Toni Strubell, Núria Bassa – Catalonia: Will massive Diada disrupt Sánchez’s plans?

This will sound very familiar to our Scottish readers: When you discover that the interests of your national elite are not very much different than the elites of your oppressor.

Toni Strubell  is a former MP in the Catalan Parliament, journalist, and author of What Catalans Want

Núria Bassa Camps is a Catalan writer and photographer

Article publicat en catalan aquí


This year’s September 11th Diada (Catalan National Day) has once again put the cat amongst the pigeons with regard to Catalonia’s Process. While four years of repression against the independence movement is generally seen to have harmed it, the first post-COVID Diada has shown that it is back with a vengeance. In what has undoubtedly been one of Europe’s largest rallies since COVID appeared, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in an openly defiant mode that has once again baffled observers and, indeed, even the very parties taking part. Madrid’s press has had to go to great lengths to disguise its success. Indignant The Economist reporter Lane Greene even saw fit to come out with a tweet accusing Madrid newspaper El Mundo of dividing by as much as 20 the number of demonstrators present while fudging photos to mislead readers into thinking it had been a failure. The final defeat of the Catalan movement is obviously far from confirmed. Little thanks to her politicians though.

The big question now is whether independence leaders can get their act together and strive towards some kind of cohesion and unified action in the foreseeable future. The immediate hurdle facing the Catalan government is the negotiation table that Pedro Sánchez agreed to call many months ago, apparently to “solve the conflict”. It already held a preliminary meeting (February 2020) when President Torra had not yet been suspended. Since then, the lack of unity between the Catalan parties and their failure to show determination has now made it easy for Sánchez to put across the message that the Catalan conflict is merely “an internal tussle between Catalans”, as he repeatedly claims. But the success of the Diada –embarrassing those Catalan leaders who talked of “putting off the struggle for independence for a decade”– now threatens to reset the scene.

This, however, does not mean that Madrid’s age-old contempt for the Catalan demands will wane. One indication for this is that in days prior to the meeting there wasn’t even an agenda for it! It was also uncertain whether president Sánchez would attend or not, a key requirement for the Catalan side. Socialist ministers had meanwhile been insisting that the two key Catalan demands –amnesty and self-determination– were not even to be on the agenda. Podemos aided this operation by back-pedalling from its former support for a Referendum, a demand that Barcelona mayor Ada Colau was brash enough to describe as “silly” last week. So, more than a negotiation table to solve a three-hundred year old conflict, we can more accurately describe this week’s get-together as a state operation to defuse the Catalan issue, largely by annoying rival regions into an indignant fury over “privileges” that may be granted to the Catalans, a traditional Madrid ploy. Indeed, there are poignant antecedents for this in unfulfilled promises to the Catalans with regard to the control of Rodalies (the local railway service), constructing the famous Mediterranean Corridor or complete the Sagrera High Speed Train station (a major through station under construction in Barcelona that after 12 years is far from completed), mere carrot-and-stick policy with zero results.

On the other side of the fence, the truth is that the Catalan government parties – ERC (“Republican Left of Catalonia”d, a social democratic party) and Junts (“Together for Catalonia, a centre-right party) – have at no time looked like the gritty negotiators needed for such an important political venue. Indeed, at the time of writing, Junts may not even be taking part because the members it proposed for the negotiation were vetoed by president Aragonès. Furthermore, both parties have fallen into the major traps Madrid has set them. Firstly because their jailed leaders, instead of retiring from politics, accepted official pardons that granted them renewed centre stage roles despite the threat they faced of returning to jail if they did not “behave”. And secondly, because of ERC’s dogged parliamentary support for Sánchez since he came to power despite the ongoing policy of repression he has applied against the Catalan movement by way of the state prosecutor (who has continued to act with all severity against Catalan activists and government officials involved in the Referendum). For example, as recently as last Monday, acquitted activist Tamara Carrasco –for whom Catalan public opinion has a very soft spot– was once again charged with terrorism for having encouraged people to participate in protests against repression.

It was the meek reaction of the Catalan government to certain “promises” made by Madrid that was initially feared to have a demobilizing effect on the Diada. However, despite the political perplexity caused by the Catalan government’s initial acceptance of Madrid’s offer (to enlarge Barcelona Airport and back the 2030 Winter Olympic Games), the turn-out at the rally was impressive. Significantly, several ERC leaders present at the rally were met with jeers and whistles. In no way have they appeared willing to stick to their republican guns and keep to electoral promises made with regard to respecting the results of the 2017 Referendum. But it cannot be said that many of Junts’s leaders are free of the same syndrome.

The whole Airport extension issue has been a total shambles from day one. It is perceived as an operation clearly designed to divert attention away from the real issues involved at a key moment such as this. Despite the 5-year suspension now given to the project (there are changes almost weekly), it’s worth going over its genesis to see just how irresponsible Sánchez has been with his investment promises, offering to splash out precious funds that are so necessary in other fields such as post-COVID reactivation, health, education and housing. With regard to the Catalan government, nowhere has any dignity been displayed when tempted by an offer long sought after by the avid Catalan business class.

Ok, now the third runway enlargement project has been temporarily withdrawn by Sánchez. But everyone knew from day one that it was a bluff offer due to the damage it would cause to the key Ricarda wetland area. The whole project was stillborn, however much Sánchez’s government insisted that the marsh was to be in no way affected. Ludicrous! Spain’s AENA airport authority president Maurici Lucena –a man of Sánchez’s entire confidence– had admitted from the beginning that the extension would fully affect it. How can Sánchez claim to have ignored this? The project was a dud from the start because the EU, whose approval was mandatory, would never have accepted it. One must remember that Brussels had already threatened Spain with sanctions at the beginning of 2021 because of the deterioration suffered in the area with former extensions of airport installations and Barcelona Port. Opposition had also been explicit from Europe because the project clashes with the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The European Green Party had complained that the project to expand the airport and increase air traffic would move the EU away from the key goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 and achieving a carbon-neutral economy. Greenpeace too had warned Sánchez that the decisions taken by the Spanish Government in the coming years regarding the destination of EU Next Generation funds would determine the progress of European countries with regard to climate neutrality and ecological sustainability.

Nevertheless, by withdrawing support for the project now, sly Sánchez emerges in a win-win situation. He can now boast of being the Spanish president who sought to satisfy the traditional Catalan aspiration to a super airport –albeit the will of the economic elite– but was prevented from doing so by the fussy EU. Ironically enough, he also comes out as the “responsible” politician who temporarily withdraws a plan that could be damaging to the environment. Who knows what will happen five years on? What is shameful here is that the Catalan government should have played along with what was so obviously a ploy to thwart the negotiation table. Sánchez’s “interest” in investing in Catalonia had a merely selfish motivation in ensuring that mediocre Catalan politicians continue to squabble over breadcrumbs. With the promise of €1.700M for a quite unnecessary airport enlargement scheme, Sánchez’s party thus stoked the flame of internal dispute between Catalan parties whose sole goal is to compete for political predominance. By so doing, Sánchez also managed to confront President Aragonès with the more influential sectors of the city’s economic elite. At the same time, he gained the perfect excuse for withdrawing the plan because of the “lack of cohesion” and “irresponsibility” of the Catalan government, which the media can now conveniently point to as the culprit for the plan’s withdrawal.

Once again we can be sure that while the political institutions and parties of Spain and Catalonia are bogged down in a quagmire marked by economic paralysis, political repression and the denial of rights –with full EU compliance– it is the Catalan people and their renewed mobilization that can be seen as the only element truly engaged in calling for deep change. 2021’s massive Diada turn-out may not disrupt Sánchez’s plans for the immediate future. But it seriously indicates that the independence cause has no intention of folding up. While such mobilization persists, the need for real negotiation over self-determination –not sham venues– will one day be a serious requirement for all.

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