After two years of tense calm, on Monday 14th of October the Spanish Supreme Court found the former pro-independence Catalan leaders guilty of sedition. Since then, Catalan citizens have been taking to the streets to express their disconformity on the ruling. As some riots are happening, the “smiling revolution” (as many named the previous pro-independence peaceful protests) seems to be less smiling than before.
The recent history of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia has risen from three structural conditions. First, in 2005, the Parliament of Catalonia proposed a new basic law for the region. Catalan citizens endorsed it through a referendum and, afterwards, the Spanish Parliament passed the law with some amendments. Immersed in much controversy, four years later, the Constitutional Court (an extra-judiciary and politicized court that rules on matters about human rights and central-regional power distribution) suppressed and reinterpreted core content of the law. This ruling was perceived as limiting future regional powers expansion. As a result, over 1 million Catalans rallied against the ruling in 2010. This was the first major demonstration in favor of the self-determination of the Catalan people.
Second, Catalonia is among the richest regions of Spain, but turns to receive far less of what it contributes to Spanish wealth (estimates on the imbalance range from -5% to over -8% of the regional GDP in 2014, last data available). This circumstance was not a matter of concern during the periods of economic growth. However, besides the scarce Central government investment in the region, the 2008 crisis especially affected Catalan citizens as the regional government was forced to decimate its spending on social welfare (it has dropped about 20% if compared to 2009 figures). As a result, the 2008 crisis raised Catalan people’s awareness on the unfair and unequal interregional distribution.
Third, since late 2000s, many Spanish political leaders threatened to suppress Catalan cultural and linguistic privileges, and to re-centralize core regional powers. It sums up to the lack of interest from the Spanish government to start a real dialog with the Catalan representatives. On this matter, Spanish government rejected most proposals made from the Catalan government with little or no discussion. These proposals include, among others, a new financial status for Catalonia in line with other Spanish regions and the transference of powers to celebrate a self-determination referendum.
The aggregation of all three reasons mostly explains why pro-independence support among Catalan citizens has risen from less than 15% in 2006 to over 40% since 2012. This trend also explains why pro-independence parties have won most of the elections since 2012 and why independence received a majority of supports in both the unauthorized consult of 2014 and the illegal referendum of 2017.
The 1st of October, the “R” Day
The events of 2017 have become an inflection point for many pro-independence citizens. The regional government announced a binding referendum for the 1st of October 2017, but the courts soon prohibited it. Still, the Catalan government keep insisting that the referendum would happen even if banned. Thus, during the summer of 2017, the courts prohibited many regional government activities and suspended the laws passed by the regional Parliament concerning the referendum and its effects. Concurrently, Spanish intelligence was looking for ballot boxes and other referendum material, even if with little success. On September 20, police register of several Catalan government offices triggered a huge demonstration in front of one of the facilities. This demonstration resulted in two police vehicles severely damaged by demonstrators, and the policemen waiting inside the building until the demonstration was dismantled late at night.
On the days before the 1st of October 2017, hundreds of citizens entered the polling stations to ensure they would remain opened for the referendum to happen. As a result, Spanish police tried to impede the referendum by charging against the voters and congregated citizens in many voting stations, resulting in over one thousand injured. Still, police charges could not stop the referendum, and over 2 million people could vote. By now, there are several open investigations on both the disproportional performance of police individuals and the illegal instructions from police officers.
During October and November 2017, there were demonstrations and strikes opposing Spanish police performance during the referendum day. In addition, on October 27, the Catalan president declared (not implemented) the independence of Catalonia. However, the events that happened since September 2017 resulted in the prosecution and incarceration of the leaders of the two largest pro-independence associations, the speaker of the regional Parliament, and the members of the Catalan Cabinet, to whom the Spanish Prosecution Ministry requested up to 25 years of prison for crimes of rebellion and misuse of public resources. Yet, some Cabinet members and political leaders, including the Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, exiled to other European countries (Belgium, United Kingdom and Switzerland).
Last two years have been relatively calmed. Citizens have been waiting whether the court acquit or convict the Catalan leaders. By 14th October 2019, the Supreme Court found guilty the political and civilian leaders of acting to impede the enforcement of judiciary decisions by using large and mainly peaceful demonstrations. The court convicted them to 9 to 13 years of prison. Most Catalan citizens perceived the ruling as unfair to leaders that have always advocated for peaceful demonstrations. Furthermore, the sentence criminalizes large demonstrations, thus limiting the rights of public speech and protest.
Therefore, the pro-independence movement now perceive that peaceful demonstrations may also result in severe convictions. In consequence, the movement has started a different strategy. Large “smiling” demonstrations will probably persist. For instance, on October 18 and 25, rallies brought together several hundred thousand people in a peaceful atmosphere. But tougher actions are now a reality. Several thousand people partially paralyzed Barcelona airport running on Monday (October 14th), roads and highways are being blocked daily, and riots have been happening in Barcelona and other large Catalan cities.
Spanish and Catalan police have been under strong criticism from lawyers and pro-human rights associations for its disproportional reaction against the demonstrators and rioters. Police response included shooting rubber balls, batting and detaining press members and protesters, running over demonstrators with police vehicles, and getting along with violent fascist anti-independence demonstrators, among others. Thus, since the sentence, there have been 213 arrests (30 of them in unconditional pretrial detention) and over 750 injured. A closest look to the numbers includes 2 seriously wounded, 4 people losing an eye because of the impact of rubber balls, and over 71 injured journalists. Protests surpassed Spanish forecasts. Examples of it are that policemen are working up to 17 hours; police barely ran out of anti-rioting material; and several small but noticeable support demonstrations are happening all over Spain. However, they also surpassed Catalan Cabinet expectations. Many prominent leaders of the parties governing Catalonia have already demanded the dismissal of the Catalan minister of public security, and other moderate pro-independence politicians are receiving strong criticism from inside the pro-independence movement.
A non-foreseeable solution
The regional government and exiled and imprisoned leaders have opposed to riots and demanded to peaceful demonstrators to impede rioters’ actions. These statements, together with police acting slightly more diligent when facing the demonstrators, have resulted in a large decrement of the riots since October 19. This calmer situation will presumably endure, even if isolated nights of riots are likely (e.g. riots happened on October 26). However, international experience suggests that rioters may be on the right path. Last 9 years of the “smiling revolution” resulted in repression, incarceration and violence from the police forces. Meanwhile, riots in Chile (anti-government protests), Hong Kong (pro-democracy groups) and France (yellow vest movement) forced their governments to make concessions after just some days or weeks of agitation.
A long-term solution requires the Spanish government to broaden its understanding of collective rights. On this regard, pro-independence associations and political parties have already proposed what will make up the two core elements for future negotiations. First, amnesty for the incarcerated leaders and exiled politicians. Second, a negotiation on how Catalonia can exercise its right to self-determination. Pro-independence parties claim that it may be easier to start negotiations with the current center-left Spanish government than it was with former center-right Spanish administrations. However, in the light of the events, it seems to be not much more of a delusion.
There are many reasons to believe that the Spanish government is not in a position to even agree on starting a negotiation. On the one side, polls are showing that from 33% to 41% of Spaniards agree on suspending the regional status of Catalonia and centralize the regional powers (the preferred option among the alternatives). A concrete example on how unable the Spanish government is to offer anything on matters regarding Catalonia took place earlier this year. In February 2019, Spanish and Catalan administrations announced the prompt start of a bilateral dialog, but public opinion fostered by conservative political parties compelled the Spanish government to retrieve from any negotiation. On the other side, pressure on Spanish government to stand firm against any requests from pro-independence parties is higher now, as there will be general elections on the 10th of November. Yet, both conditions may explain, but not justify, why the president of Spain has persistently avoided any contact with the Catalan president since the sentence was made public.
One can expect that the responses to the pro-independence movement in Catalonia will monopolize November Spanish general elections discourse. On this regard, elections may, as some polls are already signaling, result on higher support for both pro-independence parties (in Catalonia) and conservative anti-independence parties (in the rest of Spain). Results in the elections will mark the future strategy of Catalan and Spanish leaders. Hence, in the likely future situation of a Spanish government unwilling or unable to discuss the Catalan problem, rallies and riots will continue in Catalonia for the months to come.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Ivan Gonzalez Pujol is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Spain) and Research Student at the Senshu University (Japan). His research focuses on international relations theoretical approaches and Japanese foreign policy.