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Catalonia: Change the Rules or Lose the Game


It has been ten days since the Spanish Government imposed an Article 155 sanctioned take-over of Catalonia, provoking a defiant Catalan Parliament to sign a declaration of independence. Subsequent events have been somewhat anti-climactic, even mundane: Carles Puigdemont, desposed President of the Catalan Autonomous Region and unrecognized President of the unrecognized Catalan Republic, promptly disappeared from his new birthed nation to suddenly reappear with eight of his senior officials in Brussels, seeking to internationalize the dispute with Spain. He left behind his Vice President, Oriol Junqueras, who was soon swept up by Spanish police along with eight other members of the Catalan Executive, the Govern, and dumped into separate Spanish jails in Madrid on remand while they await trial for sedition. The Spanish government has designated Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaría as the new Gauleiter von Katalonien Acting President of Catalonia; though it seems that the day-to-day operations of the executive ministries is essentially in the hands of the professional civil service with Madrid paying the salaries instead of Barcelona.

There have been a number of protests, both in support of Madrid’s actions and against it: to read the press reports, it would seem that several more million people have been mobilized by all sides than Catalonia has residents. Spain’s Prosecutor General has issued a European arrest warrant for Mr. Puigdemont, a procedure usually reserved for terrorists[1], hoping to put him in gaol as well; but the Belgian authorities have not expedited the request and have allowed Mr. Puigdemont to continue to enjoy conditional freedom. This has strained Spanish-Belgian relations, with both sides trading barbs. They undoubtedly wish he would seek asylum somewhere else; but in the meanwhile, they have delivered the equivalent of a slap in the face to Madrid, openly questioning whether Mr. Puigdemont could have a fair trial in the Spanish judiciary. It is even possible that the Belgian authorities looked at the Spanish Constitution’s Article 13.3 “no extradition will be granted for political crimes” and decided that it was only fair to apply it to Spain itself.

Prime Minister Rajoy’s plan – I use that term very generously – seems to be to jail everyone the Catalans elected[2]…and then call for another election on the 21st of December. From a certain point of view that makes sense: the longer Madrid suspends Catalan autonomy the greater the risk of a general hardening of Catalan attitudes. Article 155 is not and cannot be a permanent solution, as much as Partido Popular hardliners would like it to be[3]. But this course of action only makes sense if there is a high probability that pro-union parties will win that election. There is nothing to indicate that they will: Catalan elections have consistently registered high voter turnouts and sides have been polarized for years, so it seems unlikely that major shifts in voting patterns will take place.

The alternative to winning is losing, a possibility Mr. Rajoy seems to be ignoring. He may have an ace up his sleeve. Perhaps he is counting on a groundswell of pro-Spanish sentiment among the “silent majority”; perhaps he is counting on an epidemic of short-term amnesia to sweep the region so Catalans forget the police batons, political prisoners and take-over of their government; or perhaps he is counting on busloads of Andalusian Catalans and Indra’s “doy fé”[4] to provide the margin of victory. He may be planning to tilt the field in his favor by banning some or all of the pro-independence parties; another win for Spanish democracy.

Mr. Rajoy is taking a huge risk: if pro-independence parties finally do win another plurality or worse, a majority, in the Catalan Parliament, how will he continue to argue that Catalan independence is the rash act of a few desperate rebels and some deluded voters? Partido Popular officials have already indicated that in such an event, they would simply reapply Article 155. Because the Partido Popular is so committed to democratic principles that they will have the Catalans vote as many times as is necessary until they vote the “right” way. With either outcome, the Prime Minister will lose tremendous face in Europe – and it might even provoke calls for third party mediation leading to a binding referendum. The Partido Popular would never accept that and it remains doubtful that Europe would compel Spain to agree even though it could, but it is indicative of just how far the “Catalan Question” is from being settled.

As bad as the Rajoy Gambit is, the Catalan government is in a worse fix. Ten days after the declaration of independence, the new Republic has done precisely nothing. Granted, the President is in exile and the Executive Council is in a Spanish dungeon, but the Parliament has not been intervened. None of the parliamentarians who are not in Govern have been arrested. Yet President of the Parliament Carme Forcadell and the other pro-independence representative have passed no new measures other than to express concern for the plight of the political prisoners and express their outrage at the Spanish intervention. It is almost as if they had no plan at all, which I suspect to be closer to the truth than might be comfortable for supporters of the Catalan Republic. The have had three years to prepare for this moment, which is more than ample time. They have had ample warning that the Spanish government would not simply say “Aw shucks” and wish them farewell. They did assume that by simply voting (again) they could obligate the European Union to recognize their “democratic mandate” and intervene on their behalf, despite clear and repeated evidence that the European Union will happily ignore democratic mandates whenever it deems it necessary[5].

The Catalan struggle for independence has entered a surreal phase: overlaying the political prisoners, intervention of the Govern, and the doings of Mr. Puigdemont is a strange normalcy and acquiescence. Life goes on, to be sure, even in wartime: but in what is supposed to be a new-born republic, too much of the same old-same old is an indicator of weakness, not strength. Catalan leaders are acting as if their declaration of independence didn’t happen, they are still dancing to the tune set by Madrid. But the surest way to lose a game is to play it by your opponent’s rules. Like the weaker fighter in judo, the Catalan Republic must avoid playing to Spain’s strengths and turn them against their more powerful opponent.

Change the rules or lose the game.

Why are Catalan parties even discussing participating in the 21 December election called by Madrid? To start with, the election is illegal and unconstitutional even within the context of Spanish law, much less that of the Catalan Republic. The Parlament of Catalonia has the authority to call elections – not the Spanish government nor the Spanish Cortes – and it has not done so[6]. But regardless of the dubious legality of Mr. Rajoy’s electoral call, why is the Parliament of the self-declared Catalan Republic taking orders from a foreign power? This is the crux of the matter: you cannot declare independence and then go on acting like an autonomous region. President Puigdemont, the Catalan Parliament and the jailed leaders of the Govern should all denounce the illegal election called by Madrid and ensure that it does not take place. The same freedom-loving Catalan citizenry that was able to organize a referendum, hold it and collect and count 2.2 million ballots ought to be capable of peacefully ensuring that no election is held on 21 December.

Catalan political leaders – and many of their followers – argue that new elections are the best way to sustain the republic and secure European recognition. That is a grievous error. For one thing, it is an admission that the Catalan Parliament doesn’t even have the power to regulate its own elections, much less to declare independence after having already done so. Independence, once declared, has to be carried through to its conclusion. It also exposes them to fraud by a government that is led by the most corrupt party in Western Europe, hell-bent on ensuring the “right outcome” and which offers no guarantees of free and fair balloting. Third, it will lead to nothing: the Populares have said that a pro-independence victory only means more Article 155 and the EU Commission has backed them. If the Partido Popular or the EU Commission really respected democratic elections, they would have demonstrated it in any of the previous three elections or either of the two referendums held by Catalans over the past 5 years.

Change the rules or lose the game.

Instead of kowtowing to Madrid’s whims, the Catalan Parliament has other work to do. It can begin by calling a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new charter document for the republic. That is a task that could take up to six months and there is no better time than the present to start. The Parliament should also enact the Transition Law – officially, in the books – and give official legal blessing to all existing banking licenses, corporations and legal entities formed under Spanish law but residing in Catalonia. They must also begin creating the institutional framework that the Catalan Republic will need in one, or two, or five years’ time when Spain has finally been convinced or coerced into recognizing the new state’s independence. A tax authority and a central bank are urgent necessities for any modern state and while Catalonia certainly has the capacity and the nascent organizations to form the nucleus of these two institutions, they need to be given form and legal authority by the Parliament. Parliament must enact legislation authorizing ambassadors and dispatching them to key world capitals; and the new Republic must petition to enter into the world’s multinational organizations, such as the UN, NATO, WTO and others.

Parliament must also pass some laws which differ from Spain’s as a symbol. The re-banning of bull fights is an excellent example. Changing Catalonia’s time zone back to Greenwich, which is geographically where it actually is, could be another more disruptive one. The point being to demonstrate that Catalans are determined to govern themselves and to no longer bow to Madrid. Mr. Puigdemont said he initially suspended the declaration of independence out of a desire to avoid violence in the face of Spanish threats. That is laudable, but misguided: if Spain resorts to more violent measures, the fault lies with those who ordered it and carried it out, not with those who fulfilled their democratic mandate peacefully. That is Spain’s strength: it enjoys the monopoly of violence and the full institutional coercive power of a constituted state. But it is a power that Madrid would be wise to restrain: the more violently Spain lashes out at unarmed Catalans, the sooner the Republic will be achieved. Catalans must turn that strength against Spain. Meanwhile, some other independence supporters are arguing that with half the Govern in jail and the Estatut suspended, there is nothing more to be done, Madrid will not allow it: but that is a poor argument. If supporters of the Republic had stopped at what “Madrid would allow” no one would have gotten out of bed in the past decade. But they did get out of bed, in their millions, and now it is time to take their convictions to their conclusion.

Change the rules or lose the game.

There should be no normality in Catalonia so long as the government is intervened. Why did FC Barcelona play Seville on Saturday or Girona play Levante on Sunday? As if nothing was going on? Those games should have been embargoed and if the team organizations refused to acquiesce, the Catalan stadiums should have been empty, if not closed by citizens. Bring the La Liga season to a screeching halt; or force it to become a Castile-only league. Apply pressure where pressure may be usefully applied – nothing irritates a Spaniard as much as missing their football. The Catalan Way has been a marvel of peaceful civic organization. It must now continue to find ways to mobilize supporters on a rotating basis, so as to apply maximum pressure while allowing everyone opportunities to rest and avoid burnout. Find ways to protests, to challenge authority, to symbolically yet peacefully defy Spain and demonstrate that you will not be governed without your consent. A thousand ideas come to mind and I don’t doubt that the Catalans, who are an imaginative and creative people, will come up with many more and better ideas than mine.

If the Catalan Parliament and Government will not or cannot act, then the people must organize and act themselves. Sovereignty resides with them ultimately; the Parliament is only the embodiment of the people and vested with their power. If it is under duress, the people can act without it. Citizen town halls can select delegates to a Constitutional Assembly. The Partido Popular’s mistake has always been to believe its own propaganda: that a small core of corrupt politicians misled the dumb mass of voters through lies, misdirection and propaganda. A case of the thief seeing a crook in everyone he meets. But the Catalan desire for independence is a truly popular desire: arrest all the leaders, every parliamentarian, and there are still two and a half million more leaders waiting to take their places. That is Madrid’s weakness: they have no argument except the policeman’s rod and the inquisitor’s gaol. With every political prisoner Spain takes, with every police truncheon brought down on a Catalan head, the number of Catalans that will not submit grows. It is the people who will win Catalonia’s independence. While they remain true, Madrid can put a thousand politicians in the gaol and accomplish nothing lift the veil on their commitment to democracy and European values. If the people fail, no single person could save the republic anyway.

Catalan independence still faces long odds, but they are not insurmountable. Change the rules or lose the game.

Sources and Notes

[1] In fact, that is what the Spanish are calling him, despite the fact that Mr. Puigdemont has never so much as broken a pane of glass.

[2] Thank you, Stephen Colbert.

[3] And not only for Catalonia: Partido Popular politicians have thrown out hints to other nationalist parties in Spain that they could be next if they don’t bow and scrape sufficiently.

[4] Indra is the Spanish company that audits the general election ballots and certifies the vote count. Perhaps laughably – perhaps not – Indra’s own website says “We have the structural and technical resources to successfully carry out many projects adapted to the requirements in each country and for each customer.” And since the “customer” would be the Spanish government, we can just imagine the requirements….

[5] In 2001, the Irish Constitutional Court found that the changes proposed by the Nice Treaty imposed changes on the Irish Constitution, which required approval by popular referendum. When the Irish were the only member state to reject the Treaty (in fact they were the only ones to vote on it), the Irish government was told to organize another vote and “make sure it turned out the right way.” It was approved in 2002 in a second referendum. The exact same thing happened in 2008, when Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, only to be forced to vote again and approve it in 2009. At the start of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Irish government initially refuses to guarantee the liabilities of the Irish banks, calling such an action “obscene”. Then President of the ECB Jean-Claude Trichet threatens to remove all ECB deposits from Ireland, essentially leaving the country bankrupt. The Irish government is forced to nationalize the private debts of the Irish banks and accept and ECB bailout. In 2010, When Prime Minister George Papandreou balked at accepting the punitive terms of the Troika for the full Greek bailout package and proposed to submit them to a plebiscite, he was quickly “ordered out” and replaced by the safe EU technocrat Lucas Papademos, a former Vice President of the ECB and former subordinate of Mr. Trichet’s. In October 2011, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was also “ordered out” and replaced by another safe man: Mario Monti, a noted economist and long-time civil servant, who had also spent 10 years in Brussels as an EU Commissioner. In 2015, when newly elected Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras felt he had a very solid negotiating position vís-a-vís the Eurogroup thanks to his impressive electoral plurality as well as the soundness of his economic arguments. He were quickly disillusioned of the relevance of either; indeed, he was browbeaten again and again until they submitted on terms that they had consistently rejected as “absurd and unacceptable”. And he was lucky not to get a worse deal.

[6] Supports of Mr. Rajoy’s actions will argue that the Article 155 intervention authorizes them to take such measures, but said article only states that the central government may compel obedience, not usurp functions. Properly, Mr. Rajoy should instruct the Catalan Parliament to call elections, not simply decree them.

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