The real loser in the Catalan secession push: Catalan nationalists – POLITICO


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MADRID — What a difference half a decade can make — at least in Catalonia.

On October 1, 2017, nationalists in the region held a referendum on secession, their boldest move since the return to democracy four decades earlier. The vote – and the massive protests leading up to it – reflected the unity and determination of the independence movement.

But this secession campaign, known as the the process (“the process”), has failed and over the past five years the region has been temporarily stripped of its self-governing powers, many of its leaders have been imprisoned or become fugitives and the cause of independence has been subsumed by world events. Torn by infighting, Catalan separatism is in disarray, its supporters unable even to agree on how to achieve secession.

“Our institutions, political parties and organizations were all united [in 2017] and we had social mobilization – with all these things aligned, we have come a long way,” said Toni Comín, a former minister in the Catalan pro-independence government and now an MEP.

“But when our goals and interests are so different,” he said, given the current situation, “it makes unity very difficult.”

The nationalist front that promoted the 2017 referendum was led by the centre-right Together for Catalonia (JxCat) governing in coalition with the Catalan Republican Left (ERC). With the support of the Candidature of Popular Unity (CUP), a small far-left party, they formed a narrow pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament, backed by influential civic organizations.

With a conservative Spanish government in Madrid refusing to engage in talks on possible increased autonomy for Catalonia, the independence movement had a clear common enemy whom it presented as legalistic and authoritarian.

When the referendum was held, in defiance of government and court orders, this image worsened when armed police stormed into several polling stations and voters were bludgeoned. Although turnout was just over 40%, the result was overwhelmingly in favor of secession and the region’s parliament issued a declaration of independence four weeks after the referendum.

It was there the process started to crumble.

After the vote

“There was a plan that had been meticulously prepared until [the referendum]but beyond that, no one had really thought about what exactly the next step was,” wrote Lola García, journalist and author of a book about the failed independence attempt.

A few minutes after the declaration of independence, the Spanish government introduced direct rule in Catalonia. Several politicians were arrested, nine of them eventually sentenced to long prison terms for crimes including sedition, while others, including then-President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont, fled abroad.

Following the introduction of the direct regime, the then President of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, fled abroad | Olivier Hostet/EPA-EFE

ERC and JxCat still govern Catalonia, but conflicting strategies over the issue of secession have recently threatened to unravel their coalition.

ERC’s Pere Aragonès, who is the current regional chairman, is pursuing a step-by-step approach, which he says is comparable to that of the Scottish National Party (SNP), with the ultimate aim of holding a sanctioned independence referendum by the law. To this end, his party provided parliamentary support to the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), in exchange for a series of negotiations on the future of Catalonia.

Speaking on the sidelines of the UN summit in New York, Aragonès told POLITICO that his government’s relationship with the Spanish prime minister is “a mixture of conflict and cooperation”.

He added that “now we are in negotiations with the Spanish government, we have to push it, push it, push it to come up with a democratic solution. Our democratic solution is a referendum, so we will insist on that.

In the Catalan parliament this week, Aragonès reiterated his determination to continue on this path, saying that “only the legitimacy of a negotiated referendum can replace October 1”.

This negotiation was notoriously slow, in large part due to COVID-19 and the Spanish electoral calendar, although many in Catalonia believe that Sánchez, not wanting to appear to give too many concessions to the nationalists, deliberately dragged on. feet.

“I understand the people in Catalonia who have seen the Spanish government in recent years make a lot of promises and then do nothing,” Aragonès said of the talks. “So I understand that people are skeptical, but my responsibility is to find solutions.”

He added: “We learned from the experience of 2017 that the Spanish state is ready to repress the Catalan people, so knowing this we must be stronger in terms of social majority”.

The most obvious concrete gain Aragonès can cite from his willingness to engage with Madrid is the pardon granted by the Spanish government to the nine pro-independence leaders imprisoned in June 2021, despite opposition from conservatives and some within the PSOE. by Sanchez.

Moreover, the Sánchez government has tacitly supported Catalonia’s “total immersion” language system in schools, which means, in theory, that the regional language is used to the exclusion of Spanish, a policy that exasperated many trade unionists in Madrid. Meanwhile, the Spanish government has issued rather vague promises to keep talking, while ruling out ever sanctioning an independence referendum.

“We have to find alternatives, different solutions to resolve this crisis,” Sánchez told POLITICO, adding that it “would take more than a year or two.”

His government believes that his willingness to engage with the Catalan administration has contributed significantly to reducing tensions surrounding the territorial question and has diverted the attention of hardliners.

“We have to find alternatives, different solutions to resolve this crisis,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez told POLITICO | Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

“This is a government that is not hostile to the independence movement,” said a person from the Spanish administration. “The independence movement knows this is its best chance to reach an agreement with Madrid.”

But the problems in the Barcelona-Madrid relationship have been all too apparent. A surveillance scandal earlier this year revealed that Aragonès and other Catalan leaders had been spied on by intelligence services, reportedly as recently as 2019. Meanwhile, a breakdown in the local Catalan rail service in early September has revived long-standing complaints that Spain is underfunding the region’s infrastructure.

Internal splits

Aragonès’ coalition partner, JxCat, portrays Sánchez’s government, which first took office in 2018, as a mere continuation of the hardline conservatives that preceded it. Puigdemont, who until June was still head of JxCat from his voluntary exile in Belgium, encouraged the party to take a strident line reminiscent of the unilateralism of 2017.

“Without confrontation, there will be no independence because the Spanish state is not ready to allow independence through the negotiated route,” said MEP Comín, who has been based in Belgium for five years, trying to thwart the efforts of the Spanish courts to extradite him. .

Comín is vice-president of the Consell per la República Catalana (Council for the Catalan Republic) headed by Puigdemont, a Waterloo-based entity close to JxCat and backed by pro-independence hardliners whose aim is to “implement the october term 1 [2017] from exile and from within.

On the other hand, says Comín with disdain, the priority of Aragonès and ERC “is not independence, it is to manage the Catalan government within the [existing] regional system.

“The question,” he added, “is what battle are we fighting? The one against the Spanish state or the one between the independence parties? »

This week, the quarrels have turned into a full-fledged crisis in the Catalan government coalition. Aragonès sacked his vice-president, Jordi Puigneró of JxCat, who had requested that a motion of confidence be held against him. JxCat now plans to ask its members to vote on whether it should remain in the coalition. If he decides to leave, he could force ERC to seek parliamentary partners beyond the independence camp.

The discontent is not limited to JxCat and its political allies. The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the civic organization that played a key role in pushing nationalist politicians towards their declaration of independence five years ago, continues to call for a drastic strategy.

“It seems that politicians are trying to escape the pressure,” said ANC President Dolors Feliu. “We’ll see what happens because the pressure from the streets, the pressure from the voters and the social pressure make us think that people clearly have the idea that they want to achieve independence – they don’t have it. not let go – and so we think politicians should react to this.

This social pressure showed up again during the 9/11 Diada – or Catalan National Day celebrations – which has become an annual show of force by pro-independence Catalans. However, this year turnout was lower than before the pandemic and the event exposed divisions within the movement, with many in attendance booing ERC politicians for their grassroots approach. dialogue.

Marta Vilalta, one of the targets of the boos, fired back saying “while you shout, those of us at the ERC will work to lead this country to freedom”.

Pere Aragonès, who is the current regional president, pursues a gradual approach | Pau Barrena/AFP via Getty Images

The ANC is even more eager than the die-hards of Puigdemont to advance secession. He wants the next Catalan elections, scheduled for 2025, to be used as a plebiscite on the implementation of the 2017 referendum result. But the organization has lost influence and signs show there is little support. appetite for such radical action in wider Catalan society.

Support for independence has fallen to 41% in favor, from 49% five years ago, according to the latest figures from the Catalan government’s statistics institute.

Meanwhile, only 11% of those polled favored a unilateral path to independence. Voters’ intent also appears to endorse the policy of engagement, with the Catalan wing of Sánchez’s Socialists leading the polls, followed by the ERC, which retains a lead over JxCat.

“The independence movement is weaker than in 2017 and the Spanish state is stronger,” said Francesc-Marc Álvaro, author and columnist at La Vanguardia newspaper. “The cause of independence still enjoys broad social support, but it has not made progress and the independence leaders are in a weak position. We are checkmate.

This situation shows little sign of changing, at least until the next Spanish general elections, scheduled for the end of 2023, when the conservative People’s Party (PP), with its more aggressive unionism, hopes to overthrow Sánchez and adopt a much more tough on the Catalan question.

Emma Anderson contributed reporting from New York.

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