Braced for Spanish Civil War 2.0

PUBLISHED: 14:07 05 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:25 05 October 2017

Spanish police drag a would-be voter from the polling station on referendum day. Photo: Getty images

Spanish police drag a would-be voter from the polling station on referendum day. Photo: Getty images

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Spain is facing an existential threat, says JASON WALSH, with the country’s fragile compromise – which has held since the end of Franco’s dictatorship – now in tatters.

For those watching on television, or following in newspapers or online, there seemed to be only one flag being flown across Catalonia last weekend as the state government’s separatist gamble met with the immovable force of Spain’s central government intransigence.

The region’s Estelada – with its yellow and gold bars and star on blue background (part inspired by Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain) – hung from apartment blocks across Barcelona, while protestors out on the streets literally wrapped themselves in it, as they clashed with police.

Touring those combustible streets, though, it became apparent that it was not the only flag in town. The Spanish flag, la Rojigualda, was there too, being brandished at counter demonstrations, but not nearly so confidently.

And here, in this battle of the flags, you have Catalonia’s independence debate in a nutshell. Catalan nationalists may not necessarily be the majority, but they are confident and upbeat, and believe they have Spain on the back foot. And they are right.

The referendum called by Catalan president Carles Puigdemont was always going to be controversial. It was meant to be: not only was it not authorised by the Spanish government, it is illegal under the constitution, which describes Spanish unity as indivisible.

Speaking after Sunday’s events, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy sought to deny the vote had taken place, going so far as to say: “Today we have not had a referendum for self-determination in Catalonia.”

Such a stance – attempting to deny the vote any legitimacy – might have been enough beforehand, and if Madrid had allowed the referendum to go ahead, without intervention, discredited and boycotted by many.

But Madrid’s other tactic – of sending in the Guardia Civil with orders to seize ballot boxes – mean it is now wholly inadequate. The 900 people injured in the subsequent clashes ensured that. Madrid’s clumsy handling of the issue has done more to advance the cause of independence than a suspiciously lop-sided plebiscite would have done.

Puigdemont, who had promised a unilateral declaration of independence within two days if the vote was won, is understandably bullish. “With this day of hope and suffering,” he said, “the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.”

Whether he achieves this or not, for Spain, nothing will be the same again. The country has learned – as the UK did last year – how a single vote can plunge a nation, seemingly on an even keel, into division, chaos and all-consuming uncertainty.

Rajoy’s government is weak and unlikely to survive the political turmoil. But beyond such electoral calculations, the referendum poses an existential threat to Spain itself, whose fragile compromise, reached after decades of rule by Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, is rooted in the very constitution that Puigdemont’s nationalists sought to defy.

It isn’t, however, a simple tale of plucky nationalists fighting the descendants of Franco. Catalan independence has enjoyed a solid 20% support for decades, but the numbers have more than doubled with support growing as Spain’s economy has suffered since the 2008 economic crisis.

Many of these voters would likely settle for winning fiscal autonomy from Madrid, since their main objection is that Catalonia – Spain’s richest region and the least battered by the crisis – is, as they see it, forced to prop-up the rest of a country mired in stagnation with falling tax takes and a youth unemployment rate of almost 40%.

Nor are the results as convincing as Puigdemont claims. Nine out of ten voters chose independence at the weekend, but turnout was just 42.3%, with voters opposed to independence boycotting the ballot.

Indeed, despite the television and press pictures depicting Barcelona as a seething city on the boil last weekend, in many areas there was no discernible disruption to life as normal, with tourists and locals walking, eating and drinking as usual. Not everyone’s passions were stirred. At least, not everyone was forthcoming. Normally voluble, several taxi drivers refused to offer opinions on the poll, some of those who did speak were reluctant to give an on the record opinion. It is clear that Puigdemont does not speak for all nationalists, let alone all Catalans.

In that context his referendum is as much a salvo in a propaganda war as anything else – and this is one battle the nationalists are winning. But Puigdemont is playing with some extremely high stakes, not just with the threat of overreaching his own position, but by putting his own voters in the front line.

In the days since the vote, he has kept the pressure and the tension high. Nationalism, after all, is all about making the most of opportunities. As the SNP have found in Scotland, nationalist tides can ebb as fast as they flow. Sunday’s day of violence has been followed by massive crowds thronging Barcelona, creating a sea of blue, red and gold, while a general strike shut down public transport and even shops and cafés. Meanwhile, protestors evicted over 150 police from their hotel in the Catalan town of Calella, and a huge demonstration took place outside the Barcelona offices of the People’s Party, Spain’s main governing party led by Rajoy.

Should a unilateral declaration of independence follow, it will undoubtedly lead to further violence, with the Spanish authorities having already shown a willingness to physically coerce its own citizens. Though the comparison only stretches so far, the events of last Sunday may turn out to have transformed the nationalist cause in a similar way to Bloody Sunday, in Derry in 1972, converting waverers and shifting the terms of the dispute. (And there we should end the analogy. In terms of the level of violence employed, and the prospects of a progression to an armed struggle, there is no comparison.)

Certainly, Madrid’s tactics have helped move support among many nationalists from demands for greater autonomy towards demands for full-blown independence. Marc Hors, who now lives in the United States but was present for the referendum, despite no longer being eligible to vote, said Madrid’s actions are changing minds at the same time as Catalonia’s government is becoming more attractive.

“I’m not a nationalist person by nature,” he said. “My passport is Spanish, though my heart is Catalan, but even a year ago I was thinking ‘I am not an independence person’, because I did not like the Catalan government, but that has changed a lot.”

Like many in the region, he has not fully made up his mind, and is wary of being seduced by rhetoric. “The Catalan government speaks well. I know, at the same time, that Obama spoke well – and he got the US into eight years of wars.”

Journalist Loreto Ochando said the police response has helped politicise many. “For me, speaking not as a journalist but as a Spanish girl, it is shameful. The police should be for protection [but] here there is no protection, only action. We have thousands [of police] here to only to search for [ballot] papers and urns.

“The referendum doesn’t have a solid legal basis, but what happened is because of the reaction of the Spanish government,” she said.

Álvaro Nieto, deputy editor of Spain’s El Tiempo magazine, said the situation was a “complete disaster”. “For me, as a Spanish person, it’s a very sad moment. I saw things I did not like [on Sunday],” he said. “This is a dangerous for Catalonia, for Spain.”

In such a climate, the prospects of a compromise, which would see Catalonia given greater powers of autonomy but stay within Spain, seem to be fading. Yet, such an outcome must still be the most likely. Perhaps, as Nieto suggests, following fresh elections, both in Catalonia, and Spain as a whole.

Given the vagaries of recent votes elsewhere, and the febrile atmosphere across Spain, such a move is far from guaranteed to bring stability, or a solution. But what is certain is that the pressure for such a compromise from elsewhere in Europe (apart, perhaps from Russia, which is the subject of the usual allegations of meddling) is immense.

For as well as the fact that Barcelona is one of Europe’s leading and most visited cities, the other reason this crisis has resonated so much around the continent, is that so many other countries have their own secessionist tensions. Governments across Europe have a dog in this particular fight.

The parallels with Scotland are often made, but there are also the ever-quarrelling Belgian regions of Wallonia and Flanders, with Flanders in particular chafing at union with the depressed industrial heartlands in the south. Others, too, seek to break away: Corsica’s sometimes violent nationalist movement sees its future very much apart from France’s centralised state, and, echoing Catalonia and Flanders, Italy’s rich north has long chafed at picking up the bill for the country’s poorer south.

And the EU itself is not a neutral observer. While it has long been favourable to regionalism, this does not extend to supporting independence. It has stated repeatedly that any country that secedes from a member state will not win automatic membership of the union. Indeed, in recent days the EU has been widely criticised for soft-pedalling its response to Spain’s use of state violence.

Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “For the European Commission, as president Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.”

The commission’s statement also reflected the union’s nervousness at the turbulent political atmosphere in Europe and elsewhere, saying: “Beyond the purely legal aspects of this matter, the commission believes that these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation.”

Nonetheless, Europe, once so united, has never seemed so fragmented.

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