Catalonia: War over right to decide future intensifies

February 2, 2013
More than 1.5 million people march for Catalan independence in Barcelona in September last year.

Political tensions within the Spanish state have reached a new pitch after the January 23 declaration by the Catalan parliament of Catalonia’s sovereign right to decide its political future.

Antagonism is intensifying between the Catalan and national governments and polarisation continues to rise among and within all main political forces.

The 135-seat parliament adopted the “Catalan People’s Declaration of Sovereignty and Right to Decide” by 85 votes to 41 with 2 abstentions. It was supported by the governing conservative nationalist federation Convergence and Union (CiU), the pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), the left coalition Initiative for Catalonia-Greens and United and Alternative Left (ICV-EUiA), and by one of the three representatives of the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP).

The opposition came from the Catalan branch of the conservative People’s Party (in power at the federal level), the Spanish-centralist party Citizens, and from 15 of the 20 MPs of the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC).

Self-determination supporters win majority

The declaration became inevitable after forces supporting the right to decide won a clear majority at the November 25 Catalan election.

The CiU called the election in a bid to win an unprecedented absolute majority on the back of the vastly expanded sentiment for Catalan independence. This revealed at the two-million strong September 11 national day demonstration in Barcelona.

However, it lost 12 of its 62 seats. Much of the new independence sentiment flowed to the openly pro-independence ERC, which overtook the social-democratic PSC as the second force in the Catalan parliament.

The ERC then made a deal to support the weakened CiU as a minority government in exchange for a CiU commitment to implement a road map for achieving Catalan sovereignty.

The ERC also extracted a 1 billion euro rise in taxes on the wealthy and on business bank deposits. This was aimed at partially reducing the 4 billion euro program of cuts planned by CiU for the 2013 Catalan budget.

Like all regional administrations, Catalonia is under orders from Madrid to meet the steep deficit reduction targets dictated by the European Union.

The 1 billion euro tax hike, part of which has already been ruled “illegal” by the Spanish Constitutional Court, will not save Catalonia’s public services from further cutbacks, but has been enough to upset Catalan big business.

PSC capitulation

The political force that has cracked most under the strain of the conflict is the PSC, sister party of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), which is the federal opposition party.

The PSC support base includes workers who have migrated to Catalonia from other parts of the Spanish peninsula, but it has always claimed “left Catalanism” as its ideology. Seventy-two PSC mayors belong to the Association of Munipalities for Independence, co-sponsor of the September 11 demonstration.

To help stem voter desertion during the Catalan election, the PSC arranged an “agreed difference” with its, the PSOE, over its support for the Catalan right to decide. In the first parliamentary session after the election, leader Pere Navarro said PSC MPs would abstain on all votes related to the CiU-ERC roadmap.

However, PSOE spokesperson Elena Valenciano laid down the line: “The PSOE is against this referendum, which is illegal and would be disastrous for Spain and Catalonia. The PSOE will never agree to a referendum which asks Catalonia if it wants to separate from Spain.”

In the negotiations before the January 23 vote, ICV-EUiA, still hoping to bring the PSC on board, won removal from the initial “roadmap” statement of all wording painting the Catalan right to self-determination as the first step along the road to Catalan independence.

As a result, the final text simply affirmed the Catalan people’s right to decide its collective political future and the principles that should guide that choice.

By then, however, the PSC leadership had got the message from PSOE HQ. On January 23, Navarro told parliament, “the [Spanish] very clear: ‘National sovereignty resides in the Spanish people, from whom the powers of the State arise’... if we wish to push for changes through exercising the right to decide of the citizens of Catalonia, it has to be done within the framework of legality.”

With this shift the PSC leadership effectively dumped “Catalanism” and become the de facto Catalan branch of the PSOE. “Welcome to the side of democracy!” crowed conservative People's Party of Catalonia leader Alicia Sanchez-Camacho, when it became known that the PSC would vote with her party.

The PSC vote has stirred internal warfare, with statements for and against the new line attracting hundreds of signatures. At the January 28 PSC executive, the “Catalanist” minority was accused of “high treason” by some majority supporters.

From the end of the Franco dictatorship in the 1970s until the present crisis broke, affirmation of Catalonia’s right to decide was largely a feel-good exercise that won brownie points in Catalonia, put pressure on Madrid for better deals, but carried little threat to the Spanish state and Spanish capitalists.

However, with support for independence now running around 50%, any implementation of Catalan's right to decide carries with it the possibility of a break-up of the Spanish state. This would boost the Basque and Galician movements for sovereignty and set a positive example for other “peoples without a state” across Europe.

It also poses the very hot question of what the social content of an independent Catalonia should be. Would it be a dutiful neoliberal slave of Brussels or strive to entrench democracy, social justice and environmental sustainability against neoliberal austerity?


On January 17, Joaquim Gay de Montella, president of the Catalan big business umbrella organisation Promotion of Work, called for a new relation between Barcelona and Madrid “within the framework of normality”. He called for Spanish government to accept the need to renegotiate Catalonia’s fiscal relations with the Spanish state.

Earlier, Promotion of Work had lobbied the CiU not to negotiate a governmental pact with ERC. The ERC represents the radical independence sentiment within the Catalan small business and professional classes.

These employer differences find sharpening political expression within CiU itself, divided between a majority section in favour of Catalan soverignty, and another that is confederalist.

The compromise between these positions led the CiU go to the November 25 poll with the ambiguous call for Catalonia “to have its own state”, but without once using the word independence.

United Left response

The conflicting pressures the Catalan national question brings to bear on all politicians were also on display in the January 24 statement of Cayo Lara, the national coordinator of the United Left, the main all-Spanish force to the left of the PSOE.

Lara told the Spanish parliament that “no-one” could take away the Catalan people’s right to decide, but that “obviously there are unilateral decisions that no-one can take by themselves”.

Lara said that United Left's position is to defend a federal republic in which all citizens can live together regardless of nationality. As for Catalonia’s fiscal problems, Lara said these were not exclusively due to its relation to the Spanish state, but also because the CiU government was “jointly responsible along with PSOE and PP governments for running down tax income to the public purse”.

Lara’s stance reflects the widespread feeling in the broad Spanish left that progressive people should act together across the country to defeat the right and then impose the institutional reforms acceptable to all.

Among non-Catalan and non-Basque left-wingers, the thought that these more progressive parts of the peninsula could “abandon” them to face the rancid right alone provokes cold shudders.

Those who were expecting Lara’s stance to lead to a showdown with EUiA (United Left's sister organisation in Catalonia) were disappointed. The EUiA leaders made no comment, probably because a debate within United Left at this stage would solve nothing. The EUiA and its alliance partner ICV are most focused on the job of expanding the base of social support for the right to decide within Catalonia itself.

Part of this struggle requires ICV-EUiA to engage closely with the left-nationalist Popular Unity Candidacies (CUP). The abstention of two CUP Mps — chiefly on the grounds that the sovereignty invoked was only for Catalonia and not for the historic “Catalan Lands” — has provoked considerable turmoil within the assembly-based organisation. Many CUP supporters are unable to understand why the two abstaining CUP MPs could not give critical support to the majority stance once its own proposal had been voted down.

Institutional and economic warfare

The conservative People's Party government’s response to January 23 has been to pretend that it is “irrelevant”, even while it intensifies its institutional and economic warfare against Catalonia.

In recent months, it has passed legislation that will undermine Catalan as the main language of instruction in Catalonia, declared that all regional governments will have to report their overseas activities to Madrid, thrown into doubt whether Catalan will be able to access the 9 billion euro it is claiming from the central Spanish support fund, and left open the possibility that Madrid will appeal the Catalan parliament declaration to the Constitutional Court.

The tactic is to force the Catalan government to implement even nastier cutbacks. At the same time, one of the few “goodies” Catalonia has experienced in years — the completion of the high-speed train link between Barcelona and Paris — was packaged as a gift from Madrid.

In the growing war for hearts and minds the main weapon of the enemies of Catalan self-determination is the repeated claim — made from both left and right — that it is a “distraction from the real struggle” for economic recovery.

If that argument sinks in among working people in Catalonia, Spanish centralism will win. In this context, the responsibility on the shoulders of those forces fighting the double war against austerity and for Catalonia’s national rights is great indeed.

[Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left Weekly, based in Barcelona. A longer, more detailed version of this article will appear at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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