Deposed Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is a man some would refer to as the President of the new Catalan Republic. However, speaking in Brussels at a hastily organised press conference with his colleagues, Puigdemont appeared to be more of a deposed man on a mission to score a moral victory, rather than a fearless leader out to ‘liberate’ his newly proclaimed state.
The major themes of the press conference included harsh criticisms for Spain’s heavy handed, anti-dialogue approach to the Catalan issue. The police violence which marred the 1 October Catalan independence referendum was also a frequent refrain.
However, in running away from Catalonia, Puigdemont and his colleagues have also run away from any serious attempts to establish the independent republic they strove for. Catalonia is now being ruled directly from Madrid and while many Catalans have openly expressed their disappointment, there has been no organised resistance to Madrid’s imposition of direct rule. In any case, Puigdemont told his supporters to shy away from violence and adopt a so-called ‘Gandhian’ approach. It would appear that most Catalans have taken it a step further and have just gone about their daily lives, at least for now.
One of Puigdemont’s deputies explained that they did not run away from a crisis, but instead fled the spectre of an unfair trail where Catalan leaders could be jailed for 30 years on “rebellion” charges.
The wider world however sees Catalan independence leaders who at no time caused any violence, but at the same time, were not able to peacefully mobilise their population against Spain. They chose an escape route over resistance, leading many to believe that while Carles Puigdemont and his government wanted independence, they didn’t want it badly enough to take any risks that could have impacted their personal futures in a negative way.
Spain’s Constitutional Court has formally nullified the Catalan Declaration of Independence and with pro-independence parties set to participate in the 21 December Catalan elections organised by Madrid, the wind is certainly out of the sails of the independence movement for the time being.
Spain has effectively ignored the events in Catalonia as much as possible and this has had the effect of leading to a fizzling out of passions in Barcelona. While some of the ultra-supporters of independence are both outraged and dismayed, this hasn’t translated into a wider feeling in Catalonia.
I recently wrote about five possibilities of post-independence declaration relations between Barcelona and Madrid. The following option appear to have been taken by Spain and generally accepted by the deposed Catalan leadership:
“Madrid ignores the implementation of the declaration of independence
In many ways, it seems counter-intuitive to list this as the ‘most peaceful short term option’, not least because there is ostensibly no bigger insult to a peoples than to simply ignore their declaration of independence. This is ironically, not necessarily the case with Catalonia.
The very reason that Catalan independence was not declared on the 2nd of October is because the Catalan leadership are very moderate in their approach to the issue. Forgetting whether one finds the Catalan leaders inspiring or incipient, the fact of the matter is that they did not so much say “give me liberty or give me death” as they said “give me European values and give me those values on my terms at the soonest possible date after a period of polite discussions”.
Because Catalonia has shown the propensity to wait for a good faith negotiation partner during a very trying month and because furthermore, many Catalan politicians have insisted that they seek peace and cooperation whenever possible, the onus therefore is now very much on Madrid to de-escalate the situation.
Madrid could still go through with the technical firing of the Catalan government in order to administer the humdrum business of daily life in Catalonia for an interim period on their terms, but if Madrid were to officially adopt a position of ignoring the formal independence vote, it could still negotiate with independence leaders in another capacity.
The west, including Spain, continually speaks of ‘moderate rebels’ in places throughout the world, notably Syria, in spite of the fact that they are acting violently, using terrorism as their de-facto means of ‘political expression’, are mostly foreign proxies and are violating not only national but international law. With the exception of Catalonia violating Spanish law, included the much hated 1978 Spanish constitution, which many see as overtly Francoist in nature, none of this applies to Catalonia.
No one can reasonably say that Catalan independence supporters or their leaders are terrorists or post a direct threat to world peace as al-Qaeda, the FSA, Kurdish ethno-nationalists and ISIS do in places like Syria or Iraq. Furthermore, unlike Middle Eastern Kurds who are something of Israel’s de-facto regional puppets, Catalan independence movements have been part of Iberian history going back centuries. The Catalan struggle, in other-words, predates the creation of the dastardly Israeli colonial state, the birth of George Soros, the idea of the New World Order and the advent of neo-liberal economics. To therefore say that Catalan independence is about any of these things, as many have, fails to realise the long historical basis which underlies recent events in Catalonia.
Because of this, Madrid has nothing to lose, yet much to gain from engaging in negotiations with the leaders of the independence movement. Had Madrid negotiated directly with the leaders in Barcelona, the entire independence movement may have fizzled-out over time, in the same way that Brexit appears to be doing in another EU state, or otherwise, Madrid could have agreed to a situation whereby Catalonia settles on an Andorra like solution whereby Catalonia becomes a state formally protected by Spain (as Andorra is technically protected by France), while technically enjoying the desired benefits of EU membership which logically derive from the ‘protector’ state. Because of Catalonia’s size vis-a-vis Andorra, some sort of financial agreement could be agreed upon on a per annum basis.
Such a solution would require creativity, but crucially it requires no blood and could be arranged to create face-saving and money saving measures that cover both sides in terms of economic, political and even ego driven requirements and desires. It is still not too late to achieve this as the “slowly-slowly” attitude in Barcelona has not dramatically changed, in spite of recent dramatic events. In this sense, yesterday’s vote was more of a sign that Barcelona is not bluffing, that it is a sign that Madrid is now an automatic enemy of the largely unrecognised new Catalan Republic”.
The caveat to this is that with Carles Puigdemont saying that the drive for independence must “slow down”, future discussions between a the pro-independence parties in Barcelona and Madrid will now involve a settlement that will almost certain exclude full independence.
Instead, when the smoke clears, Catalan parties participating in the December elections will likely argue for a special status for Catalonia that will involve increased levels of autonomy while also arguing for clemency for Puigdemont and his colleagues, so that they could return to Barcelona without having to worry about being tried as rebels.
Spain has emerged bruised but legally united. Barcelona has emerged with a small moral victory in the eyes of many of its supporters, but one which largely failed to realise its goal. While this may seem like a lose-lose situation, in a strange way it may amount to a poor man’s win-win.
Madrid never cared about taking the high road, never cared about exorcising the ghosts of the Francoist past and never cared to allow Catalans to participate in a referendum without making a very large and violent fuss. Madrid only cared about asserting its authority and in this sense, it is mission accomplished for Mariano Rajoy and his allies.
For the independence movement in Catalonia, many joined for historical and emotional reasons, rather than because of an unquenchable political desire to separate from Spain. Catalonia very much feels like a small nation with a unique culture. It is a place that has historically had disputes with Madrid and never surrendered its unique identity in spite of ferocious Spanish regimes.
That being said, many Catalans simply wanted to state this loudly and clearly. For many Catalans, the process of uniting behind the Catalan flag was a matter of pride rather than of politics and in this sense, many of these people have achieved what they wanted. The world has seen Catalonia to be a unique culture where people peacefully engaged in a democratic process in spite of the heavy hand of a regressive state slapping them down as best as it could.
However, the more complex issues of post-independence economic settlement and the issue of Catalonia-EU relations have now been effectively put on hold for the foreseeable future and this will come as a relief for many.
Of course, this does not go for everyone in Catalonia. Some will be genuinely crushed by the end of the full dream of independence. These people can and should blame a leadership in Barcelona that were ultimately more willing to be compromised than they were willing to fight until the end.
Looking beyond the immediate term, while some will say that the issue is settled for a generation, this may not be the case. Spain was hit particularly hard by the 2007/2008 financial crisis. Should such a crisis hit again (and many say that the next big European financial crisis is not long off), the issue of Spain’s most prosperous region fighting for its independence will once again be very much back on the table.
This is the real danger that both leaders in Madrid and Barcelona will soon have to face.