People living in the Catalonia region in Spain vote on Thursday 21 December for a new Parliament. This election follows a previous tumultuous two months triggered by the then President of the Catalan Parliament, Carlos Puidgemont, calling a referendum on independence in defiance of the Spanish national government.
The quest for self-determination is never an easy bedfellow with legalities and political machinations and carries different political and moral values. ‘Help Catalonia’ is a grassroots movement of pro independence Catalonians launched in 2013 to push for an autonomous state. I contacted them for an interview because I was absolutely appalled by the violence that was carried out by the police on the day of the referendum. People who had gone to cast their votes were treated appallingly in a modern country that is part of the EU.
The police violently attempted to prevent people from voting in what the Spanish government and courts termed was illegal. Carlos Puidgemont went on to declare unilateral independence and is now living in Brussels in exile. The election on 21 December was called by the Spanish Government after the entire Catalonian Parliament was dissolved in October.
Patriotism is a double edged sword. When the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph had someone pointed out to him as a ‘patriot’ the Emperor replied: “He may be a patriot for Austria, but the question is whether he is a patriot for me?”. Catalonians are not only being asked to declare their patriotism for either Spain or Catalonia but their allegiance or not, as the case may be, to the Prime Minister, Manuel Rajoy, too. The election for a new Parliament feels like a rerun of the referendum.
This is a political manoeuvre by Rajoy to kill the whole issue of Catalonian independence. While parallels have been drawn with the Scottish referendum held in 2014, and there are similar emotive issues at play, the difference is that the referendum was supported by the national government as well as the regional government. The Catalonian referendum did not have the national government’s support.
Below is my interview with ‘Help Catalonia’.
Q:Why is it important to Catalonians to have independence considering that the region has enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy?
A: Because autonomy is largely illusory. Spain takes our tax and does not reinvest it in Catalonia. Spain can cancel any laws passed by the Catalan parliament which it disagrees with, even non-political ones. Spain persecutes the Catalan language. Catalonia was a separate country which was conquered by force and has never agreed to be part of Spain.
Q. What does it mean to be Catalonian and I ask this question because it is evident that the nationalism felt by Catalonians is deep and earnest in seeking independence?
A: Catalans are peaceful, patient, hardworking, unostentatious and kind to animals. Catalans speak Catalan. Catalans have their own traditions, music, dances, drinks, food…
Q. What has the atmosphere been like in the region following the imposition of direct rule by Spanish central government? Are people fearful or defiant?
A: Both. But the feeling also is that something has changed – that after the Spanish violence of October 1st there is no going back.
Q. What do you hope will happen going forward?
A: Gradual acceptance of the Catalan Republic. Spain’s behaviour has been illegal and against the rules of Europe.
Q: How are Catalonians living?
We are living in fear. There is a sense of absolute helplessness. Spanish judges have not allowed Catalan to declare independence. The irony is that almost none of the judges can speak our language and they have approached the question of independence from a political stance, not a legal one. We believe that their judgement has been a political one.
Q: Has Carlos Puidgemont let the movement down by moving to Brussels?
A: President Puigdemont’s presence in Brussels offers hope. Europe has been indifferent towards the question of human rights in Catalonia but Puigdemont’s move to Brussels is an opportunity to find a third way. We do not seek to run away from the law but we want an impartial judiciary. He is not the first Catalan President to live in exile (Macia, Irla or Tarradelles were in exile). The situation in Catalonia is of arbitrariness. President Puidgemont is more useful to the moment by being in Brussels.
Q: What about the other Catalonian politicians who were arrested – what do you think about this?
A: Two Catalan ministers returned from Brussels to show that they won’t run away from justice but they were summoned within less than 48 hours. Their lawyers were not given enough time to prepare a defence. This is what they were subject to – witnessing the Spanish Police joke about the Vice President of the Catalonian parliament being raped and having the Spanish anthem played 17 times to them while forcing them to stand naked. All of this shows that Spain falls short of the standards of human rights. We already know that the state can prosecute pro-independence supporters anytime. They have summoned mayors, politicians, teachers, firefighters, singers and have targeted Twitter profiles. In Spain there is a law called ‘Ley Mordaza’ which limits freedom of expression in an extraordinary way.