Duroyan Fertl – The Catalan Independence Referendum – Three Years Later

Three years ago, while working in the European Parliament, I travelled from Brussels to Barcelona as part of a large delegation of a parliamentarians, experts, advisors and international observers to witness the October 1, 2017, Catalan Independence Referendum first hand. The experiences of that brief episode are seared on my memory, and the lacklustre international response remains an indelible stain on the European Union’s hypocritical rhetoric of “protecting democracy and the rule of law”.

Duroyan Fertl is a political analyst and a former Political Advisor for Sinn Féin and GUE/NGL in the European Parliament. His blog is Hintadupfing

Cross-posted from Duroyan’s blog

Lawyers can – and will – debate the legality and constitutionality or otherwise of the referendum itself, and indeed of the acts taken by the Spanish state to prevent it, until they are blue in the face. Nothing Spanish on the ground that day – or those round it – resembled the “defence” of any kind of legality. The muscle of the Spanish state was on open display in ways rarely seen in the years since the end of the Franco dictatorship. The Spanish state – its government, police, courts and paramilitary forces – engaged in a brutal and gratuitous display of force, injuring over one thousand civilians, and treating a whole country like a war zone, and its people as the enemy.

When thousands of Spanish National Police and Guard Civil invaded Catalonia to suppress the vote, many were billeted in a cruise ship in Barcelona harbour, adorned – bizarrely, and to great amusement of the locals – with an enormous image of the cartoon bird Tweety Pie on its side. Catalan twitter went wild with mocking laughter, but while this frivolity never fully evaporated, it was rapidly overshadowed by darker events. The Catalan communications building was occupied and shut down by police, over 140 websites were blocked, newspapers closed down, and events across the Spanish state in support of the vote were banned.

On polling day, in Barcelona and across Catalonia as a whole, the violence was intense and inflicted without mercy – fingers were deliberately broken, women blatantly and violently molested, elderly people pushed down stairs. Schools and other buildings being used as polling centres were smashed to smithereens, pensioners were bashed in the face, computers were stolen, rubber and plastic bullets fired into crowds, with one person losing an eye. I saw grown men in tears, shaking helplessly, at the violence of the Spanish Guardia Civil, a paramilitary shock force deployed against a civilian population who sought only to cast a democratic vote in peace.

At the first polling station I visited in the damp grey of the morning, in Barcelona’s Sant Andreu district, the crowd waiting outside was wary – a large police station lay just around the corner, and word was out that the police were coming. Here, as at the booth outside my apartment, dozens of activists had guarded the local polling centre in the dark and the rain, as police began shutting down booths across Catalonia. Despite their lack of sleep, however, they weren’t about to give up, and every false start led to a surge of people moving to protect the entrance – and their right to vote – from the police. Each time the rumour passed, they returned to an orderly queue.

The website carrying the electoral roll was blocked by the Guardia Civil, delaying voting by an hour, yet the crowd remained. When voting finally did begin, the first in line were the elderly, who had been waiting with us inside. I asked an old lady – 86 years of age and walking with the help of her daughter – if she wasn’t a little concerned about the threat of violence. “I’ve never seen anything like this since the war”, she said, clearly shaken. While the police violence and terror reminded her of the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, she remained crystal clear in her resolve, and straightened her back: “This time we will not let them win!”

The night before the vote, over 100,000 people had gathered in Barcelona in the final rally of the campaign, and the feeling was festive and defiant, if somewhat wary – we all knew that the Madrid government would act, but we weren’t sure how. There were also pro-Spain rallies held across the Spanish state – they were very small in Catalonia, but significantly larger in Madrid – with the mainstream press willfully ignoring the overtly Francoist songs and the fascist salutes, and the Spanish National Police tweeting their full support.

The overnight mobilisations to protect the polling stations had also faced challenges, with some people being shot at with ball bearings. But they also showcased the humour and inventiveness of the Catalans. In the outer Barcelona suburb of Vallvidrera, 400 locals gathered to prevent the closure of their civic centre, the only polling station in the area, by conducting a 24-hour table-tennis tournament. The sound of helicopters came and went overhead, and, even with the rain, it was difficult to sleep.

In this maelstrom of violence and terror, however, I experienced something else, something powerful, firm and dignified. Everywhere I went on polling day, I was awestruck at the strength and dignity of the thousands who were coming out to vote, even in the knowledge that police violence was all but inevitable. Despite the violence – or perhaps because of it, and the shock it inevitably brings – their resolve had been hardened into something beautiful. “The streets will always be ours!”, they chanted, young and old. “We will vote!” Triumphant, insistent, restrained yet determined.

The people responded to the presence of international observers and guests with an overwhelming outpouring of love, gratitude and passion, that often left us lost for words as we traversed the wet streets. As polling booths were closed down, one by one, people gathered around those still open, determined to keep the police (uniformed and undercover) away and let voters in until closing time. As I stood inside the last booth in Barcelona to close, observing the counting finally get underway, the crowds stayed outside singing and chanting, their slogan changed now to “we have voted!” Firm. Clear. Defiant. As was the result.

In the days, weeks, months, and now years that have followed, more details have been revealed about the tenacity of those organising the referendum, including the daring networks of activists who smuggled the ballot boxes and papers into the country and distributed them in the early hours of the morning. The mask of democracy slipped from the face of the Spanish state that day too, and in the suspension of Catalan democracy that followed, revealing to the world what many already knew – that Franco’s ghost still lives on in the very marrow of the country called “Spain”.

In the face of such violence, such breaches of democratic and civic norms, many expected the European Union to act swiftly. Surely there must be consequences. If these crimes were to happen outside the EU – as indeed they do – they would be, rightly, condemned. But where the EU has puffed up its chest in indignation about the likes of Belarus or Poland, on Catalonia it has remained steadfastly silent.

Worse, the cosy consensus has deepened. In the years since the referendum, while the EU has accepted the presence of the exiled Carles Puigdemont and Toni Comín in the European Parliament, it has also gifted the coveted position of EU High Commissioner on Foreign Affairs to one of the leading – if sometimes bizarrely incoherent – opponents of Catalan independence, Josep Borell, and Spain’s influence in Brussels remains firmer than it has been for years.

The leaders of the “European project” wring their hands ostentatiously about using Article 7 of the EU Treaty to address the very real threats to the rule of law and democracy in Poland and Hungary, yet Spain remains – in its own, repeated, insistent, and often far too shrill, words – a “model democracy”. This, while civil society leaders and politicians remain imprisoned on ridiculous charges for outrageously long jail terms, and others live in exile in Scotland, Switzerland and Belgium.

It must be admitted that the role of the Catalan pro-independence parties has not been perfect either. The revelation that Puigdemont and others genuinely thought they could force the Spanish government to the negotiating table was somewhat astounding, while the greatest weakness of the Catalan movement remains the lack of a clear, unified, strategy for success. As time passes, too, political differences between parties of the left and right, and between former colleagues, also cause frictions that only Spanish oppression can smooth over.

Fortunately, the arrogance of the Spanish state springs eternal, and it continues to attack the Catalan government like a wounded bull. The Spanish Supreme Court’s recent ruling – effectively removing Quim Torra as president of Catalonia for hanging a banner in support of the political prisoners and exiles – is only the latest act of self-harm by the Spanish unionists, and we can be certain it is not the last. Short of a disaster, the upcoming elections should provide a further democratic mandate to the independence movement.

Both within the Spanish state, and more widely, however, the left also suffers a partial blindness on the Catalan issue. Many have reduced it to a question of “mere” nationalism, that distracts from vital social and class struggles that extend beyond Catalonia – and indeed beyond the Spanish state. The leading role in the Catalan struggle played by some liberal and clearly pro-capitalist forces, not all of them with the cleanest or most progressive track records, is used to further justify a position of abstention on the issue – if not downright opposition.

Yet this is to ignore the nature of a national democratic revolution, the progressive origins of the revival in support for Catalan independence, and the implications that its denial have had on the political dynamic. The tension that has built up around the Catalan issue over the past decade – and the past three years especially – now constitutes a serious threat to the Spanish state, with its inbuilt systemic corruption, Francoist skeletons and shallow democratic veneer. It ought to be clear by now that the transition from the dictatorship was never truly completed, and the same old forces still rule in the courts and the corridors of power. To break their stranglehold over even one part of the state would be a great victory indeed.

This is not to say there are no dangers, nor that they should be ignored. The right wing recognises the threat Catalan independence poses, and the recent rise of Vox cannot be entirely separated from the failure of the Spanish left to harnesses the democratic fervour of the Catalan process for deeper political change in the Spanish state. For this the Spanish left can not be entirely blamed – the creation of popular animosity to Catalan independence across the Spanish state by the media and government alike has poisoned the chalice badly – but they haven’t tried too hard either.

Yet the Catalan reality refuses to just go away, posing parts of the left a particular challenge – one that it has failed so far to come to terms with. After joining the centre-left PSOE in government, the radical left Unidas Podemos – which already held ambiguous views on the referendum – has become a defender of the unity of the Spanish state, largely ignoring this key battle for democracy within its borders. Such a position is difficult to maintain in the long run for a party of the left.

This contradiction will need to be resolved, or it will resolve itself – and not necessarily as we might wish it. While political parties in Barcelona and Madrid engage in political games, support for independence continues to grow, and cannot be denied for long. But the shadow of the right is growing as well, and across Europe and the world, a battle looms for the defence of democracy. If those that call themselves left do not side with democracy, others will seek to steal their clothes.


Chris Bambery

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