Catalan independence and the ghost of Franco

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You can no more imprison and idea than you can nail raindrops to the wall.

If only someone had told the judges on the Spanish Supreme Court that, because in taking the unconscionable decision to sentence nine Catalan pro-independence politicians and leaders to a combined 100 years in prison for their role in organising the 2017 independence referendum in defiance of Madrid, they are now among the best friends the cause of Catalan independence could have.

More broadly, the draconian sentences they passed down have dredged up the malign legacy of Franco, which 44 years after the fascist dictator’s death in 1975 continues to weigh heavily over the country’s political culture. This is down to the fact that Francoism has never been placed on trial in democratic Spain. Instead the country’s political establishment, aware of embers of Francoism that still burn within Spain’s military and security apparatus, opted for a (pact of forgetting) when it came to this dark period in the country’s history.

But in recent years people across Spain, especially in Catalonia, have had more reason to remember than to forget. The scenes of Spanish riot police brutally attacking civilians with batons and rubber bullets outside polling stations across Catalonia for the ‘crime’ of attempting to cast a vote in a 2017 referendum, organised by the regional parliament on whether to become an independent state or remain a semi-autonomous region of Spain, left no doubt of it.

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That Spain remains an EU member state in good standing despite the brutal crackdown in 2017, and despite the political repression that followed, culminating in this judgement and sentence of the Spanish Supreme Court, constitutes a scathing where Brussels is concerned. This is especially so when enshrined in Article 2 of what passes for a constitution within the EU, the Lisbon Treaty, we encounter the following:

The European Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

For Brussels, clearly, such lofty ideals exist in hibernation when it comes to the Spanish authorities’ authoritarian repression of self-determination in Catalonia, rendering its claim of standing as a bulwark of human rights and democracy laughable.

But that said, it is always important when engaging with separatist movements to do so with your eyes rather than your heart wide open. I say this as someone who went to Barcelona in 2017 to get an idea of what drives the movement for Catalan independence. What I found was a movement rooted in a fierce sense of historical and cultural identity, which just as the movement for Scottish independence reflects, and likewise Brexit, had assumed in the process of being elevated to a political principle the character of a material force.

Arrive in Barcelona, the Catalan regional capital, is to be confronted not by oppressed and downtrodden people but by an affluent society blessed with the benefits of a vibrant tourist trade, booming economy, and modern infrastructure. The city’s restaurants, cafes and cantinas are packed, and the city boasts an abundance of cultural and historical riches. In other words, Barcelona in 2017 couldn’t have been further from Belfast in the 1970s or any town or city in the occupied West Bank of Palestine in our time — parts of the world associated with the cause of national liberation.

It was impossible to square the passion of supporters of Catalan independence with the vibrancy, affluence and wondrous beauty of Barcelona. But then, when you consider that Catalonia is the richest region in Spain, you begin to discern resentment at the region’s wealth being used to subsidise poorer parts of the country.

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Separatism carries within it the seeds of both progress and regress, of dignity and despair, depending on how the potency of its passions are handled by the contending parties involved. To treat separatism as a zero-sum game instead of an idea that can only be defeated by another idea is an invitation to catastrophe. It is why Madrid should be under no illusion that it has set Spain on a path towards ruinous consequences with the sentence handed down by its supreme court.

It has only injected the movement for Catalan independence with moral legitimacy, continuing thereby the trajectory begun when the first riot police officer put his hands on the first woman and dragged her away from the front of a polling station in Barcelona two years ago.

The Spain that found itself engulfed in civil war in the 1930s was home to the best and worst of humanity. It is a conflict that still today invokes the Arcadian dreams of a world in which the common man is the author of history rather than its victim. Thousands travelled to the country from all over the world to fight and die for that dream. Many were the sons and daughters of poverty, but all were rich with the belief and faith in a future defined by the unbounded liberation of human solidarity, relegating cold-hearted capitalism and its bastard child, fascism, to a footnote in history.

Arriving in Barcelona in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War, Ernst Toller was moved to write, “The most striking experience a foreigner has in Barcelona is that of the functioning of democracy.”

Today something akin to history repeating is unfolding in the Catalonian capital, where democracy has again been raised aloft as a cause worth fighting for. More ominous with this judgement of the Spanish Supreme Court is the looming prospect of it soon becoming a cause worth dying for.


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