Catalan crisis settles into slow-burning, long-term conflict

Talks seek to end political stalemate but pro-independence Catalans remain frustrated

A man burns a copy of the Spanish constitution during a protest in Barcelona. The future of Catalonia is back on the negotiating table after a year of electioneering in Spain. Photograph: Toni Albir/EPA

A man burns a copy of the Spanish constitution during a protest in Barcelona. The future of Catalonia is back on the negotiating table after a year of electioneering in Spain. Photograph: Toni Albir/EPA

 

At the back of a large garage in the Catalan town of Sabadell, the artist known as Werens unveils some of the works that are going to form part of his new exhibition. The paintings are all variations on a theme: police in riot gear attacking sprawling yellow flowers with truncheons and guns.

Werens is a friendly, quietly spoken veteran of the street art scene but these artworks have a solemn message: they denounce the injustice pro-independence Catalans like him believe they are victims of at the hands of the Spanish state.

“We’re seeing a hypocrisy, a way of inventing things and a repression that I have never seen before at such close quarters,” he says.

The flowers in his paintings represent the independence movement, which has used the colour yellow as an emblem of its demand that nine independence leaders, who were given stiff jail sentences for sedition in October, be freed. The riot police evoke the security forces who attacked Catalans as they voted in a controversial referendum on independence in 2017 and who also clashed with protesters in the wake of the sedition verdicts.

The Catalan street artist known as Werens with one of the works from his new exhibition. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe
The Catalan street artist known as Werens with one of the works from his new exhibition. Photograph: Guy Hedgecoe

Two months on from that court decision and over two years after the referendum, the Catalan crisis has settled into a slow-burning, long-term conflict. Political instability in Madrid makes a resolution appear unlikely in the short term, while the independence movement is divided and confused.

“We have a narrative, but we don’t have a roadmap,” admits one activist who is close to the leadership of the pro-independence grassroots movement.

That “narrative” is based on presenting Spain as an oppressive force: a state that refuses to seek a political solution to the Catalan problem and which, skirting democratic norms, uses the force of law to make its arguments through truncheon-wielding police and draconian judges.

The acting government of the Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez and most pro-union parties reject such claims, seeing them as part of an anti-Spanish propaganda campaign that aims to win over the international community.

In the autumn, institutional relations between Madrid and Catalonia appeared to hit an almost farcical low, as Sánchez repeatedly refused to receive phone calls from the region’s president, Quim Torra.

Political talks

However, despite the tensions, the two men have finally spoken this week. Also, representatives of the Spanish Socialist Party and Catalonia’s leading secessionist force, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), have been holding talks in recent days. Sánchez’s Socialists want ERC to abstain in an upcoming investiture vote, allowing them to form a new left-leaning government, thus avoiding the need for a third general election in little more than a year.

ERC, which governs the region in coalition with the more hardline Together for Catalonia (JxCat), hopes to gain concessions that would further its nationalist agenda and appease its voters. It is still not clear whether ERC will help Sánchez, although the main issue it would like to discuss appears to be off the table.

“No Spanish government is going allow a referendum [on independence] in the short or medium term and ERC know that,” says Lola García, assistant editor at La Vanguardia newspaper. “That’s why this decision is so intimidating for the party.”

The differing approaches to the independence issue of ERC and JxCat have created a schism between them. Meanwhile, their lack of a united, clear strategy for Catalan nationalism, along with the erratic leadership of Torra, has distanced these parties from much of their pro-independence electoral base.

“Right now there are politicians who are not taking into account public opinion,” says Werens. “And the people in the street that I know want to keep fighting for their rights. The politicians have stopped fighting for what we want.”

Only 42 per cent of Catalans were in favour of secession (compared to 49 per cent against), according to a poll by the regional government published in November, the lowest figure for over two years.

Werens and many other pro-independence Catalans feel that activist groups that have sprung up over the last couple of years represent them more faithfully than their politicians.

The Committees for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), for example, have thousands of members who carry out actions that range from hanging pro-independence flags from motorway bridges to cutting off road and rail links.

Since the supreme court handed out the sedition sentences in October, another, more nebulous expression of pro-independence frustration has emerged in the form of Tsunami Democràtic, a faceless digital protest platform. Having orchestrated the temporary paralysis of Barcelona airport in October and the blocking of a main road between Spain and France in November, it has announced a major protest just before the Barcelona-Real Madrid football game due to take place in the Catalan capital on Wednesday.

Daily protest

One of those planning to take part is a 67-year-old architect called Isidre, a member of a CDR who prefers not to give his surname. He is one of several dozen people who gather every day outside Sabadell’s town hall, where they chant for the release of “political prisoners” and sing protest songs.

“I’d like everything to happen quicker and to be more concrete, although we realise that this a major revolution and it won’t happen from one day to the next,” he says, striking a tone somewhere between optimism and exasperation.

The refusal of Sánchez’s acting government to acknowledge Catalonia’s right to self-determination, he believes, is an incentive for his region to return to a more strident course. “The unilateral approach [to independence] wouldn’t make any sense if there was a democratic government in Madrid,” he says.

While Tsunami Democràtic and the CDR groups offer a balm to many frustrated pro-independence Catalans, the objectives of these organisations remain vague. “We don’t know where this is going to lead – their actions can cause disruption, but little else,” says Lola García. “It’s low-intensity activism.”

Not all pro-independence Catalans support these organisations, reflecting the broad array of opinions among the region’s nationalists.

“From the beginning [the independence issue] hasn’t been handled well, it’s gone badly,” says Pedro Gomá, a jeweller who supports independence but thinks the movement’s strategy has been mistaken ever since the controversial 2017 vote, which defied court orders.

“A referendum to get people’s opinion was needed, but it was done badly, illegally,” he says. He also criticises Tsunami Democràtic, which he thinks has broken the independence cause’s non-violent tenets.

Much of this conflict is being played out in the courts. This Thursday, the European Court of Justice is due to decide whether the leader of ERC, Oriol Junqueras, should have been allowed out of jail to take his seat as an MEP earlier this year. Also, Catalan president Torra could be barred from public office for refusing to remove pro-independence symbols from his regional government building. Meanwhile, seven CDR members are in jail, under investigation for suspected terrorist activities that the independence movement claims are non-existent.

After a year of almost non-stop electioneering in which Catalonia dominated and polarised political debate, the region’s future has finally squeezed back onto the negotiating table. But, whatever the outcome of their fragile engagement, Sánchez’s Socialists and the pro-independence ERC know a solution to this conundrum is still a long way off.

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