I still don’t like writing blog-type things, but seeing as I’m in Barcelona during the city’s – and the region’s – most turbulent, political time in the last 40 years, I do feel obliged to give my opinion. But please bear in mind, that’s all this is; my personal opinion.
Right now, Barcelona is in the throes of a political war between the Catalan and Spanish governments, following the recent independence referendum on the 1st October, which was deemed illegal by the central Spanish government. Protests have been going on constantly in the Catalan capital, against the extreme reaction of the Spanish government; on the day of the referendum, videos emerged of Spanish police – who had been sent into the region to prevent citizens from attending the vote – attacking Catalan voters and using excessive force. Almost 1,000 voters were reportedly injured.
The problem’s not a simple one, that’s obvious. The Spain we know is barely 40 years old, born after the death of the dictator Franco in 1975, when the entire landscape of the country changed dramatically. A new constitution was drawn up, a constitution that had the aim of defending civil liberties, protecting a united, democratic Spain whilst giving a degree of recognition and autonomy to regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, which had been suppressed under the Francoist regime. Ultimately, the constitution was created to ensure the country would never fall prey to fascism and dictatorship again. Unfortunately, 40 years later, the constitution might be the thing endangering all those values.
Before I start to rant, here is a short video I made while at the protests in Barcelona on Saturday 22nd October. There have been many protests in the city over the last few weeks, against the violence of the Spanish police, protesting for independence, protesting against independence, protesting just about everything. This particular protest was against the political imprisonment of two Catalan separatist leaders, Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez, for ‘sedition’; meaning inciting rebellion against the state or authority, a crime which has now been abolished in the majority of Western countries.
Personally, I’m not in favour of Catalan independence. Above all, I believe the wish for independence goes deeper than any political or economic reasons; I believe it’s due to a deep-rooted sentiment of nationalism, of pride in your own culture and country, that children born in Catalonia grow up with. Having lived, albeit briefly, in Catalonia as a kid, I saw first-hand just how passionate young people are about independence; the most common graffiti you’ll find is that of the independentist flag, and ‘independència catalunya’ or ‘Catalonia is not a-Spain, eh?’ were phrases I heard constantly, as if they were drilled into the national psyche from a young age. But personally, I’ve never been a nationalist, of any sort. I don’t care where I was born, I don’t think it makes any difference what particular mass of land you happened to grow up on, humans are inherently the same, wherever they come from. I can understand patriotism, sure, but for me personally, it never stretches beyond crying every time England fall on their asses at the World Cup.
One of the main reasons cited in favour of Catalan independence that has fuelled the push for independence in recent years, especially since the 2008 economic crisis when Spain was hit worse than most countries, is the fact that Catalonia, Spain’s most affluent and economically successful region, pays more into the central government in taxes than it receives, a factor that leads many Catalans to believe they are being effectively screwed over by Spain. But what it’s worth remembering is that, much like the UK within the EU, the fact that Catalonia is so economically successful is precisely the reason why it receives less funding; the taxes it pays go towards subsidising those less affluent, poorer regions of Spain, where unemployment is through the roof and homelessness, lower incomes, hunger and other factors are more common. Personally, and this is not a view shared by everyone, I believe that richer areas have a moral duty to subsidise those area which aren’t as fortunate. Unfortunately in the case of Catalonia and Spain, nationalist sentiments (as well as, admittedly, a history of corruption in Spanish government), blind this to an extent.
Of course, these arguments barely skim the surface of an impossibly complex issue that has been a central theme in Spain in the last decade, but truthfully began centuries ago, and I can’t claim to be anything like an expert on the matter. All I can offer is the perspective of an outsider, someone who grew up outside the natural biases and media of those living in Spain or Catalonia.
Unfortunately, all of these logical arguments, for or against independence or greater autonomy, none of that matters anymore. The matter has gone past debate; in the face of a peaceful Catalan nation pushing for independence through democratic means, not committing a single act of terrorism or violence, the Spanish government has acted in a way I can only describe as fascistic. History, it seems, is starting to repeat itself.
Let’s go through what the Spanish government has done:
- First, back in 2014, it denied Catalonia a democratic, legal referendum. Catalonia initially didn’t ask for independence, just the chance to vote democratically on the matter. Spain said no, so the Catalan government complied and rebranded the vote as a “participation process”. The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of independence, yet come 2017, the Spanish government, instead of offering the chance for reasoned debate, shut down the Catalan government yet again. This time they didn’t comply.
- On the day of the vote, Spain sent in riot police to stop voters attending, and the whole world saw the results; peaceful citizens, attempting to participate in democracy, were beaten, fired at with rubber bullets and almost 1000 people were injured. Not what you expect in a progressive EU country.
- The Spanish government proceeded to imprison two Catalan leaders for ‘sedition’ – a crime which no longer exists in most Western countries, and which is defined as “conduct or speech inciting people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch”. Note the definition is to ‘rebel against authority’; not violently or illegally, merely to stand up to authority. To have an opposing opinion.
- Finally, the Spanish government has started to literally take over Catalonia; by rolling back the region’s autonomy, there is the potential for Spain to take over the Catalan government, imposing direct rule on its citizens, sacking public sector workers, and moving Spanish military into the region. Even more shocking, the government has even declared they will be seizing control of TV3, Catalonia’s national news network. In a declaration reminiscent of 1984, they announced they would do so to “guarantee the transmission of truthful, objective and balanced information”. This is truly terrifying.
To clarify, I don’t believe the Catalan government is faultless. I strongly believe both governments have acted rashly and ignorantly at times, more concerned with maintaining a firm stance and than offering up options for dialogue and peace, representing truly their citizens. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, has at times acted bullishly, has not been 100% truthful and has acted in a way that was sure to attract a heavy response. Despite this, as time has gone on, the Spanish government seem to be the ones reacting the worst.
I also believe that the citizens of Catalonia and Spain have put their respective governments to shame; the Catalan people have responded to every threat and event with nothing but peaceful protest, and last week Spanish unionists protested against Catalan independence with a message of cooperation, respect and willingness for Catalonia to be an integral and respected part of Spain. At one point I saw a family walking past, with two young children; one carrying a Catalan flag, another a Spanish flag. Signs held up read “Catalonia, we don’t want to lose you” and “We are better than our government”. If only politicians could act like their citizens do.
If the public media is being taken over, then freedom of speech is being infringed. What needs to happen now, is for people to speak out. The EU, which has been shockingly agnostic and quiet on the matter, may soon have to intervene. International leaders MUST speak out against the government’s actions, and push for dialogue and a peaceful, democratic solution. And us, normal citizens, must do everything we can to raise awareness of exactly what is going on, and to push for intervention and dialogue. To resist. If the government is taking over public media, then we can take over social media. Social media, for all its many flaws, has one thing guaranteed; freedom of speech. The government cannot control or regulate what we say, what we publish online, so we must use that to genuinely transmit “truthful, objective and balanced information”.
Finally, don’t despair, because one thing that cannot be underestimated is the power of the Catalan people. The argument for or against independence has passed, and the fight is now to push against the fascistic rule of the Spanish government, to ensure that the people’s voices are heard, and a peaceful, democratic solution is reached.