Independence for Catalonia: Why the movement matters beyond its own borders

Bruce Mabley on a problematic Spanish constitution, a reprehensible European reaction and what recent events mean for Québec.  

By: /
October 13, 2017
People hold a Spanish and Catalan flag during Spain's National Day in Barcelona, Spain, October 12, 2017. The banner below reads: "Spain yes, Catalonia as well". REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The recent events in Catalonia are indeed food for thought. Most people were dismayed with the use of force by the Spanish government to disrupt and invalidate the October 1st referendum on the independence of Catalonia. It is not as if moves toward Catalan independence were unknown to the Spanish authorities. Catalonia has a long history of distinctive culture and language both of which have fuelled political calls for self-rule. 

More recently, calls for greater autonomy have preceded the referendum gambit. Although many Spaniards point to the unity clause in the Spanish constitution of 1978 (union is indissoluble), there are also provisions written into the same document to ensure the rights of minorities and distinct cultures and languages like those of the Catalans and Basques. Certainly, it is quite odd to see Spain and its constitutional court invalidate a referendum on self-determination, which is an internationally recognized right of peoples in international law.

Invalidating this right by the Constitution of Spain questions the democratic validity of such a constitution. What other rights can the Spanish constitution unilaterally abrogate? Contrary to many of the national politicians of Spain including the King, a constitution itself is no guarantee of rule of law. One has only to think of the USSR and its constitution, which allowed the Soviet state to violate the rights of untold numbers of minorities and its satellite states.

However, in making this point, one has to concede that the 1978 Spanish constitution’s intention was to move Spain into the European circle of democratic nations after a prolonged period of fascism under the leadership of the dictator Franco.

One can hardly continue to call for a return to the rule of law based on a constitution that outlaws democratic consultations like voting in a referendum and the right to self-determination. This is the first takeaway from recent events in addition to creating lasting bad will amongst Catalans towards Spain. The reaction of the separatist Basques is unknown. This result alone is worrying for the Spanish state.

Given the manifest bad faith of Spain and its backers in the European Union, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has had to waffle on the issuance of a unilateral declaration of independence, as seen in his speech of October 10. His is not an easy task since he is managing a political coalition with the separatist left while being subjected to pressure tactics from the Spanish government in Madrid. Since the referendum, he has called for discussion and negotiations.

Meanwhile, Spanish officials repeat empty slogans saying the referendum was illegal and unconstitutional. Having been instrumental in creating the political tensions and crisis, the government is now seeking to have Puigdemont ‘clarify’ his position on whether or not he has declared Catalonia independent or not. Not content to call the Catalan referendum outside Spanish law, now the Spanish government is refuting efforts to discuss and negotiate, instead accusing the Catalan President of being unclear.

A reprehensible reaction from Europe

A second observation from these recent events in Spain is the lackluster European response. Apart from some feeble reproaches about the referendum violence inflicted on the Catalan people, the EU has decided to sing from the same song sheet as Spain.

The right to self-determination is put aside as the Europeans obediently line up behind the status quo. Apparently, it is easier to deal with post-war states no matter how they behave than it is with democratic independence movements going on under their very noses. 

The EU has been sleepwalking for some time and needs to re-evaluate some of its precepts and values. After all, if the EU is prepared to accept a Brexit vote approving the breaking off of the United Kingdom, is that really so different from a Catalonia seeking to become a new state given its cultural, linguistic and economic profile? These same questions are asked in the context of Scottish independence moves albeit minus the Spanish coup de force.

In a word, the European response has been reprehensible. Spain is obviously using the EU link as economic leverage hoping to persuade undecided Catalans to cower in fear rather than seek independence.

There is a price to pay for Europe. For example, lecturing Erdogan’s Turkey about respect for minority rights has just become a much more difficult task. The Europeans have damaged their reputation and harkened us back to a much darker age of moral collapse and loss of balance.

Like Franco’s Spain, one can detect theoretical currents lurking just under the surface of European political gallantry and circumstance. Catalonia is proving Europe an unseemly deception. Before gleefully thumbing their noses at US President Donald Trump and his parade of rednecks and gun runners, Europeans need to scan their own conscience and summon the moral courage to insist on dialogue in Spain. And, if necessary, the independence of Catalonia.

What it means for Canada

The European reaction is also extremely worrisome for the Québec independence movement. First, one wonders whether the pro-independence rally in Barcelona where several hundreds of thousands lined the street would be possible in today’s Québec.

The enthusiasm required for such a popular mobilization does not appear to be present now in Québec. This does not mean that Premier Philippe Couillard and the ultra-federalist Liberal Party of Québec (PLQ) is safe for re-election in 2018. The recent crushing defeat of the PLQ in the by-election of the Louis-Hébert riding in Québec City is an ominous development in this regard. However, the enthusiasm of the Catalan separatists does not appear to be presently available to any political movement in Québec. The unpopular Energy East pipeline issue could have been that issue but has been rendered irrelevant by the company itself when it cancelled the project on October 5.

There is a second reason why the events in Catalonia should give pause to the Québec separatists. France has strongly supported the EU position of non-intervention. Gone are the glory days of the fading French Gaullists who supported the Québec independence movement. In the wake of the vote to reject separation during the 1995 Québec independence referendum, former Premier Jacques Parizeau revealed that the game plan was to get the French parliament to approve the Québec declaration of independence. In some sense, Catalonia is now at that very stage not having thought out how a unilateral declaration would achieve international recognition.

Would Parizeau be successful today in such a gambit? I think not. France has jettisoned la Francophonie for all intents and purposes and Québec with it. No more special friendship despite kinship links.

Canadians should not forget the special links we have with the people of Catalonia forged during the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939. More than a thousand Canadians fought heroically under the flag of the Mackenzie-Papineau brigade on the Republican side against the Spanish fascists under Franco aided by Mussolini and Hitler. About half of the brigade is buried in Catalonia, a region that remained Republican to the very end. Fighters from across Canada made the ultimate sacrifice in order that Catalonia be free from dictatorship. Unfortunately, the official reaction now from Global Affairs Canada — which has been essentially silence — does not reflect this special historical relationship.

In such circumstances, one can only hope for Spain to radically change its tone and circular reasoning based on a dubious constitutional thesis; that Europe intervenes more energetically to ensure the full recognition of the right to self-determination and rule of law, which do not necessarily translate into apathy, paralysis and the status quo.