SPANISH SIGHS

A day after around 350,000 anti-independence Catalans (or non-Catalans bussed in from out of town) swamped the streets of Barcelona to declare their unity with Spain, France has declared it will not recognise an independent Catalonia and that it should be expelled from the EU. Would that be expulsion free from the divorce fees demanded of Brexit? If so, go for it! Rumours of big businesses discussing relocating from the Catalan heartland in the event of the autonomous regional government proclaiming separation from Spain will be familiar to anyone in this country; powerful corporations imagining issuing threats will somehow force the people round to their way of thinking is a futile exercise that will only strengthen pro-independence sentiments in the same way Madrid’s response to last week’s referendum did.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-60s, white residents of America’s Deep South were prone to remarking the rest of the US didn’t understand their corner of the country; it’s true that the old Confederate States retained their archaic identity well into the twentieth century, in defiance of the self-image the USA had created as an international export, and the same could be said of both Catalonia and the Basque region in relation to modern-day Spain. Enforcing the authority of the National Government by dispatching the militaristic wing of the Spanish police force and battering anyone in sight is not the best way to send out a message to either Catalans or the watching world that the rest of Spain is Catalonia’s friend.

The remarkable sight of local fire-fighters protecting the public from outside policemen supposed to be on the same side was one of many startling images to emerge from the chaos of referendum day. From the pictures most of us saw, it seemed those wishing to exercise their democratic (or illegal) vote were largely non-violent, whereas the police regiments were the ones throwing their weight around; the Catalan constabulary, standing alongside the fire-fighters to shield the crowd, looked stunned by the level of force their Madrid counterparts were employing to prevent the referendum from going ahead. The region’s chief of police has even been charged with ‘sedition’ for failing to protect the invaders from protestors. But the EU responded by declaring ‘reasonable force’ was perfectly fine as a means of the National Government keeping the country together. Bring on that expulsion from Brussels now.

There are right ways and there are wrong ways of dealing with a troublesome neighbourhood of a nation that was pieced together from constituent parts over a century before. As a response to three years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, Ted Heath’s Government granted a plebiscite to the people of Ulster in 1972, offering them the opportunity to vote on whether or not they wanted to remain in the United Kingdom; when the vote took place the following year, the result was a landslide for ‘remain’, though this was probably aided considerably by the fact that the majority of Nationalists boycotted the referendum. In 2014, when the Scots were finally given their chance to decide once and for all if they wanted their independence, they also voted to stay with the rest of us; as we all know, the losers continue to whinge about the result, but Westminster didn’t dispatch riot police to Edinburgh. If it had, chances are Alex Salmond would not now be out of a job.

During the Miners’ Strike of 1984/85, many local constabularies maintained cordial relations with strikers in the early stages of the dispute; it was only when Mrs Thatcher sent in the Met, foreign troops looking upon the inhabitants of the communities they invaded as sub-human pond-life, that the picket-line violence escalated and the likes of Orgreave occurred. The Guardia Civil appear to exhibit the same contempt towards Catalans as the Met exhibited towards the miners in 1984, and in the process have probably boosted separatist support when previous polls had suggested, though close, most Catalans didn’t favour independence after all.

The latest statistics from the disputed referendum suggest 90% of Catalans voted for independence, though the turn-out was 43% and it’s believed the majority of ‘No’ voters didn’t visit the polling station; perhaps they were exposed to the same level of intimidation as Scots wishing to remain in the UK allegedly experienced in 2014 and opted out as a consequence. Some of the pro-Spain protestors that made their voices heard at the weekend may well have been sponsored by Madrid, but it’s equally possible many of them were genuine Catalans who don’t buy into the separatist agenda. If we again cast our minds back to events north of the border three years ago, the independence crowd certainly shouted the loudest, giving the impression they were speaking on behalf of the majority if one recalls the amount of airtime they received. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the same applies in Catalonia.

The Catalan President Carles Puigdemont will be addressing the region’s parliament tomorrow, and though there are no signs of any diplomatic compromise with Madrid yet being reached, the anticipated declaration of independence hasn’t appeared either. Lest we forget, however, the economic stability of the region in comparison to many areas of Spain post-2008 is a valuable bargaining chip for the Catalans, something that makes the National Government’s approach to dealing with the separatists a baffling blunder. If Madrid wants to keep the country intact, it’ll have to devise a different method of doing so.

© The Editor

ANOTHER HOMAGE TO CATALONIA

Bombs couldn’t do it in Basque Country, and now it seems the ballot box can’t do it in Catalonia. So, where do Catalans go from here? Mind you, it’s not as if they haven’t been here before. The regular redrawing of the European map over the past millennium – reflecting wars, rising and falling empires, revolutions, repressive dictatorships, and territories swapping hands – have all played their part in the grievances of Catalonia. The unification of Spain in 1492 took place much earlier than the similar joining of independent dots that created Germany and Italy several centuries later, thus giving the Spanish a crucial head start in conquering the globe; Catalonia’s position as a principality was rarely a comfortable one.

The Iberian Peninsula changed hands from Visigoths to Moors to Franks before the counties that became recognised as Catalonia were united under the Crown of Aragon in 1137; during the Franco-Spanish War of 1635-59, Catalonia declared itself a republic, though in reality remained a principality, only this time under French protection. The end of the conflict saw the Catalonian counties of Roussillon, Conflent and Vallespir ceded to the French by King Philip IV of Spain; but it took until the end of another European bloodbath – the War of the Spanish Succession – before Catalonia was reduced to a Spanish province in 1716, belatedly abolishing the Crown of Aragon.

Whenever countries are created by strong regional states (Prussia in Germany, Castile in Spain) assembling often reluctant junior partners under one unifying federal umbrella, the lingering legacy of former independence survives as an inherited collective memory. All nations born this way have their ‘problem people’ (Yorkshiremen, for example), but Spain has had to deal with the explosive Basques as well as the Catalans. Franco had his own ways of dealing with perceived sedition, which is why the rather physical response of the Spanish Government to the planned Catalonian independence referendum this week has provoked such anger.

Catalonia had been granted status as an autonomous state within Spain in 1932, but within a couple of years autonomy had become insurrection and was crushed. Although the region had a resurrected autonomous status during the Spanish Civil War, Franco’s victory saw him impose increasingly repressive measures upon the Catalans, banning the native language and abolishing their independent institutions. The post-war growth of Barcelona as an economic powerhouse as well as a major tourist attraction fuelled further separatist ambitions, and the 1975 restoration of democracy in Spain at least granted the region a degree of independence; for some Catalans, however, this has never been enough.

An unofficial and non-binding self-determination referendum took place in 2014, which was branded illegal by the Spanish Government; it’s estimated 80% of Catalans who took part favoured independence, though the Government of Catalonia claimed it was merely testing the waters. This warm-up for a ‘proper’ referendum gave confidence to the most stridently separatist members of the Catalonian Government and a date has been pencilled-in for 1 October for the real deal – even though a recent poll stated 49% of Catalans were opposed to independence, with 41% in favour.

Spain’s well-publicised economic woes since 2008 haven’t affected Catalonia as badly as some regions of the country; it remains relatively wealthy in comparison to those more badly hit, though Catalans say they pay far more into the national budget than what they get back from Madrid. Limits were also set on Catalonia’s independent ambitions by Spain’s Constitutional Court on 2010, which further angered separatists. The referendum plans have pressed ahead, but with less than a month to go, the Spanish Government has delivered the strongest warning yet of how it will react to the result, something the Catalonian Government has undoubtedly provoked by announcing it will declare a state of independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote.

Yesterday, local government offices, ministries and private companies organising the 1 October referendum were swooped on by Spanish police, with 14 Catalan officials arrested and detained during the raid. They confiscated documents, computers and upwards of 10 million ballot papers. The determination to hold the referendum is viewed as a direct challenge to Madrid’s authority and Madrid has seen fit to enforce that authority; indeed, Spanish police enforced it rather brutally to break-up a protest outside the Catalan economic ministry in Barcelona, their tactics reviving those of Franco’s storm-troopers for those old enough to remember. The division of the Spanish police force dispatched to Barcelona were the militarised Guardia Civil, which made the authorities’ intentions pretty evident from the off; they anticipated trouble, and they got it.

The prospect of virtual direct rule from Madrid and the curtailing of Catalonia’s autonomous institutions is one threat that the National Government can impose if Catalans insist on proceeding with their plans for 1 October; however, when even one of Catalonia’s most revered exports, Barcelona FC, throws its weight behind self-determination, a Government faced with little option but to react to constant demands that contradict a constitution at the core of its existence may have to rely on force. This story has a long way to go yet. Adiós.

© The Editor