Catalonia: rights and unity

Submitted by Matthew on 15 November, 2017 - 11:00
Catalonia protest

Editorial from Solidarity 454

On Saturday 11 November, 750,000 people (on the city police’s count) demonstrated in Barcelona to demand the release of Catalan government ministers and pro-independence association activists jailed by the Madrid regime to await trial on charges such as sedition. A general strike called by a pro-independence union confederation, Intersindical-CSC, under the slogan “Defend Our Rights”, on Wednesday 8 November, also had impact.

The reports suggest it was more through demonstrators blocking railway lines and roads than the major concentrations of workers deciding to strike. Intersindical-CSC is only the fifth largest union confederation within Catalonia, and the big Spain-wide confederations, CCOO and UGT, are stronger there. They have 85% of union members in Catalonia. Their stance (as reported in Solidarity 453) is to oppose the jailing of the ministers and activists, and Madrid’s imposition of direct rule, but also to oppose the summary declaration of Catalan independence made by the Catalan parliament following the 1 October referendum.

That referendum got only a 43% turnout, mainly because of the Madrid government’s attempts to stop and sabotage it, but opinion polls (and the voting figures in the 2015 election which produced the current Catalan parliament) suggest that still only a minority, though a large minority, in Catalonia back independence.

The Catalan nationalists have responded to Madrid’s imposition of direct rule not by head-on confrontation, but by focusing on trying to win a majority in the new elections for the Catalan parliament to be held on 21 December. Maybe impatient police actions by the Madrid regime, and heightened anger in Catalonia, will push things to a crisis before then; but for now the major political forces are focused on 21 December.

The Catalan government has not gone into hiding and declared itself still the day-to-day authority. Its ministers are in Spanish jails, or have fled to Belgium. (Moves by Spain to get them extradited are unlikely to finish their path through the Belgian courts before 21 December). Catalonia’s police chief, arrested after the 1 October referendum and accused of insufficient cooperation with Madrid’s police action against the referendum, now says Catalan police should obey orders. Public administration is continuing normally.

Since these elections will be organised by the Madrid regime, and since before the imposition of direct rule Spanish prime minister Rajoy was recommending new Catalan elections as the way to resolve the crisis — at that point, the Catalan government refused — it will become very difficult for Rajoy not to back down in some way if the nationalists win a majority on 21 December.

Catalan separatism is not an arbitrary whim. Catalonia has existed as a distinct linguistic and often political unit since the early Middle Ages, with its distinct economic relations centred on Barcelona and the Mediterranean. The Spanish monarchy imposed thorough control, sidelining the old Catalan political institutions, only in the early 18th century. There have been previous moves for Catalan independence, in the mid 17th century for example, and in 1931. Catalonia’s national rights were suppressed under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco from 1939 to 1975. Public use of the Catalan language was banned.

The case against independence is that Catalonia has won extensive autonomy since the end of the Francoist regime. It could almost certainly win more, maybe not under the current conservative government in Madrid, but in the medium term and without erecting new borders. In fact, one of the sparks of the current crisis is that a 2006 law extending Catalonia’s autonomy, approved both by the Spanish parliament and by a referendum in Catalonia, was annulled in 2010 by Rajoy’s PP government, using the constitutional council.

A sizeable section of Catalonia’s population today, especially of its working class and especially in Barcelona, has been formed by successive waves of migration from the rest of Spain and elsewhere, as Catalonia has become the most economically dynamic part of Spain. Respect for specific Catalan rights can probably be won without new borders; but new borders would have divisive and economically disruptive effects in the working class, and might lead to the large “Spanish” minority in Catalonia and other migrants feeling hemmed-in and oppressed.

But it is up to the people of Catalonia to weigh those arguments. The decision should be theirs. Workers in Spain and across Europe should insist that Madrid and the EU respect Catalonia’s right to national self-determination.

Curiously after so much turmoil, the latest opinion polls for 21 December show as little change from the last Catalan elections in 2015.

The CUP, a left-wing Catalan nationalist party which advocates a larger independent Catalonia including parts of France and of Valencia, has gone up from 3 to 7 per cent, but all parties are on very nearly on the same scores as in 2015. The top scorer in the poles is the ERC, a historic Catalan nationalist party with a broadly leftish tinge which dates back to 1931.

In 2015, ERC ran in a bloc with Puigdemont’s party, PDeCAT, a newer party which is right-wing, notorious for corruption, and historically hesitant about Catalan independence. Puigdemont wants the bloc repeated, but the ERC are saying no. Rajoy’s perspective must be to scare the more tentative supporters of independence through his hard line, and persuade them that independence is too scary and risky. His line could work the other way: the crackdown may push people toward independence.

From a distance, certainly, and maybe on the ground, it is impossible to tell which way it will go. Rajoy’s party, the People’s Party, has been and is very weak in Catalonia. The big pro-unionist parties are the Citizens’ Party and the social-democratic PSOE (called PSC in Catalonia). Citizens’ is a socially liberal, economically neo-liberal, Spanish unionist party, which started in Catalonia primarily as an anti-separatist party, and which still has its headquarters in Barcelona, though it has now spread across Spain.

The balance after 21 December may be held by an electoral coalition of Podemos, a Spanish-wide leftish party coming out of the Indignados anti-cuts movement of 2011, and Catalonia in Common, the party of Barcelona’s leftish mayor, Ada Colau, which is standing in Catalonia-wide elections for the first time. That coalition has broadly the same stance as the big trade unions: it opposes direct rule and demands a proper referendum, but also opposes Puigdemont’s declaration of independence.

Catalonia in Common has broken its previous coalition with the PSC on Barcelona’s city council because of the PSC’s support for Rajoy’s imposed Madrid rule. There is some tension in Podemos about this stance. A survey of members got a majority for the line, but some Podemos MPs in the Catalan parliament voted for Puigdemont’s declaration of independence, and the Podemos leader in Catalonia has resigned. The left-wing Anticapitalistas faction is for independence.

Looking back over the evolution of Spain and Catalonia since 1975, it seems likely that a very wide range of opinion would settle for an expanded autonomy for Catalonia within a united Spain, at least as an acceptable second best. Although Rajoy currently rejects expanded autonomy, his hand may be forced on 21 December.

It is hard to see how the major bourgeois forces on either side can find a path from the current conflict to such an outcome. It remains for the working class and its movements to uphold the cause of solidarity, mutual respect, internationalism, and respect for national rights.

Our model on such questions was discussed at length in a long pamphlet by Lenin in 1913, summing up on many debates in the socialist movement of his day. The nation wishing to secede should have the right to vote on it; the main job of socialists, particularly those in the bigger power, is to argue for respect for the democratic choice. Lenin praised the Swedish workers’ response when Norway separated from Sweden in 1905: firm backing for Norway’s rights, while leaving it up to the Norwegian workers to decide whether autonomy was enough or they wanted independence.

Against Madrid’s clampdown, for Catalonia’s rights, and in all circumstances for working-class unity across the national and communal divides!