Jon Worth Euroblog

EU analysis, cross-posted to Blogactiv

I’ve spent the last three days in Barcelona, observing the 1st October independence referendum, not in any sort of official capacity, but as an interested politics nerd. Political tourism if you like. After my fascinating trip to Scotland prior to the independence referendum there in 2014, it was obvious that seeing Catalonia’s referendum first hand was going to be a fascinating experience. So it proved, and this blog entry tries to sum up my impressions – both of how all this felt on the ground, and how this relates to the wider political context. All my tweets about the issue can be found here.

Before I get started here, two caveats: this issue is so polarised that there is no way any article can please everyone. If you disagree, please do so in a civilised manner in the comments, or on Twitter, but – understandably – that criticism will come. Second, the referendum story is so long and multifaceted that no single blog post can do it justice – I am going to have to skip nuance in some places here. If there are other things I ought to add to give that context likewise leave them in comments.

So anyway, here goes.

The weeks running up to the referendum, and the immediate aftermath, have been a monstrous blame game. The public statements from politicians and commentators have generally fallen in behind the two camps. I am going to try to avoid this sort of blaming.

Take the question of whether the Catalan Referendum yesterday was illegal. Yes, it was, according to the Spanish constitution. Was the Guardia Civil shooting rubber bullets illegal? Yes, that was too, according to a 2013 Catalan law that banned rubber bullets. Websites about the referendum were shut down by the Spanish government – is doing that even legal? The electoral roll used yesterday was not the most up to date one, as the Catalans were not allowed to make use of the most recent register – that is not OK for a democratic vote. The Catalan Parliament did not follow its own procedures to pass the law on 6th September to hold the poll.

Argue about this all you like, but neither side is in the clear about the legality (or not) of what happened yesterday. That politicians in a mature democracy are not capable of managing to hold a legal referendum is ridiculous. Yes, doing so might need the Spanish Constitution to be changed, but that 1978 document should not be considered some sort of legal trump card behind which Rajoy can hide.

The next question: was the referendum democratic? This too it is open to question. That more than 2 million people braved violence to go to the polling stations to vote was extraordinary, and showed considerable commitment from those in favour of independence. But this referendum – in terms of its measures against fraud (problems with the register as mentioned, plus allowing people to vote in other polling stations if their station was closed or ballot boxes seized) this was a highly questionable vote. Everything at the polling stations I visited was as well organised is it could be, bearing in mind the circumstances, but those circumstances were not those to allow calm contemplation.

There was no real No campaign to speak of, and Reporters Without Borders criticised the reporting environment for journalists. The determination of the Catalans to actually vote was mixed up with the demand for independence itself – and this is why the result was so skewed – 90% Yes, but on a 42% turnout. Those opposed to independence stayed at home. Opponents of independence could have voted, pro-independence people told me, and I suppose this is true, but legitimating the referendum legitimated the call for independence in some way (the two were not separate), so I understand their reticence.

Defending the Centre Cívic Casal de Sarrià
Defending the Centre Cívic Casal de Sarrià

Having said all that, in some way this was an extraordinary democratic moment – seeing Catalans of all ages self organise to defend the polling station at Centre Cívic Casal de Sarrià when there was rumour of a possible police raid is one of the most extraordinary political acts I have even experienced first hand.

Anti Independence Protestor

The determination to vote if anything burns harder than the determination for independence, and it most definitely is more widespread. “We would vote in a legal referendum” two anti-independence old friends of mine said, “and we want a legal referendum.” Those people did not vote yesterday. I even chanced upon an anti-independence referendum the day before the poll in Via Laietana and even that was festive and peaceful.

All of this means that Mariano Rajoy’s decision to be tough on referendum day itself was a ridiculous move, for it meant he lost any moral high ground in the eyes of the those outside Spain. Using brutal force against your own people in these circumstances is clearly wrong. Yes, that might shore up his support within the Partido Popular, but ultimately this was an incorrect call. Violence is never the answer in these circumstances, and here more than 900 were injured, and some of the footage is horrid to watch.

As well as its moral repugnance, I fail to see what sending in the Guardia Civil actually achieved – the Catalan Government stated that 319 of the 2315 polling stations were closed by police, meaning in the vast majority of polling stations voting still proceeded and was slow but serene. Without the brutal police reaction, and relying only on the actions prior to the referendum day itself, I would rather suspect that turnout would not have been much different, and pretty certainly not over the crucial hurdle of 50% of eligible voters backing independence. In a rather Comical Ali style phrase, Rajoy even stated that there was no independence referendum and commended the serene reaction of the Guardia Civil. There is some serious cognitive dissonance going on in Madrid here, a willful lack of understanding of what is happening on the ground in Catalonia.

Ultimately then I am left with the impression that politicians from both sides have been getting this wrong, ever since the 2010 decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court to overturn parts of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. Since then politicians on both sides have retrenched – on the Spanish side (and in the Partido Popular in particular), politicians have sought refuge in legal rather than political arguments against holding a legal referendum about the future of Catalonia, or finding ways to grant Catalonia more (fiscal) autonomy. On the Catalan side, rejection of the Statute process ultimately pushed the CDC party from a position favouring a referendum to a more outright position favouring independence, a position that hardened so much so as to make it more or less the only purpose of Puigdemont’s administration. This is what makes calls for dialogue now seem so forlorn – the better time for dialogue was a decade ago, but instead the political pressures have been mounting on both sides for years. Neither side has been capable of finding a way to decrease the tensions. So while I can understand the motivations of politicians on each side to behave as they did, their behaviour has ultimately brought the Spanish state to the brink of a constitutional crisis. The approach of politicians on both sides has hence been wrong in my view; they are even more polarised than the population is.

Poster in Gracía

And so back to the street. And the conversations with different people over the past three days – old and young, pro- and anti-independence, locals and international residents looking on. Yes, the international media was right to report on the violence, but aside from that the rest of this referendum was very civic, good natured, genuinely participative. This does not feel like a society on the brink of rupture. Individual Catalans are surely people you can negotiate with, are open to collaboration and compromise. But the deaf ear to Catalans’ concerns in Madrid has hardened the Catalan side, and conversely there is rather little solidarity for the Catalans’ predicament in the rest of Spain.

Within the next 24 48 hours Puigdemont the Catalan Parliament will apparently declare the independence of Catalonia, a decision that would be ill advised in my view, due to the questions that hang over the legitimacy of the referendum. Yet having got this far, can Puigdemont turn back now? And if Catalonia does declare independence, then Rajoy may seek to trigger Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, resulting in direct rule of Catalonia from Madrid. Such a decision would inflame matters further in Catalonia and would lead to an extraordinary level of protest. But politicians on both sides have escalated matters until now, so why would the coming days be any different?

So are the faultlines and contradictions here. How the failure of a reasonable attempt to secure greater autonomy has pushed politicians of both sides to polarise the debate, leading Spain to the verge of a constitutional crisis out of which there are no simple answers. While in the mean time grass roots politics is amongst the most lively and participative anywhere in Europe.

[Update 3.10.17, 0015]
A friend on Facebook has pointed out an error in the text, namely it is the Catalan Parliament that would vote on a declaration of independence – Puigdemont cannot make that declaration himself. That decision has also been pushed back a day. The text above has been corrected accordingly.

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