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Catalonia: How Spain is Creating Separatists

Conservative government in Madrid cited as key factor by left activists organizing for an independent state

by Christopher Scott

Catalan sovereigntist night demonstration in Barcelona. Photo: Chris Scott.
Catalan sovereigntist night demonstration in Barcelona. Photo: Chris Scott.

February 10, Barcelona:

At age 75 Ernest Maragall, grandson of a poet and brother to the Mayor who hosted the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, has long lived near the center of Catalan public life.

He is also a political personality in his own right. Over a career spanning five decades, Maragall has worked as a municipal civil servant and held elected positions, such as Minister of Education for the Catalan Government and delegate to the European Parliament. Last month, in recognition of his seniority, Maragall was asked to serve as pro-forma Speaker for the Catalan Parliament during its opening day of proceedings.   

In an interview, hale, educated, and conversing fluidly in French, Maragall cuts a genteel figure. But his voice lifts in frustration as he describes one of his grievances with the Spanish government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

Ernest Maragall, through a career of political activity, talks of the trajectory of the Catalan independence movement and Spain’s ‘invalidation’ of attempts for sovereignty. Photo: Wikipedia.

According to Maragall, since 2015 “there have been twenty-nine Catalan laws, many of them of a social nature, that have been cancelled by Spain’s Constitutional Court. C’est un scandale, ça!,” he deplores.  

The laws Maragall has in mind read like a who’s-who list of progressive legislation. Last July, the region’s parliament voted on a climate change bill that included articles mandating the closure of Catalonia’s three nuclear reactors by 2027 and imposing a carbon tax. The bill passed by a wide margin, with 124 ayes, and eleven abstentions. But it was swiftly attacked by Spain’s central government, which took the Catalan government (known as the Generalitat) to court, and in December had the relevant articles vetoed on grounds of jurisdiction.

Similar cases of judicial censure have included a law creating a tax on real estate speculation, a “Law on the Equality of Men and Women”, and an anti-fracking initiative. In April 2016, acting on Madrid’s behest, the Constitutional Court gutted a bill that the Catalan Parliament had passed unanimously a year earlier aiming to protect poor families from having their electricity cut in winter.     

The fate of these initiatives goes to the heart of a challenge confronting Catalan leftists. Activists, who tend to organize at the community level, have had measurable success getting elements of their agenda adopted by the Generalitat. But Spain, unlike Canada, is not a federal state. Important areas of decision-making, including land-use planning and elements of economic policy that in Canada would be the purview of the provinces, are controlled by the Spanish government in Madrid. And in the current context, that government is the socially conservative, austerity-prone administration of Prime Minister Rajoy, whose Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party), despite being a major player on the Spanish scene, garnered just 13% of the votes in Catalonia in the last Spanish election.


Instrumental Separatism

Commenting on the Catalan independence movement, Marc Sanjaume, Professor of Political Science at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University argues that “there are two types of sovereigntists: those who are the true believers, and are that way on principle, for example because they identify as being of Catalan nationality… But there are also instrumental sovereigntists, who consider that their priority is change [for example to the regime] of the PP, or the Spanish monarchy.”

“The PP is more centralist than the Spanish Socialist Party [its main parliamentary rival],” adds Sanjaume.

Under the current power-sharing arrangement, which is a product of Spain’s 1978 Constitution, Catalonia has jurisdiction over its health care and education, and has limited powers of taxation. Catalan progressives figure among those who would like to expand the region’s powers, with a view to enacting more social programmes and legislation.The Constitution allows some lee-way for regions to negotiate further- devolved powers from Madrid, but within the spectrum of Spanish politics the PP party has shown the most hostility to such moves.

A demo at the Palais de la Justicia in Barcelona, demanding freedom for political prisoners Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez. Photo: Chris Scott.

Maragall’s trajectory illustrates the effect of this frustration. He began his career with the pro-union Socialist Party, before migrating to the pro-Catalan sovereignty Left Republicans. He now sits as a Left Republican in the Catalan Legislature. For Maragall, the watershed moment came in 2010 when the Constitutional Tribunal, acceding to a petition from the PP, invalidated articles of a new power-sharing agreement that had been painstakingly worked out between the Generalitat and the then-socialist government in Madrid.

"Within Spanish democracy, starting in 1980, we believed there was a potential for federalism," explains the politician. "But what happened was the opposite. We have progressively lost the resources and decision-making capacities we thought we had achieved."

In interviews, Catalan sovereigntists consistently express pessimism about the likelihood of a change of attitude occurring on the Spanish political scene. According to polls, support for independence in Catalonia, now nearing fifty percent, has increased markedly since the 2010 court decision, and since the PP won Spanish elections the following year.

Enric Batran (bottom, right) berates the Spanish government for their austerity in healthcare payments to the region of Catalonia. Photos taken at a Demonstration in front of Hospital del Mar in Barcelona. Photo: Chris Scott.


Cutbacks: Who’s to Blame?

The composition of Catalonia’s Parliament offers a window into the region’s politics. Following a recent election, sovereigntists hold a majority in the 135-seat assembly, but are divided into three parties. The center-right Together for Catalonia, which includes nationalists, has 34 delegates. The Left Republicans, who are social democrats, have 32 seats, while the anti-capitalist Convergence for Popular Unity (CUP) has four.

Both leftist pro-independence parties employ the rhetoric of instrumental sovereignty. As a CUP delegate, Vidal Arragones emphasizes how under pressure from the international lending institutions, the Spanish government when dominated by the socialists, changed the state’s Constitution in 2010 to give debt servicing priority over all other spending options.“It’s impossible to build social policies if we don’t have independence,” he says, arguing that Spain has become a country of “permanent cutbacks and ultra-reactionary policies...the working class [in Spain] has no future”.

Within Catalonia, this reflex to blame Spain for austerity is widespread. At a January demo against cutbacks to the healthcare system, Enric Batran, a 73 year-old engineer waiting for a back treatment, lambasts the Madrid authorities for reducing transfer payments to the Generalitat."It's a fascist government," he berates, standing on the seafront boulevard outside Barcelona's Hospital de Mar. "If the Spanish government doesn't send us [the Generalitat] the money that's ours, we have our hands tied."

“It’s impossible to build social policies if we don’t have independence,” Vidal Arragones emphasizes as a delegate of the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, a leftist Party within the Catalan independence movement. Photo: Chris Scott.

Passions can run high. Still, not all leftists agree that critiquing Madrid addresses the whole problem. Marc Pares, public policy coordinator for the non-sovereigntist party Catalunya en Comu Podem, argues that the nationalist predecessor to the current Catalan government had a choice when it legislated the first cutbacks to the healthcare system in 2010. "The main party that is defending independence is a right-wing party," emphasizes Peres, faulting the CUP and the Left Republicans for supporting the Catalan government. Pares' party is a fusion of communists, greens and the Spanish anti-austerity movement Podemos, and it holds eight seats in the regional Legislature.

Detailing the breakdown of fiscal powers between Barcelona and Madrid (Catalonia determines fifty percent of income tax)Pares makes a case that the Generalitat could have used its existing prerogatives to raise income tax on high earners to fund the healthcare system, but that it failed to do so. According to Pares, blaming Spain has become a figleaf for the Generalitat to avoid taking responsibility for its own ideologically charged decisions.

"I think it's very ethnicist to say that Spain is conservative," Pares adds, taking aim at one of the most commonly articulated assumptions of the sovereigntists. "Spain is diverse."   


Bright Tomorrows

In the residential neighbourhoods of Barcelona, a vibrant street art scene exposes the perceived link between social justice and sovereignty. "Independence, socialism and feminism," reads a slogan on a garage door. Posters detail cases of Catalan laws vetoed by Spain, appeal to the newcomer vote and promise that in an independent Catalonia pensions will be paid on time.

A group of activists with a stepladder are pasting over a street sign on a corner commemorating George Washington, to replace it with the name of a Catalan anti-fascist militant.

In community centres, grassroots "Committees for the Defense of the Republic" meet weekly to plan strategy. Encountered at one such meeting, Leona (nom de guerre) is a feminist activist in her thirties who has participated in demos where protesters have disabled the ticket counters and forced open the gates at a metro station to denounce a fare hike.

"For me, it's a struggle that comes before the independence one," she says, describing her activism. She sees independence as a way of "changing the rules of the game", offering a chance to define the principles of the new country through participatory public meetings known as "constituent assemblies".

Crowds come out for a night-demo in Barcelona, posters around the city address the concerns of the independence movement. Photo: Chris Scott.

In its public expression, the Catalan sovereigntist movement, or a certain sovereigntist movement, has succeeded in associating itself with the aspirations of progressives, and defining itself in opposition to a Spain that is neoliberal and out of touch. The problem for Spain is that, despite the presence of groups like Podemos, it has forged no counter-narrative, proposed no explanation of how things could get better than they are now for Catalans if the region stays in the union. To date, Spain's response to the sovereigntist challenge has been strictly legal, and has not sought to address the causes of Catalan economic and social malaise.

The independence movement has channelled a thirst for change which sooner or later will find an outlet. Spain will ignore this outpouring at its own risk.

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