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Catalonia-Spain Endgame: Next Steps


“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
– Winston Churchill, The Lord Mayor’s Luncheon, 10 November 1942

2 October. Catalonia has passed through a crucible. The previous two years have mostly been about personalities: Artur Mas, Carles Puigdemont, Mariano Rajoy. Yesterday was the day for the Catalan people, at least those that support the right to self-determination, to stand and be true. It was the day for ordinary citizens to queue peacefully to deposit a ballot, to be beaten and kicked for it. It was the day for firefighters to form a chain of human shields and suffer the blows meant for the unarmed civilians they were protecting. It was a day for the Catalan police officers to refuse orders to attack their neighbors and to weep in rage as platoons of Spanish police took up their truncheons. It was a day to witness the extraordinary courage of ordinary people: and if I were a Spaniard, no matter how misplaced I felt it might be, I think I would have to admire such valor and courageous manhood[1]. It was a necessary if bloody trial by fire, to demonstrate to the world that the Catalans would not be shouted down, that there was more to the referendum than the work of a small clique of seditious malcontents.

The competing propaganda lines remain as divergent as ever.

On the one hand, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy went on national television to declare that “no referendum had taken place; the police response had been measured and appropriate” even as over 2 million ballots were being counted and Barcelona hospitals were treating limbs and heads broken by police truncheon and rubber bullet wounds on the more than 800 unarmed civilians that were injured yesterday. There were also 11 police officers injured, according to government sources. Mr. Rajoy’s speech contained nothing new; it offered no analysis, no solutions, no recognition that there is a massive constitutional crisis in Spain: his entire post-referendum plan was summed up as “I hope the Catalans leaders will now give up this nonsense”. The speech was a failure: even his supporters went to Twitter to share their frustration with his speech, a new low in mediocrity.

On the other hand, the Catalan government leadership was jubilant. They declared the referendum to be a complete success and the voting to have proceeded with complete normality. This is a fantasy: no matter how well organized the Catalans were – and they displayed a remarkable degree of organization for a proscribed process – there is no possible scenario where this referendum could be called “normal”. They argument they will make is that, of course, it was as normal as it could be in light of the oppressive anti-democratic tactics of the Spanish state. But it is more difficult to explain the fact that only 2.3 million people voted, a 42% turnout. There is no reason for a low turnout to delegitimize a referendum in normal times: after all, the Spanish were perfectly happy to sign away their sovereignty to the European Constitution in the 2006 Referendum with a 43% turnout. But the fact remains that despite all the anger and indignation at the Spanish state built up over the past 2 weeks, at the sometimes ham-fisted tactics of the Guardia Civil in the build-up to the referendum, to the Tweety Bird campaign, to all the incendiary reasons provided gratuitously by Mr. Rajoy and his allies, the “Sí” campaign was unable to improve upon the performance of the 9N2014 consultation. The results were – statistically – identical.

Granted that there was the threat – and realization – of police violence which might have had a chilling effect on voter turnout; granted also that the police must have seized some number of cast ballots. But the general impression is that at least some people came out precisely because of the police presence rather than being deterred by it. Furthermore, the police violence was sporadic and localized, rather than systematic and generalized. Many localities had no police visits at all, or else only that of the friendly neighborhood Mossos, who deterred no one. Which means that either the police seized significant numbers of ballots, or at that the pro-independence groups have reached a ceiling of popular support. Of course, the Spanish government dismisses the referendum regardless of reported numbers and claims widespread fraud and ballot box stuffing. Puigdemont might have preprinted the 2.3 million ballots or simply invented them. But while it will not change Madrid’s stance one iota or the opinion of a single unionist Spaniard, it is not an unimportant question to analyze and have answered. – Announced after the time of writing: the Generalitat estimates at total of approximately 770,000 cast ballots confiscated by police, which would raise the percentage turnout to 56.8%. This estimate has not been confirmed or denied by Spanish authorities.

Potentially more important are the images from Barcelona that have been broadcast across the world and the fact that the international reaction has been strongly negative. The referendum has been a propaganda bonanza beyond the wildest expectations of the pro-independence groups: images of 90-year old men and women going to polling stations with their walkers; firefighters linking arms to act as human shields for civilians as riot police beat them; shouting and shoving matches between Spanish and Catalan police; unarmed civilians with blood pouring out of their heads, with broken limbs, or being dragged by their hair and repeatedly kicked. These are worth a million “sí” ballots in the referendum. I don’t care how fervent a supporter you are of Spanish unity or Mariano Rajoy, you must admit that Spain is badly bungling the propaganda effort. In a single day, the Guardia Civil has managed to turn “an internal Spanish affair” into a European human rights crisis. European Parliamentarians who previously rejected Catalonia’s self-determination argument – even members of Rajoy’s own European People’s Party – have admitted that the police violence was excessive and “looks very bad”. I am very certain from conversations that I have had that most Spaniards neither know nor care what is being said in Europe, but they should: this is precisely where lies Catalonia’s only hope of independence.

Although the top voice in the European Commission, that of President Jean-Claude Juncker, has yet to be heard[2], other important European leaders have already spoken out:

  • Guy Verhofstadt, MEP: ““I don’t want to interfere in the domestic issues of Spain but I absolutely condemn what happened today in Catalonia… It’s high time for de-escalation. Only a negotiated solution in which all political parties, including the opposition in the Catalan parliament, are involved and with respect for the constitutional and legal order of the country, is the way forward.”
  • Gianna Pittella, MEP: “This is a sad day for Spain and for the whole of Europe. There is no doubt that the non-referendum organized and supported by the Catalan authorities is to be considered illegal and invalid. However, the feelings of so many Catalans that took to the streets must also be heard… The solution can only be a political response, not a police one.”
  • Hans van Baalen, MEP: “Respect for rule of law should go hand in hand w respect for citizens. We want end of disproportional police violence and political dialogue.”
  • Miro Cerar, Prime Minister of Slovakia: “I am concerned about situation. I call for political dialogue, rule of law and peaceful solutions.”
  • Charles Michel, Prime Minister of Belgium: “Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue.”
  • Linas Linkevicius, Foreign Minister of Lithuania: “Emotional charge is strong, wounds of mistrust deep, dialogue with own people is a must for Spain. Violence will not help.”

This degree of ambivalence does not favor Spain at all. The most likely outcome of a “negotiated solution” that involves outside arbitration is some kind of new referendum – or consultation – with international observers, guarantees and no police interference. That is unacceptable to Prime Minister Rajoy; in fact, agreeing to it would almost certainly cause the fall of his government. While his government has been losing the propaganda fight in the press, they have generally succeeded in the backrooms and corridors of power of the European Union, so I expect a full-court press by Spanish diplomats has been undertaken to ensure that Mr. Juncker and other “major” European leaders are very guarded in any comments they make today. I fully expect any official statement from the EU Commission, Germany, France or Italy to “lament” the violence, call for calm and political dialogue, but reaffirm their powerlessness to act.  – Confirmed after the time of writing: the EU Commission has issued an official statement deploring the violence, blaming no one, and doubling down on the illegality of the referendum.

That puts the ball back in Mr. Puigdemont’s court. Mr. Rajoy has demonstrated time and again that he is willing to surrender the initiative: otherwise, he would have already arrested the pro-independence Catalan leaders. Mr. Puigdemont must therefore set the pace; he cannot lose momentum. The 48-hour period he has given himself and the parliament to declare independence might be stretched to as long as a week if there is any hope of winning EU mediation. Once that door is closed – probably on Monday afternoon – there will be little point waiting longer to submit the referendum results to the Parliament and have them approve a declaration of independence from Spain. The debate on the declaration will be rapid – it is unlikely that pro-union delegates will show up at all to the legislature – and both the debate and the declaration will likely coincide with the region-wide work stoppage and demonstrations planned for Tuesday, October 3rd. These events will stretch Spanish police resources and provide cover for the parliamentarians: if Spain’s 10,000 Guardia Civiles have nothing to do, they might all descend on the Palau del Parlament. If with the mass mobilization and confusion to be expected on Tuesday, it will be touch and go: it seems inconceivable that the entire Spanish government and judiciary will sit on its hands while Carme Forcadell calmly calls a roll-call vote on secession.

To a certain extent, what happens next doesn’t matter: no declaration of independence will be respected by Spain or recognized by the European Union. The important thing for the pro-independence group is to have the Parliament and Generalitat vote on it and ratify it. The declaration becomes the necessary break that will allow – that will oblige – people to start defining their loyalties towards the still embryonic Catalan Republic. It can achieve no more at this time. Consider the American Declaration of Independence on July 4th, 1776: it was not recognized by England, it immediately turned its signatories into rebels and traitors, and it did not bring a single musket or cannon to the fight[3]. French recognition did not even come until two years later (February 6th, 1778). But after the declaration, it was no longer really possible to be ambivalent, to remain neutral: everyone became a Patriot or a Tory[4]. And that is, of course, a necessary precondition for statehood.

If Spain refuses to recognize a Catalan declaration of independence and attempts or succeeds in arresting Catalan leaders for sedition and secession, what chance do the Catalans have of actually succeeding?

It is important to acknowledge that Spain is playing with almost all of the advantages and that historically, many more attempts to win independence have failed than have succeeded. That said, Catalonia’s chances should not be underestimated. They have the great advantage to be operating in 21st century Europe – even 80 years ago, things would have been very different[5]. In today’s Europe, even in the European Union, levels of violence that were considered normal and acceptable even 30 years ago can now alter policies. The great surge in “human rights interventions” since the 1990’s favor the weakness of the Catalans so long as they continue to apply their principles of non-violent, but active resistance. The Catalans have no chance of convincing Spain to change its mind, nor do they have any chance of winning an attritional battle, in any sense of that phrase, economic or physical. There only hope is to force the European Union to mediate and they can only do that by creating a human rights crisis in the heart of Europe.

To state it very cynically, that means body count. If the 800 or so civilians that were bruised and bloodied on Sunday drew a shocked response from Europe, it did not shift the senior leadership of the EU Commission, France, Germany or Italy. To do so, the Catalans will have to provoke more disproportionate responses from Spanish police; every peaceful demonstrator beaten to a bloody pulp is worth a platoon of infantry. Every Catalan widow or pensioner knocked on the head is worth a battalion in the field. That is the horrific calculus of independence: you pay for it in blood. Always. Like a good judo fighter, Puigdemont will attempt to turn Spain’s strength against itself: in order to enforce the laws, it will have to make arrests and disperse protesters. So long as Catalan civilians are willing to be beat up and arrested in order to block traffic, cut off ports and rail lines, block factory entrances and generally defy the authority of Madrid, then the Spanish state will fail to win. That is not the same as losing, but it is a far cry from “restoring normalcy”.

Mariano Rajoy is hoping, praying that Catalan leaders will “come to their senses” before he is forced to take more severe actions. But if they don’t, he is hoping and praying that the Catalan people will have a low tolerance for pain and discomfort. That they won’t let themselves be arrested by the thousands; that they won’t allow themselves to be thrashed and bludgeoned. If they prove resilient, however, he faces a very difficult choice: either enforce the law and risk losing the propaganda fight for international public opinion, or not enforce it and lose the internal fight for Spanish public opinion as well as allowing the de facto operation of a Catalan state-within-a-state: a complete mockery of his constitutionalist position.

I believe that Mariano Rajoy has lost Catalonia. The police violence failed its purpose of stopping a vote, deepened the already bitter divide between Catalans and Spaniards, and gave independentistas and enormous propaganda victory. It gave a certain moral justification to the now almost inevitable Catalan declaration of independence[6].  Having lost Catalonia, the Spanish government now faces the more difficult task of winning it back. It can only do that by active measures to occupy Catalonia and impose its will. Supporters of Spanish union will call it “enforcing the rule of law”. Supporters of Catalan independence will call it “invasion, subjugation and repression”. However you define it, it is likely to impose a burden on the government and on Catalans for a generation. All of the suggested “hardline measures” will only harden opposition and swell the ranks of pro-independence supporters: Article 155, imprisoning Catalan leaders, liberal use of sedition charges against protesters. All of those measures are useful for “decapitating” a centrally-led organization, but much less useful at dealing with a distributed model of citizen organization and resistance. Arrest every Catalan leader in the parliament and Generalitat: you will still have 2 millon people organizing themselves and exercising passive resistance. And each perceived assault on Catalan identity and autonomy will swell the ranks of those 2 million. Spain may find itself in a war of attrition against a population that will not fight back but will not give up, and to impose itself on the Catalans runs the risk of alienating Europe and drawing the one thing that absolutely must be avoided: international mediation. Spain may win that war; but if it underestimates Catalan determination, it stands a chance of losing.

What are the chances of EU intervention? I am not sanguine about the prospects of European leaders going against a member state without very weighty reasons. Every incident of violence that can be reasonably framed as “police repression” will increase the possibility of a “mediation offer” – and offer that, if pressed, Spain will not be allowed to refuse[7]. It is impossible to estimate how long this will take or what the price will be for the Catalan civilians who will be paying it: but I think it is reasonable to suppose that if EU mediation hasn’t come in six months and after 8,000 to 10,000 casualties[8], then it will not come at all.

Whatever happens, events will move quickly and I will continue to update the Endgame Scenarios as frequently as possible. For the Catalans, the 1st of October was not the end of the Procès, it is only the beginning of a longer struggle to hold what they have and win international recognition.

Sources and Notes

[1] It’s just an expression. I have equal admiration for the courageous womanhood on display as well.

[2] At the time of writing. The EU Commission made an official statement before publication.

[3] That is a slight exaggeration. Once the Declaration reached France, and the French realized that the colonial dispute between Britain and her colonies was real, French military aid started almost immediately.

[4] These names are used because the Americans won. If the British has won, I’d be writing “Rebels” and “Loyalists”.

[5] Carles Puigdemont, Carme Forcadell, Oriol Junqueras and several other high-ranking Catalan officials would almost certainly have already been exiled, jailed, shot or both of the latter two.

[6] Spanish patriots: yes it does. It doesn’t matter what you think or how illegitimate you believe it all to be; what matters is what is happening internationally, especially in Europe. That is where you can lose the game, set and match.

[7] My assumption is that if the EU Commission comes to the point of making this offer, it is because there is so much political pressure on it that it will not take “no” from Spain for an answer.

[8] Important to note that casualties includes injuries as well as fatalities. I am not saying that 10,000 people would be killed, which would be equivalent to the outbreak of a civil war. That is an “active resistance” scenario which I will not explore, but which I assume will lead inevitably to a Catalan defeat.

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