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By Jason Michael
Neither side in the Catalan independence debate can now back down. For both Madrid and Barcelona this has become a zero sum game in which the winner takes all. This will be one of the most trying weeks in Catalunya’s modern history.
It goes entirely without saying that the week ahead is going to be a trial by fire for the independentistas of Catalunya. After the arrest of numerous elected officials, the seizure of its finances, and the annexation of its police force, Spain has effectively suspended the political devolution of the autonomous community of Catalunya. With banks under pressure to divulge details of referendum related accounts to the Madrid government and mail now subject to interception and capture, and with the state’s military visibly active and the garrisoning of over 1,500 armed military police at Tarragona and Barcelona, Catalunya is under a de facto state of siege.
Mariano Rajoy’s Spain is at this moment fully engaged in an undeclared war with the government and independence movement of the small northern Iberian nation; a situation – after having decided democratically to hold the 1 October independence vote – the Catalans see as an occupation. What will happen between now and the day of the referendum – six long days – is impossible to predict, but there are a number of possibilities. One thing that is for sure, and not wanting to sound alarmist, is that this is a state of affairs that will get worse before it gets better.
Spain’s objective is to stop the vote from going ahead altogether, or – failing that – hoping that the Catalan electorate return a No vote. In either case we can take it as a given that either one of these outcomes will be the end of the autonomous Catalan government, at least for a while. If the vote goes ahead as planned, and the people vote Yes to independence, Spain’s present repressive measures become untenable. Notwithstanding their present reluctance to get involved, it is hard to imagine the European Union and the states of Europe tolerating Spain’s continued suppression of Catalunya after the people have declared their democratic will. Thus Rajoy has six days to bring the Catalan government and the independence movement to heel.
Another possible outcome is that the Catalan authorities capitulate or are otherwise – due to the seizure of ballots, finance, and the mail – unable to continue. It is unlikely, given its resolve and it unwillingness to lose face, that Carles Puigdemont’s government will give in. This is an option it is now no longer willing or able to consider. Realistically, only the actions of the Spanish police and perhaps ultimately the army can derail this vote before 1 October.
Madrid will do whatever it takes to stop this vote. The Catalan government, likewise, must do whatever it takes to ensure this referendum happens. This is a classic zero sum game, meaning that over the next six days Catalunya is in for a very rough ride.
Supposing then that we get as far as Saturday and Spain has not succeeded in halting the vote and neither has the Catalan government called it off, what can we expect? It is at this point Madrid will throw all its chips into the pot. At this point, maybe even before this, the Spanish government will most likely declare a state of emergency – thereby creating a state of exception with the suspension of civil law and the imposition of police or military rule. Spain has the resources to do this and Rajoy clearly has the will. The question is whether or not the Spanish parliament, which has already refused to endorse the government’s actions in Catalunya, will stand idly by and allow this concession to authoritarianism and force.
The Catalans are far from powerless. With a population of 7.5 million people, half of whom at least are in favour of independence, Catalunya has the numbers to stifle Spain’s aggression. One million people on the streets of Barcelona and proportionately large numbers out in other towns and cities; ignoring Spain’s diktats, will render police or military action useless. The alternative to this is a potential standoff between elements of the Catalan police force and the Spanish Guardia Civil. The non-violent route of mass civil disobedience – the route the Catalan independentistas have been taking so far – is to be preferred. Spain is far less likely to use violent measures against the civilian population. It can do this, but this would risk serious fallout across the rest of the state.
In order to win the Catalans must hold out until Sunday. This is easier said than done, but it is far from impossible. The longer they hold out the more intense the Spanish response will become; an impending reality for which the Catalans must now be prepared. Remaining optimistic is not easy. Over the past week the Spanish government has made provisions for what amounts to a military invasion, with cruise ships rented from Italy docked at Barcelona and Tarragona for the purpose of billeting up to 1,500 military police and with the cancellation of military and police leave throughout Spain. Madrid has geared up for a fight.
Intervenidas casi 10 millones de papeletas para el referéndum ilegal suspendido por el Tribunal Constitucional… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…—
Guardia Civil (@guardiacivil) September 20, 2017
Overcoming this will take nerve – a great deal of nerve. It would make perfect sense for the Catalan government to go into hiding. It really should, but this is not the nerve we are talking about. As photos were being shared online of Spanish army vehicles moving into Catalunya many pro-independence activists were keen to control the story so as to keep people calm. Not frightening the public is hugely important, but if Spain decides to deliver on its threats and implied threats this week there will be no hiding or controlling the story. The most pressing task for the independence movement over the next few days will be working with ordinary people, helping them to keep their nerve. After all, the result of this struggle will be decided by them.
On a more personal note – as these are extraordinary times – I feel compelled to express the deep sense of frustration and anger I am feeling towards the states of Europe and the European Union. For the most part the states of Europe have turned their backs on Catalunya; leaving European citizens at the mercy of a neo-fascist and anti-democratic Spanish government, and the EU has simply let the Catalans down. The European Commission, as far as I am capable of understanding it, has betrayed the high ideals of democracy and freedom of expression it espouses. By allowing Spain to so flagrantly disregard and violate the civil, political, and human rights of the Catalan people the EU has brought enduring shame upon itself.
Europe, the European states, and the Spanish government are hiding behind an appeal to law that is in itself no different to the Nuremberg defence. Legality and illegality no more equate to right and wrong than oppression and violence equate to justice and peace. This week the people of Catalunya will be standing on the frontline of the global battle for democracy – the supreme moral, social, and political good – and they have been abandoned. No matter the outcome, this is unforgivable. Nothing of this required any state or the European Union to take a side. All that was required was that they stand up for democracy. In this they failed. My thoughts, as a human being and as a supporter of my own nation’s independence, are with the Catalans, and I wish them success.
Separatist and Unionist protesters face off in Catalonia