Whenever supporters of Catalan sovereignty and independence have been asked to travel far from home to champion their country’s democratic rights, they have always rallied to the cause.
In December 2017, with half the leaders of the October 1 independence referendum in jail and the other half in exile, 45,000 Catalans marched in Brussels demanding European Union intervention in their country’s conflict with the Spanish state.
In March last year, tens of thousands travelled to Madrid to join democratic-minded people from around Spain in a 120,000-strong rally to assert that “Self-Determination is not a Crime”.
In July, more than 10,000 Catalans crossed France to Strasbourg to demand the European Parliament seat former premier Carles Puigdemont, former deputy premier Oriol Junqueras and former minister Toni Comín as Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). The Spanish Central Electoral Commission (JEC) and Supreme Court had previously ruled them ineligible despite being elected by 1.72 million voters.
Yet, these efforts were overshadowed on February 29 by the pro-sovereignty rally in the southern French city of Perpignan (Perpinyà in Catalan). Just over the northern border of the Spanish state, Perpinyà is capital of the French department of Eastern Pyrenees, which roughly coincides with the northern Catalan territories handed over to France by the Spanish crown under the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees.
Up to 200,000 people made their way across the Pyrenees to pack out Perpinyà’s showground and hear from Catalonia’s exiled leaders. These had finally been recognised as MEPs in December after the Court of Justice of the European Union overruled the Spanish institutions.
Local authorities turned away more than 100 coachloads from the packed showground. The only compensation for the tens of thousands turned away (including this reporter) was that we could hear the local Catalan-language radio’s broadcast of proceedings over the coach’s sound system.
A background of ‘lawfare’
The event organiser, the umbrella Council for the Catalan Republic, expected 70,000 to make the trip to Perpinyà. The actual turnout nearly tripled that figure.
This reflected a popular sentiment only strengthened by the unending war on Catalan leaders of the Spanish legal and electoral institutions that remain under the control of the right-wing People’s Party (PP), now in opposition against the governing alliance of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) and its junior partner, Unidas Podemos (UP).
Three events in the week before the Perpinyà demonstration marked the latest phase in the right’s campaign of “lawfare”.
First, the High Court of Justice of Catalonia (TSJC) charged leading Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) MPs José Maria Jové and Lluís Salvardó with embezzlement, perversion of the course of justice, disobedience and revelation of official secrets for their alleged role in the 2017 independence referendum. They face a bail payment of €4.53 million.
Next, the Spanish Supreme Court prosecutor called on the court not to hear Catalan Premier Quim Torra’s appeal against his disqualification from office by the TJSC.
The TJSC had reached that decision after Torra had delayed obeying a JEC instruction to remove a banner in support of Catalan prisoners and exiles from the central government building in Barcelona. If the Supreme Court decides not to hear Torra’s appeal, it will formally end his premiership, guaranteeing a clash with the Catalan parliament.
Thirdly, the web-based eldiario.es revealed that the supposedly clean Spanish-patriotic outfit Citizens had concealed from the Spanish congress that its successful nomination to the JEC, law professor Andrés Betancor, had been on the party’s payroll while sitting in JEC cases involving Catalan parties.
The conversations on the way to Perpinyà were about these latest outrages, but mostly they were about the Spain-Catalonia dialogue table. Could anything be expected from it when the Spanish side only wanted to talk about its 44-point proposal for “re-engagement” while remaining vague about the right to self-determination and its promise to “dejudicialise” the Spain-Catalonia conflict?
‘Let’s get prepared’
Once the rally got under way, it was soon clear that three emotions would dominate. The first was gratitude for the work and sacrifices of the exiled and imprisoned leaders.
As MEPs Clara Ponsati, Toni Comín and Puigdemont approached the microphone, the applause and shouts of welcome were deafening. Finally, after more than two years of enforced distance, people were able to hear them on Catalan soil.
The second sentiment was indignation at the ongoing repression, dramatised by video messages from jailed leaders and from rank-and-file independence activists who had been accused of terrorism, kept in preventive detention then released when nothing could be found against them.
The third was a desire for direction for the movement in today’s complicated political scenario. What is the way forward when faced with a PSOE-UP government supposedly committed to dialogue; a rabid PP pressing all possible anti-Catalan buttons in its war for hegemony with the ultra-right Vox; and with Catalonia headed for elections after the breakdown of the pro-independence government of Together for Catalonia (JxCat) and the ERC?
Differences between ERC and JxCat were visible: video greetings from jailed MEP Oriol Junqueras and exiled ERC general secretary Marta Rovira insisted on the need to negotiate with the PSOE-UP government and broaden the sovereignty movement’s base of support.
Junqueras said: “When there are a lot of us, working without mutual rebuke and without getting confused about who the enemy is, we have the strength to force the [Spanish] state to do things it doesn’t want to do.”
While he spoke, the video showed an image of the week’s first meeting of the dialogue table, which some in the crowd booed.
By contrast, former education minister Ponsati praised grassroots protest actions against the Spanish state, and said: “Let’s not get duped by photos of dialogue tables and by scams whose only point is to gain time for Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez.”
Comín warned the movement needed to get more organised and prepared to accept sacrifices: “Let’s get prepared because the necessary conditions for this confrontation coming off well can’t be improvised.”
Carles Puigdemont’s speech focused on the need for solidarity between all peoples fighting for their right to self-determination, the unreformable character of the monarchist Spanish state, and the need to build local chapters of the Council for the Catalan Republic as the network that could guarantee control of Catalan territory in the very likely event of the movement again having to adopt a unilateral strategy.
The ex-premier began by mentioning those who had supported the Catalan right to self-determination and were suffering in their own struggles. Typical were the eight young men of the Navarran town of Altsasu, facing up to nine years jail for “terrorism” for a bar room brawl with off-duty Civil Guards.
Julian Assange got a special mention. “Let me say this here today, because we have to tell everyone. There’s a person who has done a lot for Catalonia and who today is facing an unspeakable, a vile, extradition trial: Julian Assange, who has helped us a great deal and who has been a voice for freedom of expression around the world. Let’s say it: Julian Assange must not be extradited — it’s a disgrace!”
Puigdemont stressed that the only possible way forward is the Catalan Republic. “The Spanish state only listens to, and only understands, the voice of a mobilised people.”
Puigdemont announced that the incipient organisation of local chapters of the Council for the Republic would have the aim of countering Spanish state repression on Catalan territory and “get prepared for the final struggle in the same way that we prepared October 1”.
The Perpinyà rally is impacting on Spanish politics. At an election campaign meeting in Galicia Sánchez painted Puigdemont (not mentioned by name) as opposite and equal to Vox in his addiction to permanent political tension.
The PP sent an official complaint to French authorities about the reception Perpinyà’s political representatives had given to a “fugitive from justice”.
Former Spanish prime ministers Felipe González (PSOE) and José María Aznar (PP) told the National Congress of Civil Society that Spain’s “liberal democracy” was under threat from the Sánchez government’s dependence on “extremists”.
Vox leader Santiago Abascal tweeted: “From France Puigdemont is calling for civil war in Catalonia. And he does that after ordering the Sánchez government to release the coup-mongers. Let’s be realistic: they are winning. But let’s be firm, they will never triumph.”
In Catalonia, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) demanded that Torra restate commitment to the dialogue table, while Together We Can (ECP) spokesperson Joan Mena called for JxCat to abandon all thought of a unilateral struggle for independence.
The left independentist People’s Unity List (CUP), whose leadership formally boycotted the rally as “tainted with party politics”, now faces a prospect of split as its main minority current Free People (a member of the Council for the Republic) participated in and celebrated the success of Perpinyà.
In the midst of this turmoil, on March 2 PSOE partner Podemos released the political document for its forthcoming third Spain-wide congress. In it, support for the right to self-determination, formerly a major point of difference with the PSOE, has disappeared.
[[Dick Nichols is Green Left’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. For updates on the Catalan struggle, follow Foreign Friends of Catalonia on Twitter, or visit the website. You can stay up to date and read past articles in GL’s coverage of Catalonia here.]]