28/2/14

Vicent Partal in Dublin: Talk on Catalan independence

The talk that Vicent Partal gave last Tuesday (February 25th) in the Teacher’s Club in Dublin was a resounding success with larger turnout than expected. The event was organised by both the Irish branch of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and the Catalan Council of Ireland.
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Vicent started the talk by covering the chain of events that, over the last 9 years, have led to the current situation in Catalonia whereby a large majority is in favour of self-determination followed by the announcement by the Catalan government of a referendum on the matter on November 9th 2014.
He explained how the starting point of the current wave of support for the secessionist movement dates back to 2005 when a new autonomy charter was drafted by the Catalan Parliament with the backing of all but 15 MPs out of a total of 135. This new charter was then severely cut back by the Parliament in Madrid, subsequently approved by that Parliament into Spanish law and signed by the King into law. It was then put to referendum in Catalonia and despite the cutbacks it was accepted by a majority of the people in Catalonia. Some of the cutbacks were significant, such as changing article 1 that stated that Catalonia was a nation to read that it was an autonomous region of Spain. Apparently this was not enough. The 15 MPs that had been against the new charter from the outset, all members of the Partido Popular, the right/far right party now in power in Madrid, with the backing of the party as a whole, decided to challenge the new autonomy charter in the Constitutional Court, the highest court in the land. This court, consisting of a handful of politically appointed judges decided that the fundamentals of the new charter were unconstitutional. This represented an unprecedented situation in Spain whereby a law approved by two Parliaments, signed by the King and approved by the people in a referendum was overturned by a highly politicised court (it has to be added that some of the judges in that court were serving well beyond their term of service due to a deadlock between the two main Spanish political parties, that had been fighting each other over the appointments of those judges for years).


The situation above was aggravated by a perennial lack of investment from central government in vital infrastructures in Catalonia, despite Catalonia being a net contributor to central government. A series of attempts to undermine the use of Catalan in the devolved education system did not contribute to smooth the situation either.
All of the above culminated in a massive demonstration on July 10th 2010 in Barcelona where approximately 1 million people marched on the streets demanding full independence. This surprised the organisers (Catalan political parties) somewhat as they had originally set out to stage a protest in favour of the autonomy charter approved by the people in referendum.
Almost in parallel in a small little town called Arenys de Munt (population ca 8000, 40 km north of Barcelona), the local town council decided to organise a consultation amongst the town’s inhabitants on whether they would favour secession from Spain. Rather surprisingly, given the non-binding and informal nature of the consultation, the Spanish government decided to ban it. The people in the town got around that particular hurdle by organising the poll on a private capacity (as opposed to being the town council itself the one running the process).
Far right, fascist groups (Falange, the fascist party that was behind’s Franco’s coup back in the 30s) descended on the town attempting to boycott the vote by intimidating the locals. The demonstration was allowed by central government despite Catalan protestations. In the end the vote took place while far right extremists shouted and waved pre constitutional Spanish flags behind a police barrier. The yes vote won by a landslide majority of 96%.
The Arenys the Munt referendum was the start of a number of similar local referenda held in many towns and cities in Catalonia, including Barcelona itself. In the end roughly 1 million people voted in favour of secession, not bad considering these were unofficial, non-binding consultations.
These grass-roots movements organising referenda at local level were the embryo of what was to become the Catalan National Assembly, known locally as the ANC, which was formally founded in March 2012. The ANC organised a huge pro-independence rally on September 11th 2012, Catalonia’s national day. Over a million people yet again marched on the streets of Barcelona. The biggest difference with the 2010 march was that whereas the 2010 march was full of angry and frustrated protesters, this latter rally was marked by an almost festive atmosphere with people of all generations and all backgrounds attending. For the first time there seemed to be a collective sense of hope that perhaps one way out of the current situation consisted of pressing the reset button and starting all over again as a separate, new, smaller, leaner independent state, free of everything that was (and is) wrong with Spain.
The resounding success of this rally combined with the failure of the Catalan government to achieve a fair deal with central government on the financing of the regional Catalan government, precipitated early elections. These elections were perceived as being historical because for the first time the parties had to position themselves either for or against self-determination. The resulting Parliament yielded two thirds of MPs in favour of a self-determination vote versus one third in the unionist camp, opposed to such a vote.
A year later, on September 11th 2013, after months of planning, the ANC organised  the Catalan Way, a 400Km long human chain of people holding hands stretching the whole length of Catalonia from the French border in the north to the Valencian border in the south. It took around 30,000 volunteers to organise the event and approximately 2 million people took part (Catalonia’s population is 7.5 million). Replica chains were staged in towns and cities around the world. In Ireland both Dublin (300 people on September 1st in front of the GPO) and Cork (50 people, September 7th) organised human chains. A specific website and phone apps were also developed as part of the organization effort. The exercise was a great success and was widely reported around the globe, helping raise awareness of the Catalan cause. The day took place again in a festive, positive atmosphere with no violence or any incidents worth noticing.
The last significant development, as far as the independence process is concerned, that took place recently was the announcement in December 2013 by all the pro referendum parties in Catalonia of both the date of the referendum and the question. Vicent emphasised the fact that the agreement comprised parties ranging from Christian democrats and liberals on the right to greens, communists and anti-capitalists on the left, possibly an unprecedented kind of agreement anywhere in the world.
Vicent is convinced the vote will go ahead despite opposition from the Madrid government. He also said that polls seem to indicate that the yes vote would win and that if this was the case then the Spanish government would be forced to negotiate. Failing to negotiate would result in a unilateral proclamation of independence and then the process moves onto the international arena where other countries need to position themselves regarding recognising the new state.
Vicent was optimistic throughout the talk and believes that recognition would start happening soon after the proclamation in that case, because there is too much economic activity in and around Barcelona for large corporations to be able to afford political uncertainty lasting for too long. He also made the point that no state will comment on the issue until an event such as a proclamation or a referendum takes place.
During the ensuing debate with the audience, the attitude of the Spanish state was discussed and it was found to be contradictory or even counterproductive to their own interests on many occasions. For instance they repeatedly state that they will not recognise an independent Catalonia but at the same time they say they will ask the EU to expel it from the union, implicitly recognising it as a political subject. If Catalonia were not to be recognised by Spain, then there could not be any deal on sovereign debt meaning that the whole debt obligation would fall upon Spain alone, while the new Catalan state would start off with no debt whatsoever. Spain seems to be making no friends in Europe either, as shown not only by the incidents in Gibraltar last summer but also the antagonising of Poland during the unique European patent debate (where Spain refused to sign on the basis that Spanish was not a requirement despite the fact that Poland never complained and has a similar number of speakers in the EU). The prowess of Spanish diplomacy was also illustrated by an event that occurred some years ago as heard by Vicent first hand from a prominent Mexican diplomat. Mexico and Argentina were planning to stage a celebration on the bicentenary of their independence from Spain. Mexico approached the Spanish government and asked whether Spain would be interested in partaking of the celebrations. This would have been a great opportunity for all countries involved to strengthen links, bring along respective trade delegations and improve relations in general. The Spanish answer was to bring up the returning of some flags that Spain lost in battle against Mexico during the Mexican independence war in the 19th century, return which was to take place under full military honours. Diplomatic genius at play. The mind boggles.
According to Vicent, the only rational option left open to the Spanish government is to allow the referendum and organise a strong and convincing “No” campaign. However some of Vicent’s journalist colleagues in Madrid seem to think that this will end up with the Catalan autonomous government being abolished and direct rule from Madrid being imposed by force.
There was some discussion on how the new state could be and writing a brand new Constitution starting from scratch was mentioned, alongside the need to put methods in place allowing for updates to the Constitution. This is in contrast with the Spanish case where the current Constitution dates from 1978 and is extremely hard to change.
Some of the audience wondered about the Catalan diaspora and their right to vote in the self-determination referendum. Vicent is of the opinion that there will be provisions for Catalans abroad in the referendum legislation to be published in September.
The multi-cultural and multi ethnic composition of Catalan society was also covered. In particular the fact that independence has support amongst many Spanish speaking communities was mentioned. One such group is Súmate who are doing a great job of going around campaigning in favour of a yes vote amongst Spanish speaking Catalans.
The event lasted approximately two hours and it took place in a very informal and relaxed atmosphere. It was very informative and there was a very positive mood and exchange of views all around. At the end of the event, Vicent signed some copies of his latest “A un pam de la independència” book (Tantalisingly Close to Independence). Vicent and some of the audience ended the debate in good old Irish fashion by sampling some of the local brews in the pub upstairs.

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