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What is happening in Catalonia?


Things have happened quickly since the unauthorised referendum called by Catalunya’s regional government on October 1st. The result – a  90% yes vote on a 42% turnout, with many opposed to independence staying away – led Catalan president Carles Puigdemont to proclaim independence. The Spanish government responded by completely suspending Catalan autonomy and unleashing fierce repression – which in fact began before the poll. 

Ten days before the referendum, on September 20th, the Civil Guard, under the direction of Spain’s interior ministry, carried out dawn raids on regional government offices, arresting officials. Spanish judges ordered mobile phone networks Vodafone and Movistar to block access to the official referendum website and the Spanish Post Office to open ‘suspicious’ mail to check if it contains referendum-related material.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights website took the unusual step of calling on the Spanish authorities “to ensure that measures taken ahead of the Catalan referendum on 1 October do not interfere with the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and public participation.” After the poll, the UN High Commissioner called for the Spanish government to carry out an independent investigation into the violence, in which police brutality left over 900 people needing hospital treatment.

Two days later a general strike, called by a broad range of social movements and leftwing unions, gripped the region and 300,000 people took over Barcelona. Newly formed ‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’ helped organise the action across the region. The energy pouring into this participatory democracy was impressive, building on the grassroots democracy that helped elect Ada Colau mayor of Barcelona in 2015.

Her position, and that of the ‘municipal socialist’ en Comu (In Common) movement to which she belongs, is that while the referendum held was not legally valid, it was a legitimate political mobilisation. A mutually agreed legitimate referendum is the way forward, a position in fact held by most people living in Catalunya. Colau voted in the referendum, however, to show solidarity with those facing police repression, but left her ballot blank.

The following weekend, there were various demonstrations in Catalunya  – and Spain as a whole – both for unity and dialogue. Free transport bussing protestors into Barcelona may have compromised the authenticity of some of these. Powerful business interests, fearing the instability resulting from a declaration of independence,  threatened to withdraw from the region. Meanwhile, a leading figure from the Partido Popular (PP) which governs Spain, warned that if Puigdemont didn’t pull back, he would meet the same fate as Lluís Companys, a Catalan leader shot by the Francoists in 1940.

Even before Puidgemont’s independence declaration, the region’s police chief was summoned by a Spanish state court to answer accusations of sedition. Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez were the first separatist leaders to be detained; others soon followed.

The Spanish prime minister, Rajoy, sacked Puigdemont, and imposed someone from his own PP, which polled under 10% in the last regional elections there. The move was denounced by Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau as “an attack on everyone’s rights and freedoms”.

Rajoy claims to be upholding the rule of law. This is the same government that contacted school principals across Catalunya and threatened the permanent removal of their academic qualifications if they allowed their premises to be used for the independence referendum -what ‘law’ was that based on?

Behind the PP stand, on one side, the military and fascist elements who are increasingly visible on the streets in demonstrations for the unity of Spain, and on the other the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) who have played a roten role. In government, they held out an empty promise of greater autonomy, on which they failed to deliver, in order to head off Catalan demands for independence. Their refusal to entertain the idea of a regional referendum was the sticking point that prevented a socialist government being formed with the radical left party Podemos, which reognises the Catalans’ right to self-determination while opposing independence, following the deadlocked parliamentary elections two years ago.

Since then, PSOE have blamed the heavy-handed police repression during the October referendum on the Catalan leadership. Their support for the imposition of direct rule has provoked a wave of disgust from Catalan Socialist leaders, including one mayor who has resigned from PSOE’s national executive in protest. PSOE refused to condemn the arrest for sedition of separatist leaders – who were handcuffed, stripped naked and forced to listen to a loop of the Spanish national anthem, according to reports: treatment deliberately designed to humiliate.

Part of the left elsewhere has peddled the myth that the current dispute is primarily about Catalunya’s unwillingness, as a comparatively prosperous region, to share its wealth with the rest of Spain. In fact, it was the Spanish government, following the EU bailout after the financial crash, that unilaterally offloaded its debt onto the regions of Spain, making them permanently indebted to the national state. This was accompanied by a long-running media campaign against Catalunya, playing up tropes of Catalan meanness and haughtiness, that has polarised public opinion. These underlying factors help explain why support for independence among Catalans has surged from 15% ten years ago to where it is today.

Liberals and socialists used to believe in the right of nations to self-determination, including statehood if they so wanted. Today some argue that states are increasingly an outdated concept, transcended by an international order with global rules and institutions. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, himself from the tiny nation-state of Luxemburg, dismisses the Catalans’ right to self-determination on grounds of political expediency: “We can’t have a Europe made up of 95 different countries.”

The EU regards the demand for Catalan independence s a headache. Worse, it is green-lighting the very high level of repression being perpetrated by the Spanish state. The German government went so far as to express full support for Madrid after eight former Catalan ministers were detained without bail, on charges of rebellion, originally devised for terrorists, which carry a maximum sentence of thirty years.

The repression is spreading. Teachers who raised the issue of police brutality on the day of the independence referendum in subsequent classroom discussions are now being charged with hate speech crimes. Silence from Spain’s EU partners will only encourage this crackdown.

The last few weeks have revealed the Spanish state for what it is – an apparatus that emerged out of a dictatorship with a highly politicised monarchy and a conservative party, the PP, which continues to harbour, and is capable of mobilising, the most intolerant forces. Extreme nationalist violence against anyone supporting Catalan independence is increasing, with attacks on leftwing activists, journalists and migrants in Barcelona and Francoite falangists, rarely seen in public, openly on the march in other parts of Spain.

The Spanish government has scheduled new regional elections for 21st December. How free and fair they will be with the Civil Guard on the streets, government offices being raided and equipment confiscated and political prisoners languishing in jail cells is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile resistance is growing – with major roads blocked and calls for a fresh general strike.

Whether you support independence or not, solidarity against the Spanish state’s repression is essential. The imposition of direct rule must be condemned and those arrested released immediately. Activists should contact their MEPs in particular to demand that the EU drop its refusal to mediate towards a negotiated solution.


  1. JohnP says:

    Mike Phipps is very keen to rubbish the New Elections on 21st December – even though ALL the Catalan parties have agreed to participate – unlike the recent illegal Referendum pseudo poll. Let us see what support the separatist parties get in an open and, accepted as legitimate by all sides, democratic election, before building a mountain of Dave Spartist Left nationalist rhetoric upon the extremely dodgy , constitutionally illegal, independence referendum, in which ONLY the 42% separatist side participated.

    Whilst all socialist should agree with the general principal of a right of self determination for nations, as with the Scottish situation, this doesn’t mean that it is the automatic duty of socialists to support each and every demand for the breaking up of a nation state in all situations – particularly when , as with the Catalonian case the driver of the separation demand is a often deeply corrupt separatist political claque. And today, as opposed to under Franco, the wide-ranging autonomy enjoyed by Catalonia, means it is in no meaningful way still an oppressed national minority within Spain , any more than the Scots are within the UK.

    Sections of the UK Left , like Mike Phipps, are laughably prey to simplistic, romantic petty Left nationalism, which divides the working classes of multi nation bourgeois democratic states , and encourages workers towards a bogus self-identification of interest on a petty nationalist basis with the self serving nationalist politicians and their relatively few mainly petty bourgeois business cronies. This is folly ,rather than what is required today, working class solidarity across national divisions. In neither Catalonia (nor Scotland) is there any longer a distinct Big Bourgeoisie. The Big Bourgeoisie have outgrown such petty nationalist identification. Time the workers in Catalonia (and Scotland) did too, and the over romantic Lefties like Mike Phipps, who have bought into the divisive bullshit of the petty bourgeois Catalonian Separatist parties. That is why the mass Left parties in Spain and Catalonia, including Podemos, reject the legitimacy of the recent 42% turnout pseudo Referendum.

    Why Mike supports an “independent Catalonia” is a mystery. How will it benefit the Catalonian working class ? Or their working class brothers and sisters in the rest of Spain ? How will it build solidarity as the entire Spanish working class faces, as in the rest of the EU , ever greater neoliberalism , and “labour flexibility”, and ongoing Austerity to benefit the bourgeoisie ? It won’t. It is a total diversion – to provide a greater opportunity for corrupt petty nationalist politicians to stick their snouts deeper into the Catalan state coffers, whilst Catalan workers’ ability to resist is neutered by their divisions.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Thats right JohnP, the only thing to do when the “petty bourgeois Catalonian Separatist parties” and the hundreds of thousands that follow them take to the streets, crack a few heads. So what if a few old women and young school teachers are hospitilised, send in the Civil Guard. This kind of self serving nationalism needs to be stamped on. These people are not the true working class of Catalonia. These are subversives supported by their petty bourgeois business cronies .
      Sometimes a bit of proper socialism, 56 Budapest style, or Franco fascism is the only answer to the dangers that fester in the delusion that is self determination.

      1. JohnP says:

        Or , as the Spanish government has now correctly done, after many foolish tactical missteps that have played into the nationalist’s manipulative hands , call a genuinely open democratic new ELECTION across Catalonia, and enable all the citizens of that region to express their political preferences, by voting for parties that either support separation from Spain, or staying within the Spanish State. Not really 1956 Budapest or Franco’s military/fascist seizure of power is it you foolish man ?

      2. Imran Khan says:

        The violence of the Guardia Civil is irrelevant when dealing with the essence of the matter and a deliberate distraction. The referendum was illegal and that’s it. Puigdemont is a rightist politician involved not so long a go in a corruption scandal.

        1. Richard MacKinnon says:

          “The violence of the Guardia Civil is irrelevant………”

          No comment.

          1. Imran Khan says:

            I would like you to comment on the post. Otherwise we will have to assume you are loony left.

  2. Matty says:

    The richer you are the more likely you are to support independence. The division is pretty stark. See
    People in households with under 900 euros a month are 59% to 32% against independence and people with over 4000 euros a month are 54% to 39% in favour.

    The article didn’t mention the general strike called for on Nov 8 which was mainly followed by students and teachers. In traditional centres for working class militancy such as the SEAT and Nissan factories there was no strike action at all.

    As for the jailings, yes, they are wrong but the Catalan nationalists are happy to support the same kind of repression when it suits eg the Catalan Govt pressed charges against 8 demonstrators for blocking access to the Catalan Parliament in 2011. They got 3 years (though they are still appealing so haven’t yet gone to prison).

  3. Karl Stewart says:

    Excellent article by Mike Phupps and truly shameful responses from JohnP and Matty.

    Phipps quite rightly reminds us that “…socialists used to agree with the right of nations to self-determination…” but disgracefully, the so-called “socialists” of Spain are lined up with the fascists.

    And there are too many on the left over here who have taken the revolting position we’ve seen here expressed by JohnP and Matty – I actually find myself for the first time more in agreement with Richard MacKinnon!

    Visca Catalunya!

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      The British Labour Party has got intself into a real mess with this. It started with their nonsensical campaign against Scottish independence. Labour in Scotland’s hatred of Scottish nationalists ran so deep Labour sided with the Tories in Better Together to defeat Scottish independence in 2014. It turned out the majority of traditional Scottish Labour supporters backed independence, voted Yes in the referendum and ignored the advise of the Labour Party. Those voters are lost for ever to Labour. They blame The Labour Party for losing the referendum, and they are right to do so. Scotland is now a two party state, and Labour is not part of that equation.
      Now we have another democratic independence movement, this time in Catalonia. Every weekend we witness hundreds of thousands on the streets of Barcelona facing the Spanish civil guard in full military uniform, truncheons and tear gas, blood on the faces of old women.
      And The British Labour Party’s position? Is it any wonder I come here to mock.

    2. Imran Khan says:

      It depends who you refer to when you use the word fascist in relation to Spain. The inheritors of fascism in Spain are the tiny Falange which manages a couple of percentages in elections.

      Your abuse to wards the reasoned arguments of JohnP and Matty is very Dave Spart.

      1. Richard MacKinnon says:

        Dave Spart? That I can only guess is some sort of joke reference that only a few ‘in the know’ understand. Please, Imran, I beg you, dont explain.

        1. James Martin says:

          I think given the popularity of Private Eye over the years a great many people know who Dave Spart is. Apparently originally invented by Richard Ingrams who was mates with Paul Foot, Foot saw the funny side, unlike certain modern-day lefties.

    3. Matty says:

      My response is factual Karl – what on earth is shameful about that? Paragraph 1 about the support for independence according to income is true, not just in the poll cited but in several others. Para 2 about the Nov 8 general strike is also true and is worth pointing out given that the article talks about the Oct 3 strike (which was called in response to the police violence and so many who participated were not nationalists). Para 3 is also true. Peaceful demonstrators are facing prison with the prosecution supported by the Catalan Govt
      I could also cite the several occasions over recent years when the Mossos (the Catalan police controlled by the regional Govt) have acted extremely violently against peaceful protesters.

  4. Karl Stewart says:

    In essence, JohnP and Matt are arguing that the Catalan independentists are insufficiently pure ideologically and so therefore they deserve to be beaten up by fascists.


    1. Imran Khan says:

      More Spartism. They said nothing of the kind as you well know.

  5. Peter Rowlands says:

    I’m sorry, Karl, but JohnP is quite right on this. Socialists have always supported nations that aspire to rid themselves of oppressive or exploitative rule, but in Catalunya this is not clearly the case, and we should listen to what our fellow socialists elsewhere in Spain have to say on the issue.

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