It is hard to be an internationalist in the age of nationalism. It is hard to believe in individual rights in times when group rights are supposed to prevail. It is hard to believe in citizenship when all that seems to count is nationality. It is hard, in short, to be cosmopolitan in an age of parochialism and identity politics.
And it is also hard, on the eve of a referendum/mobilisation due to take place on October 1 in Catalonia, to stay calm and moderate when facing a confrontation of two narratives that carry with them at least in part, some of the cleavages separating the two logics mentioned above.
The hegemonic narrative will tell you that Catalonia has been oppressed by a central state for centuries, a state that treats it as a colony. That it is time for the nation to rise and free itself from this secular abuse which now comes in the form of an authoritarian Spanish regime that is heir to the centralist, authoritarian ideology of Franco times. It will tell you that, no matter how Catalan politicians have been willing to negotiate a better relationship to achieve greater autonomy, the Spanish government has shown its willingness to destroy it. And last, but not least, it will tell you that, because so many attempts at such a negotiation have failed, including a reformed statute of autonomy approved by the Congress and voted in a referendum that was then partially limited by the Constitutional Court after having been appealed by the Popular Party, there is now no alternative other than to unilaterally secede and re-conquer the sovereignty lost to Spain by the force of the facts.
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Yet there is another narrative that tells you that Spain is a fully-fledged western liberal democracy and one of the most decentralised states in the hemisphere. That Catalonia enjoys more freedom and effective self-government than at any time in modern history, that its culture is thriving, its language ubiquitous and healthy, its institutions powerful, its economy robust, its people moderately happy and reasonably wealthy (with the exception, that is, of the many that have been left behind by the neoliberal recipes prescribed for the recent economic crisis, quite a few of them eagerly applied by the Catalan right-wing nationalist governments). The Catalan authorities have used all the power in their hands to build a functional proto-state. Spanish authorities have been quite compliant with this – partly because they needed Catalan nationalist votes in Madrid’s Parliament – until the 2008 crisis hit. Then, they started a recentralisation process, particularly in the administration of economic resources, happily following instructions from Brussels on deficit control.
Whichever narrative suits you best, the fact is that today, led by Mr Puigdemont (president of the Catalan autonomous government) and Mr Junqueras (vice-president) – two fervent Catholics – the current majority in the Catalan parliament has completed a ‘coup’ against the Spanish constitutional order. They have done so by passing, during some infamous parliamentary sessions on September 6 and 7, a bill that sets up a 'new legality' under which a referendum on auto-determination is to be held on October 1. This is no less than a de facto unilateral declaration of independence for Catalonia. Political science describes this as a state of insurgency (which happens when a part of a state does not recognise the authority of the state any more). And it leads to secession.
Why are we here?
Three years ago, the Catalan nationalists in power tried a similar path: they called a referendum that was declared unconstitutional by the central government and ended up being a remarkable civic mobilisation on November 9, 2014. Yet, at that time, they fell short of their target, as less than 1.9 million people, out of a census of almost 6 million, voted in favour of secession. But instead of acknowledging this fact, they declared the vote to be a historical achievement demonstrating the overwhelming will for independence of the Catalan people.
One year later, they tried again by calling an early regional election (on September 27, 2015) that was supposed to be a plebiscite election. The vote of your life ! Voting for Us means Yes, voting for Them means No, ran the propaganda. A coalition of nationalist parties asked for 'an indestructible majority' and, yet again, fell short of it. If it really was supposed to be a plebiscite, they should have counted votes and not seats, but since they lost the popular vote (47%), they switched to the majority of seats, trying to find in their parliamentary majority the legitimacy they did not get at the polls.
They refused to concede defeat at the plebiscite and went on to declare victory. Their programme at the campaign having been to take a short cut and accelerate the implementation of the independence agenda, they then managed to swear in a government to carry on the secession plan, which they described as a 'road map to independence in 18 months'.
And finally, almost 24 months after that defeat-turned-into-victory, they have now called for a unilateral secession referendum – which is something that was not contemplated in the original road map they had been campaigning on at the elections. Nationalists are fully aware that this constitutes an ultimate provocation to the Spanish state, which has little or no alternative but to defend the constitutional order and react to ensure the prevalence of the rule of law.
Seeing this coming, the Spanish government could have opened a political dialogue to discuss, maybe not a referendum, but some sort of reform that would have “accommodated” that strong and vocal part of the Catalan population – albeit not a majority – that wanted so much to secede. But it stayed put and showed no intention to take any initiative to tackle this major political problem for Spain.
Either a referendum or a referendum
Knowing, as they know (and as all the opinion polls reflect so-far), that there is not a sufficient popular majority in favour of their agenda, the nationalists’ plan is to provoke an array of central government’s legal actions to prevent the unconstitutional referendum from taking place and call it 'repression', in the hope that the state reaction will feed the anger of voters – both nationalists and non-nationalists – and make them turn up massively to the polls (or, alternatively, in the streets) in protest.
‘Either a referendum or a referendum’, has been the mantra of the Catalan president so far. And as they knew this was a non-starter, the Catalan ruling authorities ended up declaring that they no longer comply with the Spanish law, as they have now one of their own. Now, how is the Spanish government supposed to react?
The referendum is, in short, nothing but a strategy to try to win over the will of the people who, logically upset by a potentially high-handed reaction by the state, would then stick with their government and support the idea that it all boils down to a matter of democracy. The Nationalists’ slogan “they do not want us to vote” is, indeed, very effective.
This seems to be the underlying logic: to carry on and impose the will of a minority, not least because this majoritarian minority considers itself to be the genuine ‘Us’, the Catalan people. ‘Them’, the others – their unspeakable deep identity feeling goes – are not real Catalans after all.
Their plan is no other than to bend the protest vote into a pro-independence vote. And sadly, events unfolding at this very moment in the streets of Barcelona may be proving its planners right.
Us and them revisited
Looking from the distance of my long self-imposed exile across the Ocean, I can only say that this is a very sad moment in the history of Catalonia. A minority is imposing its narrative and its agenda over the other half of its own people, over its fellow citizens in Spain and over many other European democrats.
Many will say that all this happened because the Spanish authorities were unable to assume the possibility of Spain being a pluri-national state and many will blame Mr Rajoy for his inaction. But all in all, for very many reasons – including the costs of globalisation in terms of national sovereignty and uncertainty about the future, endangering the viability of old and deep identities in the age of migration, the fact is that nationalism is once again thriving in a very toxic way, from East to West, from Europe to America, and beyond.
To some Europeans like me, when we see hundreds or thousands of identical flags marching on through our cities’ avenues under a national spell and people chanting warmongering national anthems, we recall the image of our ancestors cheering their youngsters on their way to being slaughtered in some far-away front, all in the name of patriotism and to defend the dignity of a nation. It was Marx who famously said that history repeats itself first as a tragedy, and then as a farce. I sincerely hope that what we will end up seeing in Catalonia is the latter. And that the farce will not last long and that it will be swiftly followed by regional elections.
This is, unfortunately, just another example of the old story of 'Us' versus 'Them', now being revisited – be it under the guise of Scots versus English, British versus Europeans, Americans versus Mexicans, Catalans versus Spaniards. And in this very blue mood, as I glimpse through the window the yellows and reds of this early autumn spread through the trees in the distance, I can only recall an old Pink Floyd song that says: 'Us, and Them / And after all we're only ordinary men'.
Joan Costa Alegret is a Barcelona-born retired international civil servant and occasional writer, currently living in New Hampshire. This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. It first appeared in OpenDemocracy.