Hommage to Catalunya
"The referendum is a matter for the Spanish government and people. We want to see Spanish law and the Spanish constitution respected and the rule of law upheld. Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to us."
Such was the first official announcement made by Britain's Foreign Office concerning the events in Catalunya this afternoon. Amazing how the statement simultaneously achieves an air of unbiasedness while siding with the Spanish government over the Catalan. Britain's carefully worded statement has already served as an exemplar other nations have chosen to follow, for good reason. In political terms, it's a much safer bet than to go the way Belgium's PM (the only head of state who's said anything so far) went with his statement.
Why the silence on behalf of Europe's leaders?
Clearly, the question they are all asking themselves is "what kind of response would we hope for should something comparable ever happen in our nation?" It's no wonder that Serbia's foreign minister stated: "Our position is clear and principled, Spain is one of the greatest friends of Serbia”. “[Madrid] is in the same position on the issue of the territorial integrity of Serbia." Spain's own response has been to allude to Franco's dictatorship and call the Catalan government's behaviour a "farce", accusing it of not understanding how Spanish democracy functions. Which begs the question: how does democracy function if not through the ballot box?
Yes, the referendum went counter to the Spanish Constitution and was thus illegal. But Spain did nothing to try to resolve the issue, which became more and more pressing ever since Catalunya's 2014 referendum on the question of self-determination in which over 80% of the voters sought an independent state. It's not just that Spain has reacted to this second referendum with violence - it's that it did nothing since 2014 to remedy a situation vast numbers of Catalans were clearly unhappy with. In fact Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party did much to bring the situation about in the first place when it backtracked on the creation of an autonomous status for Catalunya which was negotiated by the Zapatero government back in 2006. Ever since then (2010) the situation has simply gotten worse, with more and more Catalans declaring themselves pro-independence.
Stubbornly insisting that the referendum is "anti-constitutional" doesn't get anyone anywhere and Rajoy ought to have foreseen the consequences of such an approach. Instead, he is losing the media war to win over hearts and minds, only able to conjure pitiful pleas for sympathy for his government troops being chased off the streets (see clip from the Ministry of the Interior). The videos showing police brutality, by contrast, are rousing furore in the minds of people the world round (including the author of this here article) dismayed that such violence could happen in a European state (perhaps we can no longer say that we aren't like the USA in that respect). This now places Europe's political leaders in a tricky spot. They want to support Rajoy's actions, but they also feel the pressure to speak out against the violence.
What will happen when the Catalan government declares a majority vote for independence? Polls are already showing a 90% "SI" vote, and the Spanish government's decision to tell everyone who wanted to vote "NO" not to go to the polls ('cause it's anti-constitutional, remember?") didn't make things any better. More violence, more uncertainty and hypocrisy from European politicians, and more Catalan desire to secede from a state that will, by then, have sent the army into the streets of Barcelona and Mr Puigdemont into prison.
Rajoy will respond, as he already has, by putting the blame squarely on Puigdemont's shoulders. Yes, he acted against Spain's constitution, which, depending on your stance makes him either brave or reckless. I think Puigdemont simply realised that Spain would never alter their Constitution to allow for a referendum (as was blatantly the case through all the negotiations between the two factions this summer, in which the Rajoy government accepted to negotiate on anything except the question a referendum) and, given the demand for one, felt that he had no other choice other than resigning. Perhaps a shrewder politician would have resigned rather than having blood on her hands. Only someone else would have gone ahead with it afterwards anyway.
Rather than assume it to be some fossilised curiosity we learn to live with - inadequacies and all - we have to seriously ask ourselves what 'democracy' is today and what 'democracy' can be, in all its forms.
What would you do?
The hypocrisy of 'feeling sorry for the Catalans' while maintaining that they were 'wrong' to go ahead with their referendum makes my guts churn. There's nothing more disgusting than seeing realpolitik take the upper hand over both reason and human compassion. What today's events demonstrated is that Nation-States, no matter how 'developed' we want to think they are, will do anything to retain what they believe to be their raison d'être: the land and people they claim to own and govern. Which means that anyone, anywhere, is at the mercy of a series of arbitrary decisions and actions, wars and treatises, marriages and treasons reaching back dozens or hundreds of years and cemented into the 195 countries kids now learn to name at school. And if you want to question that series of arbitrariness, go ahead, but if you want to do something about it, sorry buddy, you've gotta shut up and accept it. Unless you're willing to go to war.
I doubt the Catalans are willing to go to what seem to be such extremes in order to gain their independence. That's probably the hedge Rajoy is betting on: push them to war and they'll back down. I mean, I would. It's only when things get really bad that people are willing to fight for something - and let's face it life's pretty good in Catalunya today even though their spirit has been trampled and spat on by the National Guard. Yet it's precisely in these kinds of situations that things can take another direction entirely. The more outrageous things become, the more likely it is someone will set themselves on fire in an act of protest, or any other such event, sending waves of goosebumps the world over via twitter and youtube.
Catalunya has a proud history of standing up for itself. George Orwell, who fought with the revolutionary POUM militia in Catalunya during the Spanish Civil War had this spirit in mind when he said that “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.” Orwell was dismayed by his contemporaries' unwillingness to either understand or admit to the revolution being lead by Anarchists and other workers' militias in Catalunya. He felt it entirely undermined the battles and the hardship these revolutionaries endured in order to fight back fascism and create an entirely new way of life based on the precepts of fairness, equality and human dignity.
Instead of reporting this, European powers kept quiet as the POUM militia Orwell fought with was falsely discredited as being an instrument of the fascists, and Anarchist/POUM Barcelona was ransacked by Communist forces in a move that was supported by Britain, France and the Soviet Union, all of whom were simply looking out for their own backsides.
We can only hope that they figure out a better way to cover themselves this time around. "Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to us" won't do.
“Except for the small revolutionary groups which exist in all countries, the whole world was determined upon preventing revolution in Spain. In particular the Communist Party, with Soviet Russia behind it, had thrown its whole weight against the revolution. It was the Communist thesis that revolution at this stage would be fatal and that what was to be aimed at in Spain was not workers' control, but bourgeois democracy. It hardly needs pointing out why 'liberal' capitalist opinion took the same line.”
- George Orwell, Hommage to Catalunya