Chris Bambery – Catalan Response

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This article by Chris Bambery catches up on the developments in Catalonia since it declared independence.

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. He is co-author with George Kerevan of Catalonia Reborn, which will be published by Luath Press in March 2017


As work in the Catalan government ministries began to cease on Friday 27 October officials and ministers went home with no plan other than to enjoy the weekend. Hours before the Catalan Parliament had voted to declare the birth of the Catalan Republic. It was a bold move, which grabbed the headlines worldwide but we now know there was no plan to make that more than a symbolic declaration. No plan to begin the creation of a new state or how to respond to the inevitable reaction by the Spanish government.

We know that there was no plan because the spokesperson for the Left Republican Party of Catalonia, Sergi Sabrià, admitted:

“We were not ready to face an authoritarian State with no limits when it came to using violence. Perhaps we were not prepared enough, but even if we had been, we would never have overcome this situation, putting the public in danger,”

The Left Republicans made up the pro-independence coalition government, together with the centre right PDeCAT party of President Carles Puigdemont. Sabrià’s statement was echoed by the education minister, Clara Ponsatí, who had said that the Catalan government was not “sufficiently prepared” to implement the results of the October 1 independence referendum. Ponsati, formerly an economics professor at St Andrews University, was speaking from Brussels to where she’d fled along accompanying Puigdemont.

He, it turned out, had told his parliamentary group on 27 October that:

“I have been told for certain that tanks will come and that there will be bloodshed… I won’t be the president that permits there to be casualties in the street. We agreed that we wouldn’t cross this line.”

Given the violence unleashed by the Spanish security forces on 1 October in an effort to stop the independence referendum, and that those same forces remained billeted on two car ferries in Barcelona’s port, it is difficult to understand how the Catalan government believed their Madrid counterpart would not react in the same way faced with a declaration of independence.

In contrast to the lack of preparation in Barcelona the government of Mariano Rajoy swing into action with alacrity. Soon after the Catalan Parliament voted to declare a republic the Spanish Senate voted 214 to 47 to authorize the government to take whatever measures were necessary with respect to Catalonia. Rajoy then used article 155 of the Spanish constitution to revoke Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy. That came into force on Saturday 28 October. Catalonia was pit under the under the control the Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the vice-president of the ruling right wing Popular Party and a hardline opponent of Catalan secession. Soraya announced that the Catalan government was abolished, the parliament dismissed and that new elections would take place on 21 December.

At 4am on the Saturday morning the Spanish interior minister, Juan Ignacio Zoido, dismissed Josep Trapero, head of the Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra. This was a crucial test for the Catalans. In the wake of the violent behavior of the Spanish police on 1 October there had been much speculation that the Mossos would stand up to them. In the event Trapero, who’d already been hauled before a Madrid court charged with sedition, accepted his dismissal. He was replaced by his deputy who was prepared to follow orders from Madrid.

The civilian director of Mossos, Pere Soler, also accepted Trapero’s dismissal but that did not prevent Zoido then sacking him too. Both men instructed Mossos officers to follow Spanish orders.

On Monday 30 October every Catalan minister was dismissed. The Catalan Delegations abroad, their embassies in effect, were closed. The Spanish Attorney General, José Manuel Maza, announced he had filed charges of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds in the National Court and Supreme Court against Puigdemont and other Catalan political ministers. The Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, and her five colleagues responsible for organizing parliamentary business, were similarly charged.  Rumours were circulating that Puigdemont and other ministers had fled to Brussels. Belgium is one of the few EU member states an EU citizen can seek political asylum. and the Belgian minister of immigration said asylum was a possibility.

In the event the Catalan President and five Cabinet colleagues had evaded the Spanish security services, crossing the border to France to catch a flight from Marseilles to the Belgian capital. There was speculation they might form a government in exile but they did not. Instead it seemed a vain attempt to prompt the EU to act on behalf of Catalonia. It, of course, stuck to its line of complete support for Rajoy. Meanwhile eight other Cabinet ministers were brought before the National Court in Madrid which refused them bail. They still lie in prison.

The warning signs had been there when Puidgemont had announced earlier in October that:

“I propose suspending the effects of the declaration of independence to undertake talks in the coming weeks without which it is not possible to reach an agreed solution.”

The warning signs of what the Spanish would do if the Catalans declared independence were also evident. When a Madrid curt jailed the leaders of the two-main pro-independence civic organisations, the Catalan National Assembly’s Jordi Sànchez and Omnium’s Jordi Cuixart.

In the event Rajoy refused the offer of negotiations. He is under pressure from his right, both within the Popular Party where Saenz de Santamaria and other PP demand a hard line, but from the rival Citizens Party (Ciudadanos), headed by Albert Rivera, a Catalan strongly opposed to independence, which has taken an even harder approach. In addition, the membership of the PP has mobilized against Catalan independence repeatedly over the last seven years and are in no mood for compromise.

Puidgemont was now put under pressure from his coalition colleagues of the Left Republicans and by the radical left CUP, which is not in the government but supports it because of its promise to hold the independence referendum. He now referred the matter to the Catalan parliament which then voted for the declaration of an independent republic.

The fact that both the Left Republicans and the CUP had to concentrate so much on pushing PDeCAT into holding the referendum and then on preventing it backing away from acting on its result hampered plans to respond to a Spanish takeover of Catalonia.

Whatever the correct and repeated commitment of all the pro-independence forces to non-violence it remains that such a declaration of independence, which involves abolishing the rule of the House of Bourbon, is one of the most drastic actions they could take and was bound to be greeted by swift retribution from Madrid.

Instead on Monday 30 October Puidgemont’s flight created confusion and demoralization. What saved the day was the response of the mass movement which rallied behind the political prisoners organizing mass demonstrations and a general strike.

The ANC remains crucial to that mass movement but another key mobilizing force has emerged in tandem, the Committees for the Defence of the Republic, which stem from Committees for the Defence of the Referendum which so successfully mobilised to defend polling stations during the 1 October referendum. There are now 280 of them across Catalonia and they have created a national co-ordination. They played a crucial role in organising the mass pickets which closed 50 main roads, border crossings and train stations during the 8 November general strike in protest over the jailing of government ministers and the two Jordi’s.

On 11 November 11th, these forces brought a million-strong demonstration in Barcelona demanded the release of the political prisoners.

Across Catalonia the Committees are organizing local and sectoral (such as of civil servants and teachers) forums and assemblies to plan actions.

Meanwhile the Left Republicans, PDeCAT and CUP are focused on wining the elections later next month. Polls show that the Left Republicans will overtake PDeCAT in terms of votes, an indication that Catalonia is radicalizing. Polls suggest the three will gain a majority but what happens then?

Rajoy has said that Catalan autonomy will not be restored unless any new government promises to abide by the Spanish constitution, which rules out holding any Catalan referendum and independence. That would be thoroughly undemocratic and could allow the Catalans to exploit the beginnings inside the EU of opposition to the European Commission’s 100 percent support for Spain. There is growing concern about that in Eastern Europe.

They would also have to do something they have so far failed to do, which is to aid those forces in Spain opposed to the actions of Rajoy. To be fair the response of the Spanish left has been poor, ranging from the Socialist Party’s support of the government to the radical left Podemos purging its Catalan leader for being too pro-independence. But the Catalan crisis comes at a time when the Spanish economy is faltering and Rajoy and the PP are a minority government. That government has threatened to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution in La Mancha and Navarre while the Catalans need to explain that what is happening to them will surely be the fate of any mass movement in opposition to the Spanish state. Meanwhile support for Catalonia is growing in the Basque Country.

Finally, one of the ironies of all this was that the Irish Republic joined Britain and others in denouncing an illegal and unconstitutional declaration of independence, forgetting its own origins. The Catalans do not need to emulate the 1916 Easter Rising or the 1919-1921 guerilla war of the IRA, but they could follow the non-violent part of the Irish Republicans in those years: not just in declaring a republic but forming a separate parliament, calling a boycott of the security forces, setting up their own rival courts and administrative departments, and backing general strikes and mass protests.

In doing that they would have to call the bluff of Spain and the EU which threatens an end to open borders and tariffs on Catalan goods. Catalonia remains an important part of the Spanish and European economies and its hard to understand why capital in both Spain and the EU would want to cast the Catalans out.

All of this requires boldness and having a plan in readiness for post the December elections.


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