The Right To Decide

from Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris

The Constitutional Court ruling against the Estatut in 2010 set the Catalan independence movement in motion. Informal ballots on independence in different towns led to the creation of groups, including the Assemblea Nacional de Catalunya (ANC), which organised the first big Diada on September 11th 2012. Since then the Catalan desire to hold an official referendum on independence from Spain has been blocked at every stage by central government.

Chapter 26: The Right To Decide

The Constitutional Court ruling marked a turning point for most people living in Catalonia. The idea of independence suddenly became an option to be taken seriously. People didn't become raving nationalists overnight, though. They had lives to get on with and generally speaking, Catalans are a fairly relaxed lot. There had always been people in favour of Catalan independence, particularly among the ranks of Esquerra Republicana. They had just never been a majority before.

In anticipation of the adverse decision over the Estatut, different towns around Catalonia had been holding informal ballots on Catalan independence for some time prior to the Constitutional Court ruling. The first vote had been held in the village of Arenys de Munt in September 2009 and the fashion had spread in waves throughout the whole country.

A far cry from official referenda, the ballots were as much popular festivals as anything else. They did provoke the irritation of the central authorities, however. Many were declared illegal. At the same time, the police allowed neo-fascist counter-demonstrations. Busloads arrived from other parts of Spain and the sight of skinheads and former Francoists marching through Catalan country towns did little to ease the tension. By early 2011, more than 500 municipalities had voted in favour of independence for Catalonia.

The ballot came to Barcelona in April 2011 under the slogan Barcelona Decideix - 'Barcelona Decides'. The atmosphere was festive in my neighbourhood of Sant Andreu on the outskirts of Barcelona and obviously I voted in favour. The event was symbolic more than anything else. Even then, most people I knew didn't consider independence as an achievable objective in the foreseeable future. The massive vote in favour of independence was an expression of discontent as much as anything else.


About a month later the 15-M movement of peaceful protests against the economic crisis kicked off. The Indignats of Sant Andreu were amongst the most active in the Barcelona area. I joined the cultural committee and attended the weekly assemblies. This was a peaceful pan-Spain movement with a focus on local participation in local communities. Although there were plenty of Catalanists amongst the members of the Assemblea de Sant Andreu, the targets were politicians and bankers at local, national and international level. We were in contact with groups from all over Spain and members attended a couple of mass demonstrations in Madrid. The main incident in Barcelona was an angry demonstration outside the Catalan Parliament. People weren't just blaming a distant central government for the crisis.

Although the media tried to portray the Indignats as a bunch of violent anarchists, it was pretty homespun round our way. Pensioners, the unemployed, working people worried about cuts and school students as well as young radicals attended the assemblies. As Sant Andreu is such a multicultural neighbourhood, our assembly was very broad-based with a healthy mixture of Catalans and Spanish-speakers as well as a few immigrants.

The Indignats movement fell apart at the end of the summer of 2011. Although left with a feeling of disappointment, our local community had become tighter and better organised. For many youngsters, the Indignats was their first experience of political activism. Older people were making their voices heard again after a long period of silence. The spirit of the Associacions de Veïns had woken from a deep sleep.

The first noticeable effect was a massive increase in the activities of the Plataforma d'Afectats per la Hipoteca (PAH). This grassroots movement has stopped many people getting evicted from their homes after repossession by the banks because they can't pay the mortgages. The movement started in Barcelona but is active across Spain. The PAH is a great example of local communities taking peaceful direct action.

PP Back In Power

In November 2011, at the height of the the economic crisis, the Partido Popular won a massive majority in Congress in the General Elections. Mariano Rajoy became President of Spain and the breach between the Spanish and the other nationalities had opened up once again. Apart from Catalonia and the Basque Country, the whole of Spain, including traditionally socialist Andalusia, voted PP. Catalonia had virtually no political representation in Madrid. The anti-Catalan insults and attacks weren't long in coming. Neither were the reactions from Catalan society.

Several town councils came together to create the Associació de Municipis per la Independència - Association of Municipalities for Independence - in December 2011 to further the national rights of Catalonia and promote its right to self-determination. In early April 2012, the No Vull Pagar - I Don't Want To Pay - campaign kicked off in which drivers refused to pay the toll tariffs on Catalan motorways, which are abusive compared to the rest of Spain.

In March 2012, a group of Catalan intellectuals in favour of independence were called to a meeting at the Palau de la Música  and the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) was constituted. The name was chosen in honour of the Assemblea de Catalunya, the broad alliance of Catalan democrats who had joined together in the 1970s to organise resistance against General Franco.

The differences between the old dictator and new right power barons of the Partido Popular were minimal. A further echo of the Assemblea de Catalunya was the ANC's first event, the March Towards Independence. This would begin in Lleida in June and finish in Barcelona on the Diada on September 11th 2012. It recalled the legendary March for Freedom, which culminated in the first post-Franco Diada in 1977.

Never very sensitive to the political climate in Catalonia the stream of abuse continued from Madrid. When President of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, asked Mariano Rajoy for access to the Spanish liquidity fund to finance the Catalan debt all hell broke loose from the Partido Popular ranks. PP President of La Rioja Pedro Sanz said that "they have the gall to ask [for money] and then keep their television channels and embassies". PP President of the Community of Madrid Esperanza Aguirre claimed that "Catalonia receives more money than Madrid". PP President of Galicia Alberto Núñez Feijoo said that "today Galicia pays and Catalunya asks".

Simple Economics

These attacks provoked a public reaction within Catalonia that hadn't been anticipated by the PP political analysts. The recent publication of in-depth studies of the first detailed budget and expenditure figures ever provided by the Central Government reached the conclusion that Catalonia was the autonomous community supporting the highest taxes yet receiving the smallest returns or investments. The tax deficit of €16,000,000,000 a year clearly made Catalonia the most heavily taxed region in Europe.

Around the same time a number of independent studies showed that Catalonia would be economically viable as an independent state. Almost from nowhere, independence began to be discussed as a feasible option.

A number of minor events took place in early September with citizens in various towns changing the plaques of the main square from Plaça d'Espanya to Plaça de l'Independència and a few town councils proclaiming themselves "Free Catalan Territory". The reaction of Spanish army colonel Francisco Alamán Castro, who said "This is clearly an act of treason as set out in the Spanish penal code. Therefore, if the plenary approved this atrocity, we should immediately arrest both the mayor and the councillors who voted for the proposal" was typical of the Spanish right as a whole.

Diada 2012

Nobody could have predicted the extraordinary success of the Diada 2012, though. I have never experienced anything like it. More than 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona in an explosion of happy peaceful Catalan pride. Under the slogan "Catalunya, nou estat d'Europa" - "Catalonia, new European state", we sang songs and shouted for independence. It almost felt as if Catalonia was free from Spain already.

La Diada 2012 wasn't a demonstration. It was a celebration. Toddlers, teenagers, parents and grandparents crammed into the centre of Barcelona until it seemed like it was about to burst. Catalan and Spanish were spoken indistinctly along with a smattering of other languages by immigrants and tourists. Nobody wanted to miss the fun.
All of us woke up the next morning knowing that things would never be the same again. With popular support like this, the declaration of an independent Catalonia was beginning to look like a very real possibility.

The ANC had acted as a catalyst but the call for independence was still a grassroots movement inspired by the Catalan people. To make it a reality, a political leader was needed. Catalan President Artur Mas hadn't attended the Diada demonstration. His position was summed up by a cartoon on the front page of La Vanguardia newspaper the next day.

President Mas is sitting on a train platform looking into the distance. There is a train in the station with Independència written on the side. Passengers are waving Catalan flags out of the windows but the train has no driver. The message was clear. The independence movement needed someone in the driver's seat. It was due to popular pressure that Artur Mas finally got on board.

A few days later Artur Mas took a real train to Madrid and met with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy. A minor concession from the Spanish government on the tax deficit, for example, could still easily have defused the independence movement. Just like Artur Mas, most of us had only jumped fully on board a few days earlier. The train wasn't underway yet and could easily have been halted.

Rajoy was intransigent and refused to budge on any issue. An obviously disappointed Artur Mas arrived back in Barcelona with the news that the fiscal pact negotiations hadn't gone well. I remember him making an off-the-cuff statement along the lines of "We think they are stealing from us. They think we're always complaining. Isn't it time we went our separate ways?" The best option was to try and negotiate an amicable divorce.

On September 27th 2012, Artur Mas made the following statement. “The Parliament of Catalonia confirms the need for the people of Catalonia to be able to freely and democratically determine their collective future and urges the government to hold a referendum during the following legislature." The President then called anticipated Autonomic Elections for November 25th.

The election campaign revolved around the promise of organising a referendum on independence for Catalonia with CiU, ERC, ICV and CUP in favour. PP and Ciutadans were against any kind of referendum and a rather sad PSC just sat on the fence. CUP - the Canditatura d'Unitat Popular or Candidacy of Popular Unity had existed for some but only came to the fore after the Indignats movement, both left-wing and Catalanist, the CUP seem to have galvanised young disaffected voters with their laid-back style and anti-system discourse. A massive turnout was expected.

The Process Begins

The results were disappointing for Artur Mas and CiU, who lost 12 seats, but were very positive for those in favour of a referendum, whose combined tally was 87 seats out of 135. PP and Ciutadans combined vote came to 28 and the PSC fence-sitting led to only 20 seats and would lead to a split in the party between Catalanists and unionists. Artur Mas was able to remain as President of the Generalitat due the "Agreement for Freedom". This governability agreement was negotiated between Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras of ERC, the Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament of Catalonia. Esquerra Republican would give practical support to Convergència i Unió in Parliament on the understanding that a referendum would be called within a given time scale.

In January 2013, the Parliament of Catalonia made A Declaration of Sovereignty and Right to Decide of the Catalan People which stated that "The people of Catalonia have – by reason of democratic legitimacy – the character of a sovereign political and legal entity ... In accordance with the democratically expressed will of the majority of the Catalan public, the Parliament of Catalonia initiates a process to bring to promote the right of the citizens of Catalonia to collectively decide their political future."

Finding ways to make the referendum legal through dialogue and negotiation were key elements in the document but the declaration was ruled unconstitutional by Constitutional Court in May. The Partido Popular began their estado de derecho mantra of "unconstitutional, illegal, the indissoluble unity of Spain ... unconstitutional, illegal, the indissoluble unity of Spain".

The concept of estado de derecho is peculiarly Spanish and literally translates as a 'state of law'. The Partido Popular, and PSOE for that matter, reduce every political argument to a legal one citing the 1978 Constitution as if it was a set of commandments that all Spaniards have to abide by.  There is no possibility of reaching a negotiated solution because Article 1 of  the Constitution states that "National sovereignty resides in the Spanish people" and Article 2 emphasises "The indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation".

According to the PP government, the 1978 Constitution is written in stone and completely unnegotiable. They forget that Spain has had at least 12 Constitutions since 1812 so Spanish politicians have always been used to making constitutions to fit the circumstances. The 1978 Constitution was pushed through quickly whilst the country was still under threat from the military so was never very satisfactory from the beginning.

Furthermore, this Constitution was modified in 1992 and again in 2011, PP and PSOE voted a modification to Article 135 in order to push through budget measures to satisfy the EU. The message was clear. The main Spanish parties are happy to change the Constitution when it suits them. When they choose not to make any changes for political reasons, the government can always rely on the Constitutional Court to back them up.

As a result of the lack of political will, no dialogue with government has been possible. The majority of Catalan parties have continued arguing that the only way to find out if Catalans really want independence or not is to ask them via referendum. Both PP and PSOE simply resort to the estado de derecho mantra. Unconstitutional, illegal, the indissoluble unity of Spain ... unconstitutional, illegal, the indissoluble unity of Spain.

The effect of centralist intransigence just made the Catalan desire to express their opinions even stronger. On September 11th 2013, a year after the first Diada, the ANC organised The Catalan Way. 1.6 million Catalans joined hands to make a human chain linking the 480-kilometre stretch between Catalonia's southern border with Valencia and its northern border with France.

Once again the atmosphere was festive and joyful. Not a single incident was reported to the police. Not only were Catalans showing that they wanted to decide on their own political future but that their organisational capacities were second to none. An independent Catalonia made up of peaceful democrats had every chance of success.
That evening neo-fascists broke into the Blanquerna Cultural Centre in Madrid, where Catalans who lived and worked in the Spanish capital were celebrating La Diada.

Their faces covered with scarves, they kicked and pushed the participants at the small private party. From the stage, they gave Nazi salutes and raised flags with swastikas and the Falangist emblems of the yoke and arrows. "Don't be fooled. Catalonia IS Spain," they shouted through the microphones. A year later, none of the attackers has yet been brought to trial.

Preparing To Vote

On December 12th 2013, Artur Mas announced that the Right To Decide parties had agreed on the date and wording of the referendum. The date would be November 9th 2014 and Catalan voters would asked the double question: "Do you want Catalonia to become a State?" and "In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?".

The date was chosen well in the future as it would allow for discussions with the Spanish Government. The plan was to reach an agreement and "to stage the consultation legally". The double question was open enough to allow parties to campaign for no change, for modifications to the constitution that would create a federal Spain or for complete independence for Catalonia. Predictably, Mariano Rajoy immediately affirmed that the referendum would be considered illegal and that "any discussion or debate on this is out of the question".

In April 2014, representatives from CiU, ERC and ICV presented a request before Spanish Congress for permission to hold, not to even a referendum but, a non-binding consultation on Catalan independence. The proposal was thrown out by 299 votes to 47 with all major Spanish parties voting against.

Throughout the year, the clamour amongst the Catalan people did nothing but grow. As has happened so many times in history, Spain made no overtures to Catalonia but simply sought to impose its will.

The third Diada on September 11th 2014 marked the 300th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona to Castilian troops after the siege. The turnout was even bigger than the previous two. 1.8 million people formed a huge V mosaic along the central Barcelona avenues of Diagonal. V for Volition. V for Victory. V for Vote.

Looking Ahead

I'm writing the closing lines of this book in late October 2014 and so much has happened since the last Diada.

The Catalan Parliament passed the Llei de Consultes Populars No Referendàries - The Law of Non-Referendary Consultations by 106 votes in favour and 28 against on September 19th. In the week before this non-binding law was made official, the government stated in complete confidence that the Constitutional Court would rule it unconstitutional. The fact that the actual text had not yet been made public gives a good idea of how much political control the Spanish government has over the supposedly unbiased judicial system.

At 10.30 of the morning of Saturday September 27th, Artur Mas signed the decree calling for the non-binding consultation on November 9th and the Llei de Consultes was published. Impeccably worded, the law was perfectly consistent with the 1978 Spanish Constitution. The campaign for the vote on Catalan independence officially began the same day.

On Sunday, the Spanish Council of State met. On Monday, the Constitutional Court was convened. By early evening on the same day, the judges had had sufficient time to deliberate over the lengthy and complex legal document reached a decision. The Llei de Consultes would be suspended as a precautionary measure before the Constitutional Court took its final decision.

All active campaigning for the vote was immediately stopped. It was announced that any mayor, civil servant or citizen could be brought to trial for civil disobedience.

In a move that caused a split in the Right To Decide parties, on Tuesday October 14th, Artur Mas announced a new plan. The vote on November 9th would certainly not be a referendum or even a non-binding consultation. It would be a civic participation.

In order to avoid legal action against the Generalitat, the census would not be used but voters would register using their identity card just prior to casting their vote. The invigilators would not be civil servants but rather volunteers. The polling stations would all be Generalitat property to avoid any last-minute hitches.

As I write, central government is considering legal action but it looks like the vote will go ahead. The date of November 9th has become too symbolic for it to be cancelled. The result will not be at all binding but will be a clear message to the world. Once the results are in, Artur Mas will probably call Autonomic Elections in which all the pro-independence parties stand on a single programme promising to declare unilateral independence if they win.

I don't know exactly how this is going to play out but there is one thing I'm certain of. The Catalan people will finally have their say. And when they do, the message will be clear. Catalonia Is Not Spain.

Return to Chapter One of Catalonia Is Not Spain - An Adopted Catalan

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