Catalonia: ‘Suspend self-rule and we declare independence’

A woman carries a Catalan independence flag as demonstrators march in downtown Barcelona.
October 20, 2017

The Spanish People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has decided to implement direct rule in Catalonia.

In implementing article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows central government intervention in regional governments, Rajoy has the full support of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and the new-right party Citizens. The unprecedented intervention is the first since the present Spanish constitution was adopted in 1978.

The announcement came on October 19, only 30 minutes after the Spanish cabinet received a reply from Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont about whether the Catalan parliament had formally declared independence in its session of October 10.

Under article 155, the premier of the targeted region is given a chance to explain their administration’s position: if the answer is unsatisfactory, an intervention package can be put to the Spanish Senate for approval.

Puigdemont made clear, in reply to the summons he had received, that the Catalan parliament had not formally declared independence. By then, it was too late. The Rajoy government had already decided to “end the agony” (in the prime minister’s words on October 11) and move to take over the Catalan administration.

The Spanish government, backed by the entire Spanish establishment, has been on the war path against the Catalan movement and government since September 6. That was the day the Puigdemont government adopted legislation for a referendum on independence, showing it was determined to give Catalans the chance to decide whether they wanted to remain in the Spanish state.

Despite the presence of 10,000 Spanish police and Civil Guard, mass citizen organisation and resistance made sure the October 1 referendum went ahead — the big defeat for the Rajoy government strengthened Madrid’s determination to act against “separatist defiance”.

Crushing the movement

The decision of the Rajoy government to invoke article 155 was denounced by En Comu Podem, the largest Catalan force in the Spanish parliament.

Spokesperson Xavier Domenech said: “What is clear is that someone wants to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy by saying that something happened that didn’t happen, and that is absolutely incomprehensible for the majority of the population, to all citizens and is incomprehensible at the level of Europe.”

Basque Premier Inigo Urkullu, of the conservative Basque Nationalist Party, added: “A unilateral declaration of independence never took place, so in no way at all should the application of article 155 of the constitution go ahead.

“Let the possibilities of a process of dialogue via a formula agreed by members of both governments be explored, unconditionally and without humiliations.”

However, this will not happen. Despite secondary differences, the three main Spanish centralist parties are set on getting control of the government apparatus in Catalonia and organising elections in conditions favouring a loss for the pro-independence forces (including the possibility of their parties being outlawed).

Miquel Iceta, the secretary of the PSOE’s Catalan affiliate, the Party of Catalan Socialists (PSC), justified invoking article 155 even while noting that Puigdemont had said independence had not been declared.

The “problem”, Iceta said, was Puigdemont’s threat to declare independence if article 155 were applied: that attitude, concluded Iceta, “makes it inevitable that the Spanish government will apply article 155”.

Iceta was careful to avoid drawing too much attention to the 100% support that the PSOE was giving to Rajoy’s operation. Indeed, PSOE secretary Pedro Sanchez told fellow European social democrats in Brussels last week: “You may have thought that what is happening in Catalonia is due to a lack of democracy on the part of the Spanish political system. The opposite is the case".

Labelling the Catalan movement an expression of “populism”, Sanchez compared it to the far right in Hungary and Poland. “What we are doing is defending European values in a part of our country,” he offered.

The Jordis

Sanchez’s comments may have been responsible for the European Parliament’s speakership panel deciding on October 19 not to have a plenary discussion on the worst action to date of the Spanish politico-judicial establishment: the arrest of the presidents of the Catalan National Assembly, Jordi Sanchez, and Catalan language and culture association Omnium Cultural, Jordi Cuixart.

“The Jordis”, as they are known, were detained on October 16 on the order of a judge of the National High Court. Sanchez and Cuixart face charges of “sedition” for organising a “tumultuous riot” (in truth, a peaceful protest) outside the Catalan government’s economics ministry building while it was being raided by the Civil Guard on September 20.

They could be held in jail for up to four years before facing trial.

The aim of the detentions is to disorganise the Spanish state’s most powerful enemy in Catalonia: not the Catalan government, already weakened by having its finances taken over by the Spanish treasury, but the organised mass movement for Catalonia’s national rights.

This movement’s greatest achievement to date was the holding of the October 1 referendum. It will be crucial to resisting intervention.

Spanish government spokespeople have reacted sharply against description of the Jordis as “political prisoners” — a description accepted by all parties to the left of the PSOE and all nationalist parties in the Spanish state.

According to the PP, PSOE and Citizens, the two leaders are merely suspects awaiting trial, detained by an independent judiciary to prevent them reoffending. However, already on October 12, the rumour picked up by reporters was that the Jordis' detention had already been decided by presiding magistrate Carmen Lamela and communicated to her masters in the Spanish interior ministry.

Surgical operation?

If the arrest of the Jordis was supposed to demoralise the movement, it had the opposite effect. On October 18, 200,000 people filled Barcelona’s Diagonal to demand their release, with proportionately large demonstrations in all major Catalan towns.

The arrests also began to close down the sometimes sharp debate within the pro-independence camp over the October 10 decision of the Puigdemont government to suspend its declaration of independence to call for negotiations with the Spanish state.

This decision was made not in the hope that the Rajoy administration would change its authoritarian stance, but to further expose it to democratic-minded public opinion in the rest of the Spanish state and, in particular, across Europe.

The arrests of the Jordis made it clear there was nothing to be gained from seeking talks with a Spanish government determined to crush the movement.

The question for the pro-independence camp and the Puigdemont government then became when and how to lift the October 10 suspension of the independence declaration.

At the time of writing, the majority opinion — not shared by the anti-capitalist People’s Unity List (CUP), which always favoured an immediate independence declaration — is that this will be determined by the October 21 meeting of the Spanish cabinet.

What is certain is that such a declaration will take place, and the Catalan movement must expect attacks that could include the sacking of the Puigdemont government.

Debate rages among those supporting the implementation of article155 as to what depth of intervention is needed. The PSOE (and, so far, the Rajoy government) favour a “lite”, “surgical” operation that prepares the way for regional elections in January and leaves as many responsibilities in Catalan hands as possible.

The aim of this 155 lite is to maintain the fiction that the intervention is not to remove Catalan self-rule, but save it after the madness of the independence push.

Building the resistance

The PP’s Catalan branch leader Xavier Garcia Albiol, however, is sceptical about such an operation’s chances of success. He believes a purge of the key institutions of the Catalan state — the police force, education system, and public media — is essential to defeat the movement and making regional elections winnable for pro-Madrid forces.

He may be right, because the 155 intervention is bound to meet organised resistance — from the Catalan government and especially the popular movement. Events since the September 20 Civil Guard raids have seen the movement grow in numbers and organisation, most importantly with the creation of the Committees for the Defence of the Referendum (CDRs).

The CDRs held their first national meeting on October 14, with 200 representatives from90 committees developing an agenda covering fighting funds, mass community paste-ups, legal defence and solidarity against impending arrests, psychological support to people assaulted by Spanish police and Civil Guard, and building protests demanding the removal of these forces from Catalonia.

Most importantly, discussion focused on preparing the next general strike and “civic stoppage” for when article 155 starts being applied.

On October 18, the platform En Peu de Pau (“On a peaceful footing”) was launched with a view to developing the movement's capacity to offer peaceful resistance and avoid provocations in a climate of confrontation with the likely return of the police violence seen on October 1.

The movement may also face new aggression from the Spanish-patriotic ultra-right, which has been increasingly active over the past month.

On October 18, a pro-Spanish rule demonstration in Barcelona was practically taken over by far-right thugs, who tried to set up road blocks that only allowed cars to pass if drivers said “Viva Spain”. The action failed, but was an indicator of what the 155 intervention may unleash.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is running a live blog at GreenLeft.org.au on the Catalan struggle. A longer version of this article will be published soon at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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