Catalonia's independence project struggles to establish clear roadmap
Some extreme incidents have overshadowed the movement’s many peaceful demonstrations
Thousands of people take part in the Marches for Freedom in Barcelona on Friday amid a wave of protests against this week’s court ruling. Photograph: EPA/Alejandro Garcia
On Wednesday night, thousands of pro-independence demonstrators gathered in central Barcelona outside the region’s interior ministry. Nearby, two youths, their faces partially covered by scarves, pushed some large rubbish containers into the middle of a side street before lighting the contents.
As smoke seeped out of the containers, a man leaned out of the window of a first-floor flat nearby and started remonstrating with the youths.
“Put the bins back!” he shouted in Catalan. “Idiots!”
For most pro-independence Catalans, burning wheelie bins and angry bickering was not what they had hoped to see this week in response to the supreme court’s jailing of nine leaders for sedition. There had been huge anticipation ahead of Spain’s most significant court verdict in decades and it was seen as a chance for the secessionist movement to demonstrate the unity and rejection of violence on which it has prided itself in recent years.
But despite several massive, peaceful demonstrations which have taken place in recent days, both those values have been tested, many would argue to breaking point.
Monday’s supreme court verdict saw jail sentences of between nine and 13 years for the politicians and civic leaders who had been convicted (three others were found guilty of lesser charges and not jailed). As expected, Catalans mobilised to express their anger at what they saw as an act of revenge by Spain rather than an act of justice.
Thousands of Catalans took to the streets across the region and in some cases blocked roads and rail links.
But later in the day, the protests took an unexpected turn as thousands converged on Barcelona’s El Prat airport, causing dozens of flights to be cancelled. It appeared to be a highly organised action, co-ordinated by a new platform calling itself Tsunami Democràtic.
Since then, Barcelona and other cities have seen mass demonstrations which then segue into standoffs between riot police and youths who set containers, rubble and, in some cases, cars alight as well as throwing stones, glass and molotov cocktails at the armoured officers.
Almost every night this week, central Barcelona has temporarily taken on the look of a conflict zone rather than Europe’s third-biggest tourism hub.
“I will not allow violence to impose itself on co-existence,” the Socialist acting prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said in a statement on Wednesday night.
Yet these scenes are not just a problem for the Spanish government, they also challenge the independence movement’s long-standing claim that it is peaceful. Throughout the supreme court trial, many unionist politicians and media sought to portray the secessionists as violent coup-mongers who paraded under a guise of progressive passivism. Perhaps the only consolation Monday’s verdict could offer the independence cause was that it dismissed such claims by finding the defendants not guilty of violent rebellion.
Therefore this week’s late-night acts of vandalism frustrate rank-and-file nationalists, who believe their cause is being besmirched.
“The stuff at night, burning the bins and so on, I think that’s wrong, because it’s violence and it’s what the Spanish state wants to see,” said Alex Gómez, who took part in a peaceful student demonstration in Barcelona on Thursday, the day before a region-wide strike took place. “What they want to do is make people think we’re violent.”
Elisenda Paluzie, president of the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the largest pro-independence rank-and-file organisation, took a similar view of the violence.
“It’s a mixture, of provocation by police infiltrators and pro-independence youths who are angry and perhaps who have less political understanding, and who have watched [the supreme court convictions] after two years of peaceful demonstrations,” she told The Irish Times. “So the argument among these youths would be that doing things the way we have done so far just doesn’t work.”
The more extreme incidents have, inevitably, overshadowed the many peaceful demonstrations that have taken place. But they have also dragged the Catalan government into a deeply uncomfortable position.
Before the verdict, regional president Quim Torra called on Catalans to exercise civil disobedience against it and he, like many of his colleagues, has used strong language to condemn the jail sentences. But his government also expressed “empathy” for those who had caused the airport chaos.
“How do you combine the message of disobedience with the management of a regional government?” said Francesc-Marc Álvaro, an author and political commentator. “That’s very difficult. A pro-independence government has to deploy regional police to quell the pro-independence Catalans which [it] has encouraged to take to the streets.”
The force employed at times by the Mossos d’Esquadra Catalan police against demonstrators has intensified this quandary and much of the anger of those on the streets this week has been directed at them.
As Torra performed his balancing act, he refused to condemn the more violent incidents until mid-week, despite the fact that those jailed for sedition and several of his ministers had already done so. By the time he spoke out, Torra looked weak and existing divisions in the Catalan government were more evident than ever between his Together for Catalonia (JxCat) party and their coalition partners, the Catalan Republican Left (ERC).
Columnist Lola García of La Vanguardia newspaper noted that the confused political response to the verdict by the Catalan government was giving an image of mismanagement.
“The internal instability revolves around the figure of Torra, who no longer even tries to make his status as president compatible with being an activist,” she wrote.
On Thursday, Torra’s leadership again came under scrutiny as he announced his intention to organise a new referendum on independence during this legislature. Yet his coalition partners appeared to dismiss the plan.
All of this contrasts with the extraordinarily united front which the independence movement showed ahead of the 2017 independence drive, when the far left, the centre left and conservatives all managed to put socioeconomic concerns to one side as they challenged Spain’s territorial model.
Yet these developments also leave prime minister Sánchez in a predicament. Having pledged to calm tensions between Madrid and Catalonia on taking office in 2018, the crisis has once again ignited.
While the independence movement sees him as part of a repressive unionist apparatus, his political opponents in Madrid cast him as weak on the territorial issue. The Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos, to his right, have been calling for him to take command of the Catalan police or even introduce direct rule, which was previously in place in the region for several months until mid-2018. The far-right Vox party, meanwhile, is urging him to declare a state of emergency.
So far, Sánchez has kept such measures in reserve, aware that introducing direct rule again, for example, could be more of a provocation than a solution.
But the national backdrop to this crisis, the campaign leading up to a November 10th general election, leaves little space for moderation. There will be voices within his own party and Socialist voters who want Sánchez to take a tough line.
One difficulty he has is that the independence movement’s objectives are far from clear. Even Paluzie, whose ANC has been arguably the most strident major player in the secessionist arena, admits that this is a problem. Although she says her organisation wants “the idea of independence to return to the fore”, she admits that the current confusion makes focusing on that goal hard.
“There’s not a clear roadmap to resume the independence project,” she said.
“We will see as we go and if we can keep the mobilisation going. The idea is that this protest is constant ... and to keep it going as long as we can.”