Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont has offered his own supporters, those in Catalonia who are sceptical of independence, the Spanish people, the European Union and the Madrid regime, an elegant solution to a long burning issue. During a speech in which Puigdemont was widely expected to proclaim a full declaration of independence, he instead offered a declaration of intent, one which carries the penultimate goal of establishing independence through negotiations. While the time-frame of such negotiations is not yet clear, Puigdemont indicated that he is willing to allow for an extended period of discussions while he pursues what he called his “mandate” for independence.
While the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and even the Spanish King intervened to state that the Catalan exercise in democracy had no legitimacy on constitutional grounds, one must realise that all constitutions, like all currencies not pegged to a metallic standard, are only valid if a consensus of peoples are willing to bestow them with legitimacy. The United States for example, violates its constitution on a daily basis and this is now accepted as a status quo. Just ask the detainees in Guantanamo Bay about the sanctity of the US constitution.
In this sense, the Catalonia referendum on independence was equally a referendum on the legitimacy and more specifically, the lack of legitimacy of Spain’s perennially controversial 1978 constitution.
Many critics of the 1978 constitution hold that it enshrined into contemporary Spanish law, many of the Falangist elements of the fascist regime of Francisco Franco. Indeed, during his speech, Puigdemont alluded to Catalonia’s historic struggle against Francoism as well as its subsequent contribution to Spanish society.
While the Catalan referendum from the 1st of October was proximately called due to the Spanish’s Constitutional Court’s quashing of many elements of the 2006 autonomy law which granted long demanded concessions to Barcelona, the overall reaction of Madrid to a peaceful vote, has forced a larger debate about the legacy of Falangism in modern Spain.
While the Catalans want a debate, Madrid answered with an anti-democratic campaign of police brutality in a country that is not anywhere near a war zone. There was no excuse for the violence and indeed, the violence was totally condemned by the Catalan President in his speech.
However, rather than use Madrid’s arrogance and police violence as an excuse to declare instant independence, Carles Puigdemont instead used his speech before the Catalan parliament to extend an olive branch to Madrid.
He stated that full independence can and will only be declared after a mutual agreement is reached between Barcelona and Madrid. Puigdemont also welcomed other European partners to help mediate in such negotiations. While not in the EU, Switzerland has already offered to serve as a neutral mediation in the dispute.
While the dispute between Madrid and Barcelona cannot be compared to the Israeli occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine, Carles Puigdemont’s attitude to Madrid was rhetorically reminiscent of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s statement to the United Nations in 1974.
During his first address to the UN General Assembly, Arafat said,
“I come to you bearing an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand”.
This is in essence, what Carles Puigdemont is saying to Mariano Rajoy. Catalonia will approach Madrid with a peaceful list of demands and expects these demands to be negotiated peacefully and with due respect. If Madrid is unwilling or unable to negotiate, the implication here is that Catalonia will ultimately declare independence without an agreement, much as Britain continues to threaten leaving the EU without an agreement, should no amicable agreement be reached.
But whereas Britain is approaching Brussels from a perspective of intransigence, Catalonia appears to be approaching Madrid and other potential mediating partners, with an open mind and a clear conscience.
It was Madrid who inflicted violence on Catalan civilians, not the other way around and it is Madrid which refuses to engage with people who are technically still Spanish citizens, while Catalonia’s leaders seek dialogue without specific caveats, apart form the general acknowledgement of the referendum and the future consequences this implies.
The ball is now squarely in Madrid’s court. They can force Catalonia into an unwanted unilateral position or even worse, they could impose martial rule upon Catalonia, thus bringing a new conflict to the heart of the European Union. The EU has prided itself on being an instrument which helps avoid further war within its borders. If Spain becomes more militant in its position towards Catalonia, this will not only be a Spanish failure, but a colossal EU failure.
While Carles Puigdemont’s speech was filled with mentions of peace, dialogue, compromise and pan-European values, Madrid’s response to Catalonia thus far, has been legalistic, heavy handed and ultimately unrealistic.
If Spain buries its head in the sand even further than it already has, whatever happens can only be blamed on Madrid. If the EU continues to exercise the same attitude as Madrid, Brussels too will share a substantial portion of the blame.
Catalonia’s message is clear: work with us as partners who are equal but increasingly separate, or lose us forever in more ways than one.
The choice should be obvious for Madrid, but so long as Mariano Rajoy is in power, it may not be possible for Spain to choose consensus over conflict.