The Catalonian Parliament voted on Monday to formally begin the independence process, 72 votes to 63. The Barcelona-based government aims to separate from the Spanish state within the next 18 months and again become a republic. Junts pel Sí (Better For Yes) and CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) won the 27th of September elections on a platform for independence and are now fulfilling their electoral mandate.
Undoubtedly, the Spanish establishment will continue to reject “the beginning of the process to create an independent Catalan state” via the constitutional court. Prime Minister Rajoy said immediately after Monday’s vote the resolution “has no value and no consequences”. The unionists claim the independence moves are illegal and tried to prevent Monday’s vote from happening through a legal challenge last week.
“But the Catalonian declaration [of intent for independence] asserts that the constitutional court’s power over Catalonia’s Parliament is null and void,” Enric Blanes tells me.
I meet Blanes and Isabel Galera the Friday before. They know what to expect, both are activists involved in the Catalan National Assembly (ANC). This mass movement of local assemblies organised the million-plus demonstrations for independence in Barcelona over the last few years. The dismissive attitude by the Spanish state towards Catalonia has largely caused the surge in popularity for independence, they explain.
A widespread independence movement was sparked after the Catalonian Parliament ratified a small change, which was then overturned. This was about the way Catalonia was framed as a nation within the Spanish state and it was originally ratified in 2005, then approved by the Spanish constitutional court. Afterwards, the conservative People’s Party (PP) began a successful and divisive campaign across Spain to invalidate the change. The Catalonian constitution was rewritten and watered down in 2010.
“This made a sudden and dramatic shift in Catalonian’s opinion on the Spanish state. We saw there was no alternative but independence,” Galera tells me.
The reaction was first felt in Arenys de Munt, a small town, which held a referendum vote for independence from Spain. 92% voted Yes. The Spanish state deemed the vote illegal. The unofficial vote spurred many similar votes across Catalonia, and the ANC that would go on to organise the mass demonstrations was first set up to coordinate these polls. Now there are more than 500 local assemblies across the nation, in all over 50,000 activists involved.
Blanes and Galera assert the grassroots ANC has been vital for the independence campaign. Galera says before it the movement was split by political differences: some would accuse others of not being committed to enough independence or the wrong type.
“It was like Life of Brian,” she adds.
Isabel Galera also explains that an important tactic was to get people involved speaking over anonymous encrypted emails. In effect, enabling people to appreciate they shared similar concerns.
The sheer numbers on the yearly protests on Catalonian national day, 11th of September, organised by the ANC over this decade show their influential role. After the 2012 rally, then ANC President Carme Forcadell went to the Parliament asserting how it needs to begin a formal referendum process. Since in the Junts pel Sí coalition, she is now the President of the Catalonian Parliament.
In 2012 the independence movement tried to hold a formal referendum. Again the Spanish state blocked this via the constitutional court. Three leading Catalonian politicians face potential jail time for trying to initiate this referendum, even though that Catalonian Parliament had a democratic mandate to hold it.
The centrality of people power within the independence process is decidedly absent from the mainstream international media coverage. And this is not the only problem. An aspect pushed in the corporate coverage is that the governing pro-independence coalition of Junts pel Sí and CUP, are illegitimate, as they only received 48% of the vote.
This attack on the validity of the 72 seats – a majority in the 135-strong Parliament – seems flawed. There are 3 different camps in the Catalan Parliament. 48% of the votes went to independence, outnumbering the unionist who gained 37% of the vote. The rest voted for parties (mainly Catalonia Yes we Can) that called for a referendum to be held, without backing each option.
Media distortion of Catalonian independence debate is not isolated, I hear from Blanes and Galera. Along with a message of fear and smear, there seems many similarities with the tactics from the British establishment against Scottish independence.
One example comes from a former leader of the Social Democrat party PSOE, who recently said that Catalonia needs to be put down the same way as it was in 1934. This was the last time Catalonia was a Republic, when it was decimated by Franco and his fascist allies.
A central fear pushed by the Spanish unionists is that Catalonia will not be allowed to join the EU. Another pro-Unionist piece of propaganda suggests Catalonians will all of a sudden resort to violence.
A central thrust of corporate news coverage is also that Catalans want independence as it was hit hard by the financial crisis. The message is that Catalans want to go it alone as Madrid takes more financially from the country than it gives back. This simplistic narrative seems to miss a central point: Blanes and Galera explain how Spain, 40 years on from Franco dictatorship, is still run by the same elite families. It is well known that corruption is endemic in the Spanish state. The point is backed up by the monumental rise of two anti-corruption parties in Spain, Podemos on the left and Ciudadanos on the right. It is worth noting that Ciudadanos are a party that grew up in Catalonia, on a platform against Catalonian independence. In the September elections, they received 18% of the vote.
Outside the Parliament, after the declaration of intent has been passed, everyone is either a supporter of Catalonian independence or a journalist. I speak to Marc Martinez, an independent documentarist who has been covering the independence movement, and is supportive of it.
Martinez agrees the Spanish government’s crack-down is a main factor in galvanising independence. He also blames the relatively short tradition of democracy in Spain as to why the central government has resorted to challenging Catalonia’s parliament through the courts.
“But the question here is about changing the law to reflect the will of the people. That is democracy. Just as so many changes that have happened throughout humanity from changing laws via civil disobedience, like women’s right to vote and the abolition of slavery.”
I ask what he thinks will happen next.
“I don’t think we’ll reach independence in the next year or two. But it has reached the point of no return.”