Ben Wray – The raging bull of Spanish nationalism has been restrained, for now

Pedro Sánchez has cobbled together another coalition to stay in power, but he has had to commit to an amnesty for the leaders of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum to achieve it, a move which has inspired a Spanish nationalist insurgency which immediately threatens his new government.

Ben Wray is the co-ordinator of BRAVE NEW EUROPE’s Gig Economy Project and is co-author of Scotland after Britain: Two Souls of Scottish independence (2022). He lives in the Basque Country.

A short version of this article was published in The National newspaper.

Picture by M.Peinado

All the bulls in all the ‘plazas de toros’ of Spain can’t match the rage of the country’s right-wing at this moment. They have been protesting and rioting in Madrid for two weeks straight, with hundreds of thousands marching across the country on Sunday [12 November]. 

In the Spanish Parliament on Wednesday, Alberto Feijóo, leader of the PP, the main right-wing party, ranted about “political corruption”. Far-right Vox leader Santiago Abascal talked of a “coup”. The PP’s Trumpian President of the Community of Madrid, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, sitting at the back of the Spanish Congress as a guest, was even seen mouthing the words “son of a bitch”.

All of this Spanish nationalist fury is directed at one man: Pedro Sánchez. Despite his party, centre-left PSOE, coming second in the 23 July election, Sánchez yesterday pulled-off an improbable agreement which saw him maintain his loose grip on the reins of power. 

A deal has been agreed with Catalan independence parties ERC and Junts which will deliver an amnesty for all those who participated in the 2017 Catalan independence referendum and the events proceeding it and in its aftermath. In return, they will vote for the investiture of Sánchez’s coalition government with the left-wing Sumar.

Amnesty, lawfare and the EU

The amnesty is no small matter. Around 300 people are expected to receive it. The Catalan President at the time of the referendum, Carles Puigdemont, will be free to return to Catalunya and could well run to be its President again. 

As a reminder, Puigdemont declared independence for about 30 seconds after the ‘wildcat’ referendum, before entering exile in Belgium as the then-PP Spanish Government triggered article 155 of the constitution, giving it emergency powers to shut down the Catalan Parliament. This was the start of a massive repression campaign against the Catalan independence movement. With the amnesty, the enormous rupture of 2017 will be legally reconciled, if not politically.

And that’s not all. On top of the amnesty, 20% of the Catalan Parliament’s debts will be paid-off by the Spanish Government, a sum totalling €16.3 billion. Moves will be made for Catalunya to have fiscal autonomy, a similar level of devolution as the Basque Autonomous Community currently enjoys. An “international mechanism” will be established to pursue a dialogue over the independence conflict, including the desire of ERC and Junts to hold a legal independence referendum. Catalan will be allowed in the Spanish Congress, Spain will appeal for Catalan to be allowed in European institutions, and Catalonia will have direct representation in European institutions. 

All of this is red rag to the raging bull of Spanish nationalism. For them, Puigdemont, who currently still faces outstanding charges of disobedience and embezzlement (the charge of sedition was dropped), should be locked in a prison cell. Instead, he has been the key to unlocking Sánchez’s very narrow majority of four in the Spanish Congress. PSOE apparatchiks and Sumar leader and vice-President Yolanda Díaz have all made the voyage to Brussels to negotiate with the exiled independence leader directly on the terms of the agreement. It has been impossible to disguise the fact that the outlaw is in fact Spain’s new king-maker.

Sánchez faces not only the daunting challenge of holding his coalition with the independence parties together, but keeping state institutions at home and abroad at arms length. PP and Vox, just five seats short of a majority of their own, have massive institutional support within the Spanish judiciary, police, army, media and the EU. The PP is pulling every lever it can to get the EU to rule the amnesty law, which was officially tabled in the Spanish Parliament on Tuesday, to be illegal, knowing that if the amnesty collapses so does the government. 

There are signs this campaign is working. EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynerds even wrote a letter to the Spanish Government before the agreement with Junts was signed requesting details of an amnesty law which did not yet exist, and is a national competence anyway. Vilaweb reports that a letter is circulating among Spanish EU officials seeking support to stop the amnesty, in breach of the EU’s impartiality rules. The big Spanish nationalist protest in Madrid on Sunday saw EU flags fly alongside Spanish ones, in the hope that Brussels will be their salvation.

Whether it is EU interference, the conniving of Spanish judges addicted to ‘lawfare’, or the two working in combination, the amnesty will face serious hurdles to becoming a reality. The anti-democratic tendencies of the EU and Spain’s highly politicised judiciary are a potentially powerful force, made all the more potent by the fact that they are now backed by a huge grassroots movement. There has been no attempt by the Spanish left or the independence movements to counter this with demonstrations of their own in defence of the amnesty in the streets of Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao, a weakness they may live to regret.

What now for Catalan independence?

Lets for the sake of argument say the amnesty does happen. Undoubtedly, this will be a vindication of those who dared to put Catalunya’s right to national self-determination before the constitutional laws of the land, despite massive police violence and the ambivalence of international states. A victory for democracy at a time when authoritarianism is very clearly on the rise in the heart of Europe. But for Catalunya’s independence movement, it raises the obvious question: what now?

Neither ERC or Junts have formally given up on the ‘unilateral’ route, but their support for the Sánchez government suggests that the strategy of constitutional rupture is firmly on the back-burner. As well, the wording of the preamble to the Amnesty law, whilst not mentioning unilateral routes specifically, finds that: “Since 1978, Spain has had a constitutional text comparable to other countries in our environment that guarantees fundamental rights.” It adds that although “the goals to be pursued within the constitutional framework are plural…all paths must travel within the national and international legal system.” Puigdemont may well argue that this does not bind him to anything, but his party will be voting in favour of these words in the Spanish Congress.

The far-left Catalan independence party CUP is critical of the agreement, with Carles Riera, CUP deputy in the Catalan Parliament, stating: “The Junts-PSOE pact does not emancipate us from the State, it binds us even more; it does not recognise the right to self-determination or commit to the referendum, it commits to the State.”

The Catalan National Assembly, the independence movement organisation with a massive membership, is also critical, stating: “These pacts to invest Pedro Sánchez do not bring any real and effective solution to the political conflict as they do not recognise Catalunya’s right to self-determination.”

READ MORE: Ben Wray: Are Europe’s independence movements dead?

The reality is that the Catalan independence movement has been in retreat for some time, both in the streets and in the voting booths. The July General Election was a significant set-back, with ERC, Junts and CUP all losing votes and seats. PSOE’s Catalan party, PSC, comfortably came out on top. Polls suggest support for independence is also waning. Demoralisation within the grassroots movement was visible at protests I reported on in Barcelona to mark the fifth anniversary of the referendum last year, where leaders deemed to have failed to match their promises with the necessary actions were openly chastised. 

In the context of a movement in decline, ERC and Junts may well argue that securing an amnesty is a significant achievement and the best that can be done. But those parties also have to bear some responsibility for the sapping of post-2017 energies. The ERC has engaged in a ‘dialogue’ with the Spanish Government over the independence question which almost seemed to be designed to go nowhere and kill time. Junts has been more confrontational with the Spanish Government, but has failed to offer an alternative direction of their own, and now having signed on to a deal with Sánchez, they are in the same constitutional boat as ERC, their pro-independence rival. 

Can progress be made within the realms of the Spanish constitution? A two-thirds majority would be required in the Spanish Congress to reform the constitution and permit a legal Catalan independence referendum. There is zero possibility of that now and close to zero in any conceivable political future one can imagine. With both parties quietly talking up the devolution of more powers to Catalunya, ERC and Junts could follow the direction of many independence parties which maintain an independence identity while in practise acting as parties of regional autonomy.

Muddling through

If the support isn’t there right now for an independence offensive, it would be more honest to admit that all routes in the short to medium term are blocked and therefore they are prioritising doing what they can to tackle Catalunya’s economic and social problems within the powers that they have, through the devolution of more powers and cuttings deals with Sánchez. But ERC, a centre-left party, and Junts, a centre-right party, are often at loggerheads over questions of economic and social policy, and are likely to be contradictory pressures on the Sánchez government in this respect.

The PSOE-Podemos minority government from 2020-2023 also relied on Catalan, Basque and Galician independence parties to win key votes in the Spanish Congress, but that coalition spanned parties from the left to centre-left. While the government delivered more for the working class than just about every other European government of recent years, it still was not enough to reduce poverty or prevent inequality from rising further. Now, Sánchez has to maintain support from almost every independence party, from centre-left to centre-right, to pass any legislation, a much broader and more brittle coalition that will be significantly harder to unite. There’s little reason to expect the new ‘progressive government’ to be more progressive than the last one.

READ MORE: Ben Wray – Spain’s left government has done better than most, but it’s still nowhere near enough

The scene is set, then, for a government based on muddling through, with legislative compromises and consensus budgets that hold things together without really moving them significantly forward. There is no sense that Sánchez has any strategy for a Spanish capitalism that has itself muddled through since the bursting of the property boom in 2008, nor a plan to expand the party’s electoral base. He has survived through adapting to crises and seizing on political opportunities.

At some point, this juggling act will falter, and Spain’s post-Franco right-wing will get firm control of the Spanish state once more. Without question, they will seek their revenge for the amnesty and everything else that has occurred in the Sánchez years, which in their eyes has been a humiliation for Spain. Their counter-revolution will be swift and brutal, and will focus on cutting the independence movements and their power bases in ‘the autonomous communities’ down to size.

In his investiture speech, Sánchez said: “Like a hundred years ago, in times of intense change, there is a fierce ideological and political contest between reactionary and progressive alternatives.” Anyone with a vague understanding of Spanish history knows that the the Second Spanish Republic, founded in 1931 after the deposing of King Alfonso, lasted just eight years, before it was smashed by Francisco Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Will Spain’s era of “progressive government” – like the Second Republic, founded on shaky ground – survive as much as eight years before the forces of reaction catch up with it?

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