Catalan sovereignty movement at a crossroads

September 21, 2019
Catalan national day celebration in Barcelona on September 11.

Occupying the Plaça d’Espanya and surrounding streets on September 11, 600,000 people came out in Barcelona to celebrate Catalan National Day (the Diada).

The vast crowd demanded the acquittal of jailed Catalan social movement and political leaders, presently awaiting a Spanish Supreme Court verdict on charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement.

Most of all, they called for a united strategy from the leaderships of the Catalan sovereignty and independence movement. Let the political parties — Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the People’s Unity List (CUP)— and the mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural — show a way forward.

Two days later, at a rally in the town of Arenys de Munt — marking the 10th anniversary of the first of hundreds of municipal independence consultations that gave rise to the ANC — president Quim Torra seemed to agree: “The political class has got to learn to carry out the commitments it makes before the citizens ... we have to make a self-criticism because we’ve not been up to the job...

“When our comrades went ahead with the referendum of October 1, they knew perfectly well it could mean prison or exile ... Our job from now on, in all the actions we have to take, is to accept all the consequences. And that means that fear and threats can’t paralyse us.”

Before the day

Numbers were down at this Diada — 400,000 fewer people than last year and less than half its 1.5 million 2014 peak. Did that mean the conservative Madrid media’s repeatedly predicted and intensely desired “deflation of the independentist soufflé” had at last begun?

Past Diada demonstrations always featured a crowd “performance” (such as the 2013 Via Catalana 400km-long human chain). This time the crowd was organised in the form of a star, but the mood on the day was different than previously — it was just another demonstration, albeit huge.

Preparation for this year’s demonstration also produced controversies. Its theme, “Objective: Independence”, was decided by the ANC. This contrasted with Òmnium Cultural’s campaign platform, “We Are The 80%”, which focussed on organising all supporters of a Catalan right to self-determination and not just independentists.

The ANC also decided that there would be no special “enclosure” for the VIPs, underlining its viewpoint that the deadlock in the struggle for Catalan self-determination is due to “the politicians” (or “the parties”) not listening to “the people”.

Partly as a result of this rebuke, some ERC representatives and those of Catalonia Together (CeC), including Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, announced that they would not attend the demonstration. At the same time, CeC made sure to attend a “We Are The 80%” event organised by Òmnium Cultural earlier in the day.

This was the first time the Catalan language and culture organisation — easily Catalonia’s biggest and fastest-growing social movement — had organised a major Diada event separately from the ANC.

It meant that there were three demonstrations on September 11 —Òmnium’s, the main ANC gathering (also supported by Òmnium) and the now-traditional evening march of the pro-independence left.


This fraught situation was the latest reflection of the divide within the pro-sovereignty movement, which began to open after the symbolic declaration of Catalan independence on October 27, 2017 — just days before the Spanish government suspended Catalan self-rule under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.

Its starkest form has been party-political rivalry between JxCat and ERC. While negotiating to form the ruling coalition in the Catalan government, following the May 28 municipal elections, the two pro-independence parties made deals against each other over the make-up of a number of council and district administrations.

Both formed coalitions with unionist forces, mainly the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), the Catalan affiliate of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE).

At a deeper social level, this division reflects contrasting reactions to setbacks suffered after the 2017 referendum. One pole, articulated most by the ERC, judges that the social base of the movement for a Catalan Republic needs broadening before any new showdown with the Spanish State.

The other, expressed by JxCat and the non-party umbrella group, Call for the Republic, holds that the movement must organise now for a new round of conflict with Madrid.

The difficulty reaching strategic unity was shown by the failure of a July 5 Geneva meeting, involving all the “players”, to agree on a united response to the looming sentencing of the political prisoners. Negotiations still continue in the hope of finding one.

Jailed ERC president Oriol Junqueras tweeted on September 6, in reaction to exiled former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont’s and Torra’s opposition to an early Catalan poll, which they feared might “weaken the institutions”: “Never been seen before that someone should say that the fact that people vote weakens the institutions.”

This outburst coincided with efforts by all sides to build attendance at the Diada. Picking up the pre-Diada mood of flatness, the movement’s major figures kept issuing calls for attendance, including in a video clip by Puigdemont and exiled ERC general secretary Marta Rovira.

Catalonia awoke on September 10 to a statement signed by all its political prisoners and exiles urging the biggest possible turnout at the Diada.

A week before, a new initiative called Democratic Tsunami, also enjoying across-the-board support, appeared on social networks, billboards and banners on prominent Barcelona structures.

Its founding statement acknowledged the rising level of frustration and disorientation in the movement, but ended: “There is a response. There is a strategy. A new wave begins and its protagonist is you.”

On the day

These last minute efforts had an impact: the 600,000 turnout was the smallest in eight years, but it was still immense (8% of the population), representing the biggest mass movement in Europe.

Yet the mood of the day was a bit distracted and introverted. As the speeches rolled on with the familiar catch phraseṣ — “unity, unity, unity”, “we’ll do it again” and “politicians, just get your act together, the people are getting impatient” — many spent their time chatting with friends or in discussions.

Catalan public TV’s vox-pops captured the variety of opinions, from the impatience of “let’s just go for it” through to gloomy predictions of a long defensive phase of resistance.


The 2019 Diada was down in numbers because many Catalan sovereignty supporters just couldn’t see the point in attending.

The militant core of the movement, mainly but not only grouped in the Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), has been growing increasingly impatient and frustrated with sitting in the tent while their “generals” argue about what is to be done.

Another wing would have been put off attending by the ANC’s “onward to independence!” message, when the movement is unprepared and what most unifies it is outrage with the Supreme Court show trial and affirmation of a Catalan right to decide.

Nonetheless, it would be wrong to see this decline in numbers as a fall in support for Catalan sovereignty and independence itself: opinion polling continues to show a steady or even increasing majority for pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliament, while support for independence runs between 45% and 50%.

The Governing Council of the Council for the Republic tried to confront this complex situation on September 14, with a post-Diada declaration on the way forward.

The statement proposed that negotiations, overseen by an independent mediator, be launched with the Spanish State and that action, including organised peaceful civil disobedience, be launched against the trial verdict and in support of the right to self-determination. It also proposed that any Catalan parliamentary election be regarded as an independence referendum.

It also demanded that international and European institutions, in particular the European Union, guarantee the Spanish State observe human and democratic rights.

There is no way that the acting Spanish PSOE government is going to make the slightest step towards dialogue. PSC MP Eva Granados bluntly expressed its attitude on the eve of the Diada: “In no case do we believe in self-determination, nor do we believe that such a potentially important question should be decided by the citizenry.”

The stance of the Spanish establishment is to prepare to repress or ride out the coming post-sentence storm of protest, inflict defeat on the Catalan movement and bring the tensions within it to breaking point.

The Catalan movement and government is therefore on the brink of another historic showdown with the Spanish State, the determining factor in which will be the degree of determination, mobilisation and organisation of the movement.

[Dick Nichols, European correspondent for Green Left Weekly and Links, edits a live Green Left blog on the trial of the Catalan 12 and developments in Catalonia. The full version of this article will appear shortly on]

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