Luke Stobart: Sánchez and the Catalan Crisis

Luke Stobart sums up the past year with regard to Catalonia and Spain.

Luke Stobart is a writer based in London and Barcelona

Cross-posted from Jacobin

With these typically bumbling words Mariano Rajoy said goodbye to his seven years of presidency after losing a no-confidence motion in Congress. After many depressing months in which the new Spanish right — Ciudadanos (C’s) — had helped push mainstream politics rightwards, a more interesting political phase has begun.

The Popular Party (PP) administration has been replaced by a fragile center-left Socialist Party (PSOE) government led by Pedro Sánchez. Under Rajoy, Spain took almost no refugees from the recent crisis — despite its commitments otherwise — something that led to big protests. The new administration has promised to take in hundreds abandoned by the new anti-immigrant Italian government, but otherwise there are plenty of reasons leftists are skeptical about its intentions.

Under the PP premiership, the Spanish state has become a target of concern for international human-rights organizations and leads the world in imprisoning musicians and other artists. Low wages have been squeezed, employment made even more precarious, and welfare provision cut, making Spain the most unequal large state in the EU. Two issues were crucial in the Rajoy downfall. The direct catalyst was the confirmation of systematic corruption within his party. Corruption is a major problem that has persisted from the dark days of Franco and has brought down previous governments (including a long-running PSOE administration in the ‘90s). Under the Popular Party, it reached new extremes.

In a historic legal verdict weeks ago, the highest criminal court identified the PP as having run a “system of institutionalized corruption” — under the name Gürtel, finding that party chiefs had operated a system of kickbacks for construction and other contracts with a particular businessman for over seven years. Twenty-nine out of thirty-seven defendants in the case were given prison sentences — including party treasurer Luis Bárcenas, who was given thirty-three years. When the ex-treasurer went to testify, Rajoy texted him “Luis, be strong.” The unusually damning legal decision sparked the decision by Sánchez to table the motion in Congress that ended Rajoy’s nasty administration.

Gürtel was not the only PP scandal. Indeed no less than twelve out of fourteen of the ministers under Rajoy’s predecessor, José-María Aznar, have been imprisoned, charged or involved in corruption cases. And, most comically, the party’s regional president in Madrid resigned after it emerged she had faked her university masters, and a video was leaked of her stealing face cream from a retail store! Writers associated with the Instituto de la Democracia y el Municipalismo maintain that the putrefaction in the PP has come to surface due to people’s outrage towards the political class since the 2011 mass square occupations; but also due to score-settling within an increasingly divided Spanish right over political strategy and access to power.

The other, less commented on, issue that sealed Rajoy’s fate was Catalonia. Many observers have talked about how the new Sánchez administration may try and pacify the conflict that exploded over the October 1 referendum, but much less has been said about how the dispute itself contributed to overthrowing Rajoy. This is despite the perceptive pro-Spanish Catalan journalist Lola García observing that “half of Spain” is “asking whether Sánchez has proposed something unspeakable to the secessionists” in order to guarantee their decisive votes to oust Rajoy. In order to understand the relationship between the Catalan struggle and the social-democratic victory (and therefore what could happen under Sánchez) it is necessary to chart how the Catalan movement has developed over the last year.

Catalonia’s Hot Autumn

In October, Madrid suspended Catalan self-government after a pro-independence parliament declared independence — itself in response to the repression against a referendum it had been forced to call unilaterally. Catalan leaders were imprisoned or driven into exile, leading Rajoy’s deputy Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría to boast that they had “decapitated” the movement. After pro-independence parties won the December “regional” elections imposed by Madrid, the state blocked Carles Puigdemont from returning from exile to be Catalan president. Furthermore, it blocked the reappointment of Catalan ministers for helping hold the referendum. Meanwhile the courts began persecuting the grassroots committees (CDRs) set up to defend the process.

Though Sánchez made semi-critical remarks about the police violence, the leader backed all of the subsequent authoritarian measures against the Catalan movement and even recently aired his view that the law should be tightened against those unilaterally attempting independence.

The Catalan movement showed in strength on October 1 — managing successfully (due to the actions of the CDRs) to keep most of the polling stations open despite state attacks. It flexed its muscle again during the general strike two days later. Yet, since then, it has suffered defeats. One of the state’s few successes on the day of the vote was to diminish turnout (by scaring off voters and confiscating ballot boxes in some areas). A tactical mistake by the Catalan government (Generalitat) was not to instruct its own police force — the Mossos — to disobey legal orders or encourage supporters to obstruct the Mossos from entering stations. The force was divided that day and generally played no role in the violence, but in some areas their soft approach allowed ballots to be taken. Consequently the size of the “yes” votes collected did not confirm to everyone that the Generalitat had a democratic mandate to push through independence — even though a convincing calculation suggested that a majority had voted in favor of a new state.

This led to difficulties when the Catalan government moved to declare independence: first, a significant layer of Catalans that had mobilized for the referendum and against police violence peeled away from active protest, unsure of the movement’s democratic case. Second, for the first time since the Catalan “sovereignty process” began, “pro-unionist” forces managed to mobilize considerable numbers of pro-Spanish Catalans in street protests.

Utopian Idealism

Pro-independence leaders then wobbled over declaring independence. Since 2015, a strategy of “disconnection” had been favored. At its most idealistic, it involved the notion that the Catalan Republic could come about simply by people believing that they were already living in one and creating its institutional structures to supersede the Spanish state. The idea’s biggest strength was that it was adopted (to varying degrees) by at least around a million people that have been demonstrating for independence for half a decade.

Unfortunately the hypothesis was based on mistaken presumptions. One was that Madrid wouldn’t risk using violence against a peaceful movement — something that even left-wing Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) MPs were arguing in early September. Both the pro-Catalan organizations and progressive parties opposed to independence underestimated how much both the modern Spanish right and state apparatus are still shaped by their Francoist origins.

Key pro-independence insiders — including the deputy leader of the large Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party — say that people at the top of the state apparatus warned them there would be “deaths” if the Generalitat were to continue implementing the Republic. These claims were met with outrage in mainstream Spanish political and media circles. But many Catalans believe them. After all, under “democracy,” the Spanish state funded death squads in the Basque country, and in recent years ten people linked to the Gürtel case have died.

Despite the “rule of law” being used as a central instrument against the unilateral referendum, the law was often broken to stop independence (using banned rubber bullets on October 1; robberies of computers and papers of Catalan ministers, director generals, and councilors). In the early autumn, those who had hoped for peaceful departure woke to the reality of the situation.

Of course, few thought there would be no conflict at all but the pro-sovereignty government and movement leaders assumed that if events escalated in any way, the European Union would intervene to broker a deal. Instead, the EU supported Rajoy and the Spanish legal system’s authoritarianism. Publicly, such a view didn’t change even when many European citizens became outraged by the repression. The utopian idea that disputes in democratic systems (Spain and Europe) would be resolved through dialogue and negotiation led to a political strategy revolving around well-orchestrated street and institutional protests aimed at getting across political messages to the outside world. But the harsh situation — beginning with the arrests of Catalan officials on September 20 — led the movement to develop in a more grassroots and militant direction, culminating in a October 3 general strike.

Then two new difficulties emerged for the pro-independence block. First, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau and other leaders of the left-wing “Commons” warned the Puigdemont executive that divisions were emerging in Catalan cities with large Spanish-speaking populations which could turn into conflict if independence were announced. The media put forward a simpler prognosis, and the first big Spanish nationalist protests, in which far-right supporters carried out assaults on passers by, seemed to confirm this view. Actually, the atmosphere in those same cities was much calmer, with residents against independence tending to show apathy rather than hostility towards it.

A bigger problem was that large corporations began wielding their economic power against independence by intensifying their lobbying of Puigdemont’s center-right PDeCAT and by relocating their headquarters (a thousand firms) outside Catalonia. Up to that point, the struggle seemed on the surface to take place on a nonmaterial “political” terrain. Now, the Catalan conflict was revealing itself to be a form of class struggle.

On the one side were much of the middle classes and increasing numbers of workers; on the other, the large bourgeoisie and the state. Fear that capital flight would reactivate the crisis started weighing on many independence supporters, and the threat of the sovereignty struggle articulating itself more clearly along class lines was not in the interests of the pro-Catalan right. The latter group was scared by the October strike, as well as the Spanish and European establishment.

Puigdemont and his party claimed that delaying the declaration was required because important global actors were attempting bringing about negotiation. But someone was lying, and later Puigdemont would say that this delay was his biggest regret. The Catalan Republic was eventually pronounced after a parliamentary vote on the October 27 — and only after a revolt by students and MPs forced Puigdemont and his team to overcome their anxieties. The declaration was not included in the Catalan statue book and Spanish flags were not taken down from public buildings.

For journalist Vicent Partal, if the declaration had been made at the beginning of October when the streets were “occupied by an outraged multitude,” Europeans were in “a state of shock,” and Belgium and Slovenia were lobbying European counterparts in favor of Catalonia, the outcome might have been different.

But the pro-Catalan political leadership then deserted the battlefield. When the state suspended Catalan “autonomy,” no call was made for public sector workers to resist their new bosses, including the many organized in workplace defense committees. Nor did the street movement receive guidance to act to prevent arrests. In effect, the main resistance at the top was Puigdemont and several ministers fleeing into exile, where they have had considerable success in Europeanizing the conflict (particularly after the arrest of Puigdemont in Germany). But this was no substitute for the lack of fight where it mattered most — in Catalonia.

Puigdemont and supporters did spend months insisting on his return as president — despite arrests continuing. But his agreed substitute — the unimpressive nationalist Quim Torra — has made it clear in words and deeds that he too wants to limit opposition to the Spanish state to the symbolic (displaying yellow laces in solidarity with political prisoners, creating a nonbinding Constituent Process). Much of the movement has not known how to respond to this shift. When Torra chose not to appoint ministers the courts would oppose, the only notable criticisms towards this came from the CUP and one pro-sovereignty movement leader. This is despite the Spanish state effectively policing who runs the Catalan institutions (and therefore with what policies).

In exchange for complying with the state, the Generalitat has regained some of the regional autonomy it lost when Rajoy applied the infamous constitutional article (155) that allows central government intervention in “outlaw” territories. But even under Sánchez, Madrid has not returned control of the Generalitat’s finances. And, most importantly, the Catalan leadership has abandoned any real fight for a republic, accepting less than the status quo before the independence drive began.

The Catalan movement is not dead and buried — as shown by the enormous protest for the release of prisoners in April and direct action by CDRs such as lifting private toll barriers on motorways. But it has to transform in order to survive. A pro-independence movement subordinated to parties limiting their aim to preserving regional autonomy makes no sense. And neither does any tactical alliance between the pro-Catalanist left and right, which the CUP has begun to acknowledge. The question now is whether the left of the movement that fought and won holding the referendum in October can now forge a new strategic direction for that same movement, and one that can bring in popular forces that have yet to join the battle.

Is Détente Possible Now?

Having looked at the development of the Catalan movement (and particularly the turn away from any real fight by the two main pro-Catalan parties) it is easier to comprehend the dynamics behind Rajoy’s sudden end. First, partly due to the failure by the Spanish (and Catalan) left to explain the Catalan struggle and its progressive aspects to non-Catalans, the main Spanish benefactor of the crisis in Catalonia has been Ciudadanos. The party is leading the Spanish polls for the first time, and even if these are likely to have exaggerated its support (as has happened in the past), it should be remembered that C’s came first in the December elections in Catalonia — a major breakthrough.

The party is an odd mix of fresh-faced extreme centrism a la Macrón, phony anti-establishment populism a la Trump, and hard nationalism increasingly a la Le Pen. It has a clear program to recentralize the Spanish state (opposing the lifting of Article 155, and planning both to reimpose teaching in Spanish in Catalan schools and remove the Basque Country’s tax-raising powers).

After the Gürtel verdict, keeping the PP in office was no longer justifiable for any of the significant parties in Congress — including Ciudadanos (which had given parliamentary support for the PP to form a government). But any move sparking early elections would likely bring about some variant of hard-centralist government (possibly led by C’s) that would keep enflaming the Catalan conflict.

Both Catalan and Basque nationalists were fearful of such a scenario and thus chose to back Sánchez in ousting Rajoy. The Basque PNV party did this despite having kept Rajoy afloat just weeks before by backing his budget. Podemos and its allies also were fearful of the continued entrenchment of a conflict from which they do not benefit electorally. It seems the Podemos leadership played a key role in bringing together the PSOE, which supported applying Article 155 and the Catalan parties that have been victims of it.

Podemos also gains from having its main competitor in a minority government: if the PSOE fails to bring about change, Podemos can hope to take votes from it later; if the PSOE does progressive policies, Podemos hopes it will be easy to form a left-coalition government after new elections. This is one reason why the party attempted to get a similar no-confidence motion passed a year ago.

Other forces have likely aided bringing about the cooperation between the PSOE and the parties that supported its motion. EU leaders have reacted positively to the change in Spain and it is probable that they believe Sánchez to be more capable of pacifying Catalonia. Requests by Spanish Supreme Court judges have on several occasions been rejected by European courts — such as when a German court ruled that Puigdemont had not promoted a violent rising against the state and could not be extradited for such. This was a rejection of the main basis for the state’s authoritarian behavior.

Of course, the European Union opposes any secessionism in a member state that might encourage other national movements or add to existing economic and political instabilities. But it is not interested in the continuation of a conflict that has already undermined the EU’s own democratic legitimacy and has the potential to evolve into a radical challenge to the status quo.

Big business has also been encouraging a new direction. The president of the giant Santander Bank has called for “rebuilding bridges” between Barcelona and Madrid, and for Spain to “make all Catalans attracted to Spain again.” Meanwhile a Barcelona-based business lobby has proposed that Madrid should end the conflict by offering the Catalan government greater fiscal and other powers. The initiative was praised by Catalan president Torra, which will have sent the message to Sánchez that the Generalitat is open to a deal that falls short of a legal referendum.

The signs are that the new government in Madrid will use both carrot and stick. Sánchez has included right-wingers and hard unionists in its government, such as the new interior minister who as a judge twice jailed Arnaldo Otegi — the pro-independence politician most responsible for bringing about peace in the Basque country. The new foreign minister is a unionist who called for “disinfecting” Catalonia on a platform alongside hard-rightists in Barcelona. Such appointments have been welcomed by conservative commentators and politicians and suggest that the new government will be willing to use despotic methods. It is telling that the new administration has not handed back control of Catalan public finances to the Generalitat. And only a week before being sworn in, Sánchez dubbed the new Catalan president a “racist” who is “worse” than Marine Le Pen.

But since the motion of no-confidence was tabled Sánchez has seemingly done a 180º turn, also talking of “building bridges” with the pro-independence Generalitat. His appointee for minister of territorial policy is a Catalan federalist who immediately promised an “urgent” reform of the Spanish constitution. Sánchez has ruled out giving Catalans self-determination but says he will study forty-five demands previously made by Puigdemont to Rajoy. It is difficult not to see this strategy as interesting the pro-Catalan liberals who need to justify abandoning creating the Catalan Republic. Perhaps that is why the powerful right wing of the PSOE has publicly warned their leader about “concessions” being made to “nationalists.” However, if Sánchez offered the Catalan government economic and political territorial reforms, he would be supported by Basque Nationalists, European leaders, and possibly Podemos and its allies. Most importantly, the retreating pro-Catalan movement may be willing to accept this.

There are many question marks as to whether this strategy will be possible. The Spanish right will now form a strong opposition, in which its two components will compete to be the biggest adversaries of giving “rewards” to “criminals.” Bridges could be blown up by the judges who will be presiding over major trials in the autumn. The last PSOE president — Zapatero — did a U-turn over allowing a new Catalan statute giving the territory more powers and national status after encountering massive establishment resistance. It is difficult to think why Sánchez would not face the same.

But, most crucially, the uprising that began in Catalonia in October was not about gaining greater fiscal powers or being recognized as a “nation.” Those that faced police batons did so for the right to decide which state they live in. It might take a while, but my bet is on a powerful movement returning — probably in a new form and based on different alliances.

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