Of particular concern is the possibility of the Spanish government taking advantage of any violence — real or manufactured — to declare a state of siege or as a pretext for the continuation of article 155, even if a Catalan government is formed.

Incidents of violence at the pickets called by the CDRs on March 25 showed this concern is not misplaced. They also confirmed who gains politically from any such outbreaks.

The day after, Spanish interior minister Juan Ignacio Zoido questioned the independence movement’s commitment to peaceful methods. Citizens’ leader Albert Rivera tweeted about how violence showed Catalan nationalism’s true face of “hatred and confrontation”.

By March 29, Jose Luis Abalos, the organisational secretary of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), claimed the CDRs were “the seed in Catalonia” of the Basque kale borroka (“street struggle”) that involved violent actions against the police in the 1980s and ’90s.

By April 4, the chorus of unionist “concern” about the CDRs had become deafening. The Rajoy government, Citizens, the PSOE, Spanish TV and radio and the Madrid print media had one message: CDR actions are unmasking Catalan nationalism’s violent character and the passivity of the Catalan police before it.

All this despite the fact that the CDRs are sworn to non-violent civil disobedience in accordance with the platform “On a Peaceful Footing,” around which the Catalan movement has mobilised millions for seven years now without any violence at all.

It has since emerged that what violence there was on March 25 was due to balaclava-wearing people no one could identify. This led to suspicions they were plants and to calls for face-covering to be banned at demonstrations.

Defensive and offensive alliances

Catalonia has experienced one general strike in the past six months. This was the October 3 “civilian stoppage” in protest against the Spanish state’s violence on October 1. It was called by the two major unions — the Workers Commissions (CCOO) and the General Union Of Labour (UGT) — as part of a broader alliance involving social movement, business and religious groups.

It was also supported by the minority trade union confederations, the pro-independence Intersindical-CSC and the anarcho-syndicalist General Confederation of Labour. These called a general strike of their own on November 8, but despite achieving road and rail line blockades, they could not repeat the success of October 3 without support from the major confederations.

The relative weakness of the pro-independence Intersindical-CSC in Catalonia contrasts with the situation of trade unionism in the Basque Country (Euskadi), where the two main nationalist confederations enjoy majority coverage.

In Catalonia, pro-independence unionism has so far been weak because the major confederations recruited workers coming from other parts of Spain on the basis of Catalonia being “a single people”.

As a result, the majority confederations, reflecting the attitude of many of their members, are prepared to carry out defensive industrial action — such as against the police violence of October 1. But the divisions in the Catalan working class at large mean that UGT and CCOO action in support of the Catalan Republic is unthinkable.

On the other hand, as October 3 showed, the majority confederations support defence of Catalan institutions and Catalan self-government. After meeting on March 26 with parliament speaker Roger Torrent, their leaders expressed support for action to lift the article 155 intervention, restore Catalan self-rule and free the political prisoners.

On March 27, the UGT and CCOO helped launch a “Space for Democracy and Social Harmony”, which includes the two main pro-independence associations Omnium Cultural and the Catalan National Assembly, and small and medium business groups. This alliance has called a mass demonstration in Barcelona for April 15. 

Unity for government?

On March 28, the Catalan parliament passed a resolution agreed to by JxCat, the ERC and the CUP that asserts the inviolability of all elected MPs and their right to stand for any position. It demanded the release from jail and return from exile of those charged by the Spanish courts.

A second resolution moved by Catalonia Together-Podemos (supporters of a Catalan right to decide, but not independence), was also passed. It affirmed the need to implement Catalonia’s national and social rights on the basis of broad social majorities.

However, unity remains elusive on the key question of forming government. Puigdemont’s arrest has convinced JxCat and the CUP to re-propose him as president — if only to raise the political price Spain will have to pay for jailing him.

However, the ERC remains sceptical about the usefulness of this exercise. It would violate a Constitutional Court order that candidates for president be physically present at the investiture session and open the parliament’s speakership panel to threat of arrest.

By March 30, however, rising pressure across Europe for the Spanish state to negotiate with an elected Catalan government has led to the ERC being more inclined to risk an “illegal” investiture of Puigdemont so as to further expose the Spanish state.

On April 3, in the face of furious unionist opposition, the JxCat and ERC speakership panel majority agreed to accept Puigdemont’s vote as valid, as with other jailed MPs.

When and how to disobey the Spanish state to break its siege remains the core dilemma for the independence movement. If it is not solved within two months, Catalonia will go to new elections.

On the other hand, a refusal by the German court to extradite Puigdemont could strengthen the confidence of the more cautious parts of the independence bloc.

In that case, the main dilemma would become the Spanish state’s: whether to continue tightening its siege of Catalonia, regardless of the rising political cost.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. His live blog on the Catalan fight for self-determination be read here.]

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