SPAIN: ‘It might take years to rebuild the political, social and emotional bridges that the pro-independence process has blown up’ in Catalonia

(CIVICUS) Catalonia’s independence movement hit the headlines in 2017, and Catalonia’s future remains undecided. CIVICUS speaks to Francesc Badia i Dalmases, editor of democraciaAbierta, openDemocracy’s Latin American section. openDemocracy is an independent media platform that seeks to challenge power and encourage democratic debate through reporting and analysis of social and political issues. With human rights as its central guiding focus, openDemocracy seeks to ask tough questions about freedom, justice and democracy. Its platform attracts over eight million visits per year.

1. What would you say are the contemporary grievances currently at play in Catalonia?

It’s a complex situation. A combination of grievances (some of them real, some fabricated) fuelled this movement. There was the economic crisis that hit Spain quite hard since 2010. Unemployment was up to 25 per cent, and 50 per cent for the youngest (18 to 24 year olds), and there was not a quick response. This led to social unrest, which combined with historical grievances and a nationalist agenda, has fuelled the Catalonian nationalist movement. The centre-right Popular Party government in Madrid has attempted to deal with the economic situation with one-size fits all formulas coming from Brussels and Berlin, such as harsh austerity measures and strict deficit control. This also meant closer control of the finances of the autonomous regions, which are diverse both in their economic realities and in the level of devolution of their finances. The Popular Party is also not keen on a federal idea of Spain and has tried re-centralisation in order to keep the fiscal deficit at bay. This has presented a great opportunity for supporters of Catalonian nationalism to confront it in order to build up the support they need for their ultimate goal of independence.

2. How much is what is happening in Catalonia part of a wider trend?

Generally speaking, we are seeing trust in politicians very much degraded over the past couple of decades. We have also seen the collapse of the middle ground and a polarisation of positions, as well as the rise of movements and narratives that give simple answers to very complex questions. This is what has happened here. Social unrest was widespread, and in 2011 we saw the rise of the Indignados and Occupy movements, through which people from all walks of life who had been hit hard by the economic crisis expressed their complaints and protested. These movements were very diverse.

The following year, however, these very active and diverse movements were captured by the Catalan nationalist parties. As a result, a lot of their diversity disappeared under a single nationalist flag. All the different grievances that motivated people for taking to the streets received the same answer: independence – without any elaboration of what independence might look like. We can see the strong connection with the populist trends on the rise elsewhere in Europe and the world, characterised by politicians providing simple albeit false answers to complex questions.

The main idea – that we have seen at play in the United Kingdom as well – revolves around building a new country and taking back control. What they are saying is that recovering control will automatically bring a better, more prosperous and ordered state of affairs. This is the kind of narrative that wins lots of minds, as opposed to the counter-narrative, which is more realistic but not as appealing: that we are doing our best but it is not easy, because the world is interconnected and interdependent and therefore our margin of manoeuvre is tight. So there are two contrasting narratives: holding a project and something to look forward to, versus muddling through, cutting your fiscal budgets and see if that works.

People don’t trust classic politics any more. These narratives are widespread across Europe and elsewhere, and in Spain they have materialised in a strong independence movement.

3. What is your reaction to the police violence against people who took part in the referendum?

First, the positive lesson: tolerance of violence in Europe and the West is very small if not close to zero. People believe violence is not the proper way to solve problems. This episode became an international scandal, and that’s good, because it shows that violent responses to any situation are generally very unpopular.

On the other hand, this was a complex and very tense situation. The central government had said that the referendum was not going to happen, as it was illegal and people would not be allowed to vote illegally. But then it happened, and the state authorities saw it as a kind of provocation that they could not prevent from happening. The Catalan police did not help prevent the referendum, which led to the mistake of bringing Spanish riot police onto the streets in a very tense situation. Police officers trying to get into polling stations and people trying to stop them inevitably resulted in the use of force.

This vote was not allowed by the regulations and was inconsistent with the rule of law – but this was not enough reason to use force against voters. At the same time, the media also hugely exaggerated the violent episodes. Nationalist propaganda speaks of more than a thousand people injured, including children and elderly people, but there was no independent count of the injured. At the end of the day there were only two people in hospital – one who had had a heart attack and another one with a serious eye injury. However, the images of the repression were devastating, and rightly so.

In any case, using riot police was a huge mistake and it was a trap the authorities fell into. Pro-independence forces wanted so badly to get that picture of the police trying to stop people from voting in the referendum, to send the message that the state was against democracy. It worked: the images of people being violently evicted from polling stations were very disturbing. This episode was the source of further mobilisations.

4. What do you think is the ideal way out of the current impasse?

The best possible result would be for pro-independence leaders to publically recognise that their time has not yet come, as not enough people back Catalonia’s independence. However, those backing independence are highly mobilised. They are disciplined, well organised, and well choreographed, so their images are very powerful. But they need to recognise that not enough people currently back their political will of independence. On the other side of the political divide, it is also necessary to obtain the recognition that even if it does not have a majority, the pro-independence movement is now very strong and highly mobilised. Both sides need to sit down at the table.

The problem is that the Catalan government wants to have bilateral talks as if it was already a state and the central government will not accept that, because that would involve recognising the illegal referendum’s ‘mandate’ as biding. The way out is to open a discussion on the reform of the constitution and whether it is going to allow the possibility of breaking the Spanish demos into smaller demos, each of them having the right of self-determination. This is very difficult to accept by any state, and there is no prospect that such reform will pass the threshold of two thirds of the vote needed for any constitutional reform – but it can be on the table and should be discussed.

Of course I don’t think that would be the solution, because if you give Catalonia the right to secede then you have to concede it to others as well, and this would mean dismembering the existing demos of the Spanish nation. This would be a very difficult thing to do for major parties that are present in all the regions. But everyone needs to sit down in parliament and try to build consensus around a new constitution that integrates some of the demands of Catalonia and others, and which has a more federal structure. Like it or not, the solution will be federal, maybe not out of will or conviction, but out of necessity.

Now there is a need to gain time. The pro-independence movement has promised so much that now they need to somehow deliver independence, even though they know for certain that this is an impossible way out, because nobody in Europe and elsewhere is going to recognise an independent Catalonia. So they have the problem of having promised something they cannot deliver. For the other side the problem is all the people who are mobilised, who have taken to the streets and are disrupting the daily lives of Catalans, who are now divided, both socially and emotionally. There needs to be real elections.

5. What can civil society do in the Catalonian context?

The role of civil society here is quite complex. The two civil society leaders detained by the Spanish High Court in October 2017 are the heads of two very strong movements that are very closely connected with the agenda of the Catalan government, so the distance between government and civil society is quite blurred. These civil society leaders have a very political agenda, which coincides 100 per cent with the current nationalist Catalan government’s.

The problem, then, is that civil society has lost independence and has been co-opted, and is not fighting for common values because their goals have been distorted by the political agenda. Their leaders participate in Catalan government decisions and in mobilisations supporting independence, while those opposing it have no agency and lack governmental support. Whether in favour or against independence, it’s difficult for civil society organisations not to fall into one of the two camps, which are now asymmetric due to one camp being favoured by the Catalan government. The danger is that civil society, having lost its neutrality and independence for moving forward and offering solutions for all, losses its legitimacy to the eyes of many.

Civil society needs to hold to a values-based agenda that goes beyond the pro/anti independence divide, and must try to build bridges between different parts of society that have been divided by the political tension, while making sure no abuses are committed by either side. So civil society has to try to be very transparent and very objective, and to be fair and accountable. International civil society needs to be present to help rebuild the fractures not only in the political realm but also in society in general.

When there is such tension in society and it is not channelled through a sound and fair debate held in the political sphere, then the situation becomes dangerous. When there are people in the streets on such a regular basis we risk heading towards revolt, and when there is revolt, it is likely that those revolting will seek martyrs to make their cause stronger. The opposing side is already using military words, such as de-escalation, which convey the idea of a violent clash. So there is an urgent need to reduce tension, gain time, build a scenario where regular elections can take place and reinstate the rule of law, a fundamental pillar of a democratic society in Spain as elsewhere. Whether we can do this at this particular moment, with one side believing a breakthrough is very close and both sides very nervous and angry at each other, is problematic. But if anger turns into hate, we will have a real problem. Hate is a very toxic feeling that contaminates everyday relations at both political and social levels. Once the dust settles down, our country will have to tackle the huge task of rebuilding the political, social and emotional bridges that this pro-independence process has blown up. It might take years.

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Orginally published by Civicus

Featured image by Catalan News Agency