Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont officially declared an independent Catalan republic on October 10, only to announce a suspension in its implementation to allow for talks with Madrid.
The harsh reply of the conservative People’s Party (PP) government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy came two days later: abandon all thought of secession or see Catalan self-rule erased under article 155 of the Spanish constitution.
The Catalan government was formally notified that it had five days to clarify whether it had abandoned independence and “returned within the framework of the constitution”.
Article 155 states that if an autonomous community (state) does not carry out its constitutional obligations, or “acts in a way that seriously damages Spain’s general interest”, the central government can implement any measures needed in response.
To apply article 155, the Spanish government must give notice of warning to the premier of the offending autonomous community. It then needs the support of a majority of the Spanish Senate. Since under Spain’s rigged electoral system, the minority PP government has a majority in the Senate, approval to implement article 155 is a formality.
However, Rajoy knows he needs the broadest possible parliamentary majority before adopting — for the first time ever — this “nuclear option”.
Catalonia’s mass independence movement has been emboldened by its extraordinary success in carrying out the October 1 independence referendum in the face of huge police repression. It has also broadened into a movement defending Catalan sovereignty and institutions, reflecting the 80% of the population who support Catalonia’s right to decide its relation to the Spanish state.
Rajoy thus made certain to lock in the support of the opposition social-democratic Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). The price of its support was the PP government’s committing to a process of “constitutional reform” — a micro-carrot to go with Rajoy’s macro-stick.
The support of Citizens, the “modern” neoliberal outfit that began life as a movement opposing alleged discrimination against Spanish-speakers in Catalonia, was always guaranteed: it sees Rajoy’s operation as the first step in a long-needed recentralisation of the Spanish state.
Citizens’ leader Alberto Rivera has been leading the chorus of abuse of the Catalan independence movement as “anti-democratic” and even “Nazi”.
Rajoy could have used another constitutional clause against the Puigdemont government. Article 116 allows, on condition of Congress support, the declaration of a state of siege or emergency in case of a threat to public order.
That he did not use article 116 reveals the essence of the argument the Spanish government will use to justify the violence it will likely use to repress Catalan rights and institutions: the defence of the law, the constitution, democracy and European values.
By contrast, the use of section 116 would require some plausible threat to public order. Despite the best efforts of the Spanish government, unionist forces in Catalonia, the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard, and the Madrid media “cavern”, this does not exist in Catalonia.
The peaceful mass action approach used by Catalan mass organisations — the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), Omnium Cultural, the Association of Municipalities for Independence (AMI) and the recently created Committees for the Defence of the Referendum (CDR) — was critical in exposing the police violence of October 1 to a shocked global audience.
Important advantages of Rajoy’s approach are that it gives justifications for supporting Rajoy to the PSOE and all institutions that feel obliged to deplore violence and pay lip service to the need for “dialogue”.
“After all”, spokespeople for the European Commission and national European governments have been repeating ad nauseam, “the October 1 referendum was unconstitutional.”
On October 11, European Commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis announced that “we trust in the Spanish institutions, in Prime Minister Rajoy and in all the political forces that are working to find a solution within the framework of the constitution”.
To underline his support for Rajoy, and refusal to act as mediator, French President Emmanuel Macron said on October 10: “As head of state, neighbour and friend I cannot recognise equal status for the Spanish prime minister and the premier of the Catalan community.”
Rajoy deployed his constitutionalist approach in an October 11 speech to the Spanish parliament that attacked the very concept of the right of nations to self-determination. He said: “It’s a deceitful way to present a right that no constitution entertains ... Invoking the right to decide is false in a democratic country that abides by international law.”
It was left to Republic Left Of Catalonia (ERC) MP Joan Tarda to respond: “For you [Rajoy], the unity of Spain takes precedence over democracy [but] there can be no constitution without respect for the democratic principle.”
Turning to the PSOE benches, Tarda added: “If one day they come to get us, you will be co-responsible.”
Given the stance of Rajoy and the European Commission, was Puigdemont’s decision to suspend Catalonia’s declaration of independence at best pointless and at worst demoralising for the independence movement?
There was certainly dismay on the faces of the 30,000 outside parliament who had cheered the premier’s declaration of independence when, less than a minute later, he announced the declaration’s suspension.
Anti-capitalist pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP) MP Anna Gabriel said in the parliamentary session after Puigdemont’s speech: “Negotiations? With whom? With a Spanish state that denies fundamental rights?”
The CUP, whose behind-closed-doors arguments with Puigdemont delayed the start of the parliamentary session, viewed the suspension as a last-minute capitulation to more conservative forces in the broad pro-independence camp. These were supposedly starting to buckle under the immense pressure being applied to stop the independence declaration.
This pressure included economic blackmail organised by Spanish economy minister Luis de Guindos. He urged major Catalan firms such as the CaixaBank and Banc Sabadell to shift their headquarters out of Catalonia, rewriting regulations to allow a company to do so by a simple decision of the company board rather a general meeting of shareholders.
An October 12 statement by CUP affiliate Forward-Socialist Organisation of National Liberation (Endavant-OSAN), to which Gabriel belongs, said: “On October 10, the government of Catalonia betrayed the sovereignty of the people as expressed in the October 1 referendum and the October 3 general strike.
“The non-declaration of the Catalan Republic ... is an attack on the sovereignty of the people.
“The Puigdemont government has caved in before the blackmail of the banks, the business elite and the European Union and before the fears of pro-sovereignty forces in government at the popular outpouring that allowed the success of the referendum and the general strike.”
Other forces inside the CUP, while critical of the suspension, were more restrained. For example, Quim Arrufat, co-spokesperson of its national secretariat, said the suspension had left relations with the government “touched”.
Nonetheless, the CUP was prepared to give the government a maximum of one month: if the results of the October 1 referendum were not applied by that time, the CUP’s agreement to support the Puigdemont government would end, likely leading to new elections.
The response of the leaders of ANC and Omnium Cultural was similar: the Puigdemont government had to give a deadline by which, in the absence of progress in negotiations, it would end the suspension of the independence declaration. The secretariat of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) calls on the Catalan government to lift the suspension of the independence declaration, saying that the suspension does not make "any sense at all" given the refusal to negotiate on the part of the Rajoy government.
However, President Jordi Sànchez, who did not attend the secretariat meeting that issued the call, sends a letter to all ANC members that read: “The decision to offer dialogue and understanding to the Spanish government was made to make these last steps towards the Republic easier to make ...The decision to give an opportunity for dialogue on Tuesday was a risky but honest commitment.
“Nobody should be afraid; the offer of negotiation is unconditional and sincere, but in no way conceals any abandonment of the proclamation of the Republic. Even less can it be interpreted as a step towards constitutional reformism.”
Whatever truth there may be in some of these critics’ observations, they seem to mistake the tactic’s purpose.
It is not to force negotiations from the Rajoy government, which could not negotiate with the Catalan government even if it wanted to — its Spanish-patriotic support base would not let it.
The form of the Catalan government’s approach was a call on Madrid to negotiate, but its purpose was to further expose the authoritarian nature of the Rajoy government in the eyes of a world already horrified at the violence on October 1. The aim is to strengthen support among democrats everywhere for Catalonia’s right to decide.
Within Catalonia, Puigdemont’s decision has helped consolidate the often fraught alliance of the pro-independence movement with forces that support the right to decide without automatically backing independence — such as Catalunya en Comu (of which Barcelona mayor Ada Colau is part) and Podem Catalunya (Catalan sister organisation of Podemos).
Across the Spanish state, it has confirmed Unidos Podemos (Podemos and the United Left) and the coalitions it is part of in Galicia and the Valencian Country, as the only all-Spanish force that stands for the recognition of Spain’s plurinationality and the right of its component nations to decide.
By the same token, it has confirmed the “new” PSOE of re-elected federal secretary Pedro Sanchez as little different from the old PSOE, as far as the national question is concerned.
On a European scale, it helps again expose the authoritarian core of the ruling forces within the European Union. These are manoevring to help Rajoy put down the Catalan rebellion, just as they tamed the SYRIZA challenge in Greece in 2015.
The aim is to ensure the greatest support for Catalan rights when, as seems inevitable, the Spanish government moves to suppress the country’s self-rule.
The combination of the movement that won on October 1 and 3 with solidarity within and beyond the borders of the Spanish state will be essential to defend Catalonia’s national rights.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He is running a live blog on GreenLeft.org.au on the Catalan crisis. A longer version of this article will soon appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]