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On 6 October 1934, president Lluís Companys proclaimed the Catalan State. This attempt ended up with the imprisonment of the members of the Catalan Government and the suspension of the Statute of Autonomy by the Spanish Government. Lluis Companys was executed in 1940 by Franco’s firing squad. He remains the only incumbent democratically elected president in European history to have been executed.
We all expected the worst outcome, it was an open secret wriggling through the labyrinths of the Spanish court. Earlier this week, one of the bailiffs, during a microphone testing, said it out loud: “a la cárcel todos” (all to jail). The prosecutor who filed the charges against leaders in the aftermath of the Catalonian referendum and declaration of independence showed his intentions when he chose “más dura será la caida” (their fall will be harder) as title for the cause. So, when the Spanish judge decided on 2 November to retain eight Catalan leaders (including Oriol Junqueras, Vice-President of the region) accused of sedition, rebellion and embezzlement, no one was surprised.
We all knew that the national high court was coming after them. A stark statement considering that we are talking about a democratic country; one that is often hailed for integrating so well and quickly into the “EU club of democracies”. Two weeks before, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sànchez had been imprisoned for leading a peaceful and authorised demonstration. A decision that had sparked puzzlement among part of the legal community who even questioned if the crime they were being accused of really existed in the penal code. The cause against the Catalan leaders is riddled with judicial irregularities; the decision of the magistrate responds to ideological divergences. It is unclear whether the national high court has jurisprudence to rule on cases of rebellion. It has ignored basic procedural protocols acting with a hastiness and celerity atypical of the Spanish legal system. The prosecutor’s office is treating the accused with revenge and not protecting their presumption of innocence.
This all happens while the images of the police brutality on 1st October are still fresh in our minds. It happens under the direction of an inflexible, revengeful and bellicose government and political allies. During weeks, we have seen how the Spanish establishment – government, certain political parties, police and justice system – has anchored its narrative in the Constitution refusing to give a political solution to a political problem.
However, the curtailing of civil rights in Spain does not start with the Catalonian crisis. In past years, the separation of judiciary powers from the executive branch (which in itself is very enigmatic as ten members of the 12-person Constitutional Tribunal are political appointees) has severely deteriorated. Examples include Operation Catalonia were the ruling right-wing government allegedly used judicial proceedings to discredit Catalonian politicians; pressures on judges who prosecute political corruption; introduction of the “gag law” which limits civil liberties severely; or the 73 decree-laws (of a total of 143 bills) which were introduced by current President Rajoy during his majority rule from 2011 – 2015. Amnesty International has repeatedly warned Madrid of breeches to freedom of speech and other civil liberties.
However, Catalonia takes the biscuit when it comes to suffering from the increasing authoritarian methods of the ruling establishment. The Spanish Constitutional Tribunal has refuted many pieces of legislation approved by the Catalan Parliament, including the housing emergency and fuel poverty bills. But more importantly, in 2010, it ruled parts of the Catalonian Constitution which had been approved by Spain’s Parliament and later ratified in a vote by Catalan voters, illegal. This did not only break Spanish rule of law and left Catalonia as the only autonomous region in the Iberian Peninsula with an invalidated Constitution but also marked a turning point in the region’s claims for independence.
After that, the Catalan demands for independence tightened. Amidst a severe financial crisis that started in Spain in 2008 and further eroded its political, economic and social structures, the Catalans developed a cross-societal movement that brought together a plethora of political sensibilities, ages and classes. It culminated with the election in 2015 of Junts pel Si a loosely-knit political movement led by Carles Puigdemont that promised to call a vote for independence.
Following the election result, responsible political leaders would have sat down to pact a referendum like in Quebec or Scotland. But Madrid refused to take the Catalan pledge seriously, not realising the strength of their determination. Up to 18 times did President Puigdemont try to negotiate a popular vote (something that the Spanish Constitution envisages if Parliament votes for it) with the governing party. Instead, Mariano Rajoy’s executive and political allies, shielded behind the Constitution and decided to give a juridical-constitutional answer to a political problem. What followed has been illustrated in the international media extensively; police brutality on 1st October; imprisonment of civil and political leaders for defending peacefully the democratic mandate entrusted to them by the people and the looming suspension of Catalan’s political, cultural, economic autonomy.
Throughout the crisis, the discourse of the Spanish government has reminded unmovable. Like Schmidt’s sovereign, they believe that they are in their right to transcend the rule of law in the name of the “public good”. They have appropriated the term “public good” negating the fact that over 80% of the Catalans demand to vote. Covering themselves under the mantle of constitutionality, they have tried to esnare a political movement by co-opting it with physical and legal violence. Meanwhile, the EU shies away from any involvement in the crisis, siding with the Spanish government. Again, sadly, this is nothing to be surprised of. After all they are the ones that decided to ignore the Greek bailout referendum result in 2015 or bail out banks against the will of the people.
The Catalonian issue is not a national problem; it is one that is much more fundamental. One which has seen a government elected in the ballot put in jail for defending peacefully their right to self-determination. One where the fundamental values of EU enshrined under Article 2 are being violated. One in which the history that we thought was a thing of the past (although some of us suspected was throbbing somewhere in the depths of the earth) is resurfacing again. One in which the political class has not been able come with a creative solution, with a human solution. The only thing now left for citizens is to think critically, to stick together and create a common front to tell our leaders that political problems are solved with political solutions that involve mutual respect and dialogue.
Tonina Alomar is a researcher and editor based in Brussels. She is a member of The Global Center for Advanced Studies were she is investigating how the neoliberal framework determines the way we reflect and respond to climate change. She is interested in how the system dilutes actualities into digestible categories that often borrow from stereotypes and misconstructions. Tonina has worked as a political consultant and in the European Parliament. She is a graduate of London School of Economics.