Sergi Cutillas and Pablo Cotarelo – Catalonia in the hands of a German tribunal

This ia a further excellent article explaining the current stand-off between Catalonia and the Spanish government.

Sergi Cutillas is an economist and worked in the financial sector before taking up his work as a financial justice activist in early 2012. He is a member of the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy. He is now Secretary of Economy and Work in Podemos Catalonia.

Pablo Cotarelois a Spanish engineer, researcher and consultant at the Ekona Center of Studies in Spain. His focus is on energy and industrial policy. For more than a decade, it has been promoting citizens’ initiatives on energy sovereignty, both at Spanish and European level.

Cross-posted from Makroskop (in German)

Picture by Davidpar


The regional tribunal Schleswig-Holstein has dealt a heavy blow to Spanish judiciary and to the Spanish government judicial strategy against the Catalan pro-independence leaders when it rejected the extradition of Carles Puigdemont to Spain for rebellion charges (equivalent of high treason with violence in the German legislation) and is now evaluating if it should extradite him for embezzlement. Many people throughout Europe will wonder how it is possible that Carles Puigdemont is in front of a German tribunal in Schleswig-Holstein during these days after his arrest by the police on the German border with Denmark. Probably most people do not know that the president (the title is kept honorifically by anyone who has been president of Catalonia) and current elected member of the Catalan Parliament should not have been there at the time that a European arrest warrant was activated against him by a judge of the Spanish Supreme Court.

Three years ago Puigdemont was mayor of Girona (the capital of the most independent region of Catalonia among the four existing) and nobody could imagine that he would become president at the beginning of 2016, replacing Artur Mas, former President and real candidate to the presidency in the regional elections of September 2015. But Mas was forced to give up his candidacy after having won the election in order to make possible that his party (a coalition created ad hoc for the occasion) could choose a president (we will return to this matter later). It was thanks to the persistence of the CUP (party of the pro-independence anti-capitalist left) that Puigdemont became President, given the unambiguous refusal of the anti-capitalists to make Mas president, rejecting him for his austerity policies of the previous period. The CUP could face such a dilemma because in 2012 Mas changed his strategy in favour of austerity and Spanish status quo and joined the massive demonstrations calling for the independence of Catalonia, whereas he had never done so before. Thus, he passed from being the unpopular pupil of austerity in Europe and potential ally of the new government of Rajoy in Madrid, to trying to lead a popular independence movement that had been organizing massive demonstrations for several years. What the CUP did not forget was that the Mas government implemented, even before the arrival of Rajoy, welfare cuts comparable to those imposed in Greece in 2010-11. In addition, his party, Convergència i Unió (liberal Christian-democratic coalition) did not oppose the infamous modification of article 135 of the Spanish Constitution in the summer of 2011, establishing that the repayment of the debt should become priority above any other social need from that moment, as a condition to avoid intervention by the Troika.

It was in this way that Carles Puigdemont became President of Catalonia at the beginning of 2016, and set out to lead a process towards separation of Catalonia from the Spanish State full of nuances and particularities. The complexities and contradictions of the alliances of the Catalan movement for sovereignty are difficult to understand when viewed by a foreign eye, and perhaps to facilitate its understanding we should make some historical considerations.

Catalonia, one of the most economically developed regions of the Spanish State (19,2% of Spanish GDP and 16,2% of its population), has seen in recent years how a long tradition of demand for more autonomy and self-government has mutated into an independence movement with support at the polls by 47% of voters, with an extra 10% support for a referendum on self-determination while not necessarily for independence. This support could be considered the confluence of a Catalan identity of historical origin and the response to a series of recent political grievances by the powers of the Spanish State. Josep Fontana, Marxian historian says in his book ‘The formation of an identity. A History of Catalonia’ (2014) that “Catalan identity has been forged as a singular entity during the last thousand years”, emerged as a popular feeling largely due to the weakness of its elites throughout the centuries. Catalan elites, always peripheral to the Castilian and French oligarchies, were forced to make concessions to facilitate cohesion and protect regional power, culture and institutions, allowing a political environment and a model of economic development much more inclusive than the Castilian regime of ‘iron fist’. This common sense of belonging, sometimes correctly perceived as sectarian and nationalist, has been very successful as a defensive program against the repeated attempts of cultural annihilation by Spanish and French centralist elites in recent centuries. Catalan nationalism is not different from most nationalist sentiments in Europe, however, it is reaffirmed by a combination of very real state oppression and an anti-Catalan subculture present across Spain promoted by centralist oligarchies throughout the centuries, that have created great antagonistic social bases in the Catalan and Spanish societies, which are difficult to overcome from a conciliatory and constructive approach.

That is in fact the origin of the other element that leads the Catalan independence movement to be a protagonist of European politics in the 21st century: the Spanish political grievance. The history of pacts between the governments of Spain and Catalonia since the proclamation of the 1978 Constitution (after Franco’s dictatorship) was interrupted in the year 2000, when Aznar won the Spanish elections for the second time, this time with an absolute majority, no longer needing Catalans to govern Spain. But the real anti-Catalan strategy of the Popular Party began right after the electoral defeat of March 2004, provoked by the lies of the Aznar government when accussing ETA of the biggest attack on European soil to date with the bombs on the trains of Madrid, when in fact all signs led to Al Qaeda, trying in this way to hide the connection of the attacks with the leadership of Aznar in the invasion of Iraq, together with Bush and Blair in 2003. It is important to point out that this anti-Catalan context could only be created by the accumulation of power that Aznar achieved with the collaboration of the Catalan right, power that is also the cause of many of the most acute economic and social problems that Spain suffers today, such as those derived from an economic model that caused the real estate bubble. In 2006 the Popular Party, already under the leadership of Rajoy, denounced the new Statute of Catalonia (regional constitution) before the Constitutional Court and taking four years to decide, in 2010, this court deemed that important parts of the legal text were unconstitutional. The Statute, an attempt to grant Catalonia real degrees of self-government within a new federal framework for Spain, had been ratified by the Catalan Parliament with almost 90% of the votes (the Popular Party of Catalonia was the only party that voted against it) and supported by 73% of Catalan voters in an official popular referendum with 49% participation in the same 2006. This judicial decision of dubious legality and constitutional legitimacy against the Statute generated a wave of popular indignation in Catalonia in 2010 that was capitalized by Mas’s party to return to power with an almost absolute majority in the Catalan elections of December 2010 with the promise of regaining sovereignty for Catalonia through the achievement of an agreement with Spain to create an independent tax system, similar to that of the Basque Country. While negotiating this pact unproductively with the Spanish State, Mas implemented the austerity policies discussed above, which ended up condemning him with the forced retirement from institutional politics in January 2016.

We are again faced with the difficulty to understand how the future of Puigdemont -and probably of the conflict between Catalonia and Spain- can be in the hands of the German justice, which thankfully has just decided to deny international homologation of accusations of rebellion by the Spanish Supreme Court and has yet to decide on the embezzlement charges (he is also accused of sedition, disobedience and prevarication in Spain although these charges are not considered for the extradition process) against Puigdemont. The explanation is not simple either. The President left Catalonia on October 30, 2017 to Brussels with the aim of internationalizing the conflict and avoiding prison after declaring the Catalan Republic on October, 27. This was the final outcome of a chain of events that started as response to the violent reaction of the Spanish authorities to the organization of a referendum on independence on October 1, prohibited by the justice at the request of the prosecutor’s office. It was also the result of a subsequent failed-declaration of the Catalan Republic on October 10. Interestingly, this first declaration was put on hold by Puigdemont himself only 8 seconds after its announcement in the same speech in the Parlament of Catalonia. The main purpose of the temporal suspension of the formal effect of the declaration of independence was to obtain international mediation. Such mediation did not come. During those days there was much talk about the secret international support that Catalonia had. Rumours were that the United States, Israel, Russia and a series of small European countries would immediately recognize Catalonia as an independent nation after the declaration. For the results, we know today (none of these countries supported the independence of Catalonia) it seems that the positive incentives that these could have had at the time were lower than the disadvantages faced. US interest groups may have considered generating institutional instability, mainly aiming at Germany, through a territorial crisis in the EU, in its particular battle for the fate of Europe. At the other extreme of the interests were those of a strategic region, Spain, for the largest military alliance in the world, which is currently trying to develop an expansive activity in Eastern Europe, in a conflictive relationship with Russia. There are not many precedents of territorial and political destabilizations in NATO countries without exhaustive control by the US. Not even the possible interest of Israel to promote the creation of a Catalan state to culminate the intense relations of recent years with the Catalan right was strong enough to overcome the last decision of the Americans. It is convenient to highlight that the military card, mainly the purchase and sale of weapons, has also been intensely played by the Spanish government to bring the decisions of some countries closer to its interests regarding Catalonia. In fact, at the end of December it announced the commitment with NATO to increase 80% of its military spending by 2024. It remains to be seen how affected the Spanish position can be internationally due to hidden commitments in relation to the Catalan case.

What is known is that at the moment of truth, the inertia of current geopolitics had more weight, with none of the actors having enough political legitimacy or control to disturb the existing fragile balance if it is not strictly necessary. Added to this is the fact that, on the one hand, Catalonia is not a piece of a big game, and on the other hand, that the effect of an example of secession like the Catalan one is not convenient for the main international actors. In the EU, Germany, France, and Italy in addition to the United Kingdom with Scotland, have territorial conflicts of varying intensity. The recent conflict between Russia and Ukraine over Crimea is also very present. And to the USA it is not convenient to have to control a possible domino effect in Europe from the Catalan case, taking into account that its international strategy does not pass through Western Europe precisely.

On the night of October 4, Puigdemont told Italian politician Vittorio Craxi who came to Barcelona in his attempt to mediate in the conflict, that his goal was not necessarily independence, but to gain some bargaining power with Spain to recover degrees of self-government in Catalonia, a strategy that had not succeeded because the Spanish state was not willing to concede absolutely nothing. He also made it clear to Craxi that the United States had promised him support, support that had finally vanished. Such explanations, if true, speak of the recklessness of a strategy that bet everything on unlikely changes in the international order, leaving Catalonia at the mercy of external decisions in the critical moments. Such risky bet for external support to make a territorial change, containing as much as possible a change of the internal power structure, can only be explained in short if one thinks of the desperation arising from the electoral damage suffered by the ruling right-wing party Convergència due to the unpopularity of its austerity policies since 2011 and the devastating blow of the cases of corruption that have affected the party and especially its leader and former President of Catalonia for 23 years, Jordi Pujol.

Another important question to be resolved for the non-Catalan eye would be how it is possible that a leader of the right has been able to lead a social movement that is often chaotic and has caused moments that could be considered pre-revolutionary. Or put another way, what is the role of the Catalan left in this process of evident nationalistic look? Precisely for the latter it is not strange that a schism has appeared in the Catalan left, dividing it between those who do not trust the leadership of the Catalan bourgeoisie and who aspire to achieve power in Spain to reform the State in a progressive and multinational manner (from the socialist-communist tradition, urban and often with Castilian cultural background) and those who think that any attempt to reform Spain or enter its institutions is a waste of time or even betrayal, and that Catalan freedom must be achieved through local resistance, with local interclass alliances if necessary, until conditions allow for unilateral separation from the State (from leftist libertarian traditions, rather rural and with Catalan cultural roots). Although the two strategies are in good faith, the division sometimes seems insurmountable and is one of the main weaknesses of the Catalan and Spanish left in our days, and also in previous episodes such as the Spanish Civil War -1936-1939- and the post-war periods.

One of the elements that can draw the most attention in a context full of contradictions is the use by the Catalan -but also Spanish- left of popular mobilization and of pre-revolutionary -let’s call them that- dynamics. We can focus on three days of Catalan autumn: the referendum on October 1, the general strike on October 3, and the general strike on November 8. During those three days, the level of control by the institutional powers -Catalan and Spanish- of the events was significantly limited, or at least, much lower than in the general situation. Faced with pressure from the Madrid government to avoid the independence referendum, the Catalan government was forced to rely to a large degree on the self-organization of Catalan society for its celebration. The reaction to the repression on the day of the referendum materialized in a general strike in Catalonia two days later, with a massive demonstration in Barcelona and in other Catalan capitals. This type of mobilization, organized quite autonomously by a quite diverse group of entities, was repeated with similar participation on November 8th.

In strictly tactical terms it could be said that, given the incapacity of the Catalan institutions to lead to a real break with the Spanish state, the mobilization’s potential pointed to the fact that the only way out could be through the popular overflow in the streets that managed to block the economic interests. The pressure on the accumulation circuits controlled by the State, concerning Spanish or foreign capital, could have redirected the dynamics of the conflict and balanced the forces. That is, an eminently left-wing solution, which would have advanced in the goal for independence on the one hand, and on the other hand, could have contributed to the emancipation of the Catalan popular classes in the process of creating a social republic (be that a Catalan or a Spanish Republic). The left should have been able to take advantage of such contradictions instead of making constant rebukes between its different currents. And in fact the simple insurrection against the Spanish state was restrained by the pro-independence conservatives, who very likely did not want to project an image of leftist revolution internationally; but also because of the inability of left-wing leaders to see the opportunity and to organize themselves accordingly. Any scenario that depended on the acceptance of implicit conditions imposed in exchange for protection by The United States, Israel or even Russia to constitute a new state would probably not have been satisfactory from the perspective of a progressive movement that hoped to break the shackles of neoliberalism. Having accepted the subordination to the conservative leadership, any leftist possibility of success would be seriously diminished. It is not by chance then, but the clear image of a great contradiction, that the Catalan right has been eroded throughout this crisis by the effects of the legislation transposed from the European Fiscal Pact, to which they unnecessarily gave their parliamentary support in 2012, and which is serving in recent years as the main set of tools to intervene and undermine the Catalan self-government.

The wasted opportunities place Catalonia in the most anticipated scenario beforehand, between a State that does not want -or know- how to stop the escalation of tension and repression, and a Catalan society that is bewildered and forced to reposition itself. The left is in the middle of it with the need to quickly define a coherent and solid strategy that allows it to unite and move forward overcoming the duel of nationalisms and to direct the situation towards the defence of the democratic and material needs of the popular classes, something that has not yet been able to do successfully at neither side of the river Ebro.

The situation of Puigdemont these days -and that of the other fifteen people who are imprisoned or exiled from Catalonia- is a faithful reflection of what ironically means the Kafkaesque name that conservative pro-independence activists gave to their political project, Der process. Despite recent evidence, part of the independence movement has not yet lost all hope for the democratic role of other EU countries in mediating between Catalonia and Spain. The last episode are the hopes that the decision by the German judiciary of rejecting the accusation of rebellion against Puigdemont (which forbids any possibility that Puigdemont can be judged with this charges in Spain if he is finally extradited for embezzlement) will stop accusations against political leaders in precautionary prison accused of rebellion and put an end to the repressive inertia of the Spanish State in Catalonia. Some in Catalonia, implicitly asserting the same lack of separation of powers in Germany that they criticize in Spain, even trust that the current situation will help Merkel to put conditions on Rajoy to sit down to negotiate with the Catalan leaders. Some comment that Germany can now remove the thorn of the arrest and delivery of the Catalan president Lluís Companys in 1940 by the GESTAPO in France, president executed by the Franco regime shortly after being extradited who was persecuted for having declared the Catalan state and for defending the Spanish Republic until the last consequences. Others in other mood, have no confidence in a German political intervention in favour of Catalonia, given the close cooperation and good relationship between Merkel and Rajoy in recent years. What is clear is that the first decision by the tribunal of Schleswig-Holstein is a watershed that opens completely new scenarios. On the one part, negotiations might be closer if the Spanish government accepts the German judicial standard, on the other the Partido Popular offended and frustrated might reject German intromission and decide to make and Eurosceptic turn. Be that as it may, Catalonia and Spain are highly expectant on Germany these days as democracy in Spain depends to a large extent on the German role in the next steps of this crisis.

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