Today, we are witnessing one of the most important turning points in Spanish political history since the country’s return to democracy.
Only a few years ago, almost no one outside Spain knew anything about Catalonia’s historical aspirations of independence, but now most people have at least a vague idea about this region and the dreams of its people. When an internal crisis in a state reaches a tension of such magnitude, it is not surprising that it ends up crossing national borders. Today, this is what’s happening in Spain – Catalonia is no longer a minor internal problem.
This position has allowed the demands of Catalans to be heard all over the world. It has made possible the start of an independence-seeking process which, unlike those experienced previously in the region, will not need to be carried out with violence.
Catalan sanity vs Spanish fury
The Catalan inclination to pursue a peaceful path towards independence was most clearly articulated by President Carles Puigdemont when he addressed the Catalan parliament on October 10.
His speech, in which he suspended the declaration of independence and called for constructive dialogue with the Spanish state, demonstrated a value historically and culturally recognised by the people of Catalonia: the so-called “seny catala” (Catalan sanity).
Yet it needs to be acknowledged that, throughout this ordeal, Spain also contributed significantly to the perception that Catalonia is the “sane side” of the conflict.
The security mobilisation which so greatly resonated internationally on October 1, the date of the referendum on Catalan self-determination – which had not been agreed to by the Spanish state – showed a furious, clumsy, and savage Spanish government.
With the help of the state media, Spain’s central government tried to bury any ideas contradicting the state’s point of view, showing its darkest face since the brutal Franco dictatorship.
Throughout that turbulent day, images of violence filled television screens all over the world, showing a large international audience what the Spanish state is capable of.
Images are the most useful and effective tools in political communication since they transmit emotions. That day the government of Mariano Rajoy, communicated a strong message: We can and we will use violence against our own citizens if necessary. Nor was this the only negative message they conveyed on that day. On October 1, the Spanish government also demonstrated its impotence to the world, by using all means available to stop a referendum, and failing miserably.
The Catalan government, on the other hand, followed an intelligent strategy that is a lot more in keeping with the established political culture of the European continent.
Their action model was simple: to officially request a referendum, and, when this request is denied, to disobey the state and do it anyway. Most importantly, to do all this without resorting to violence. The next – and maybe most important – stage of this game plan was put into action with Puigdemont’s historic speech to the Catalan parliament: A demand for dialogue.
The speech of Puigdemont
Catalonia’s leader said he accepts the “mandate from the people” to “become an independent state”, but has stopped short of declaring independence as he seeks dialogue with Spain.
This gesture denotes sanity and is in line with the political behaviour model of the European Union – a model based on dialogue, agreements and respect to democracy.
Unfortunately, the democratic immaturity of the Spanish state does not allow this type of dialogue, so Puigdemont’s speech did not change the central government’s attitude towards the Catalan question.
Catalonia is now left with two options: to disobey the Spanish state and declare independence anyway or to give in and withdraw its proposal for dialogue on independence.
Immediately after Puigdemont’s speech, Spain’s prime minister demanded Catalan leaders “clarify” whether they have formally declared independence before he invokes a constitutional article that would strip the region of its autonomy.
With this answer, Mariano Rajoy has confirmed that the doors to dialogue with Catalonia are not open. This was also clear in the mainstream Spanish media’s coverage of the events, which followed an editorial line declaring the referendum “an illegality”, the supporters of independence “delinquents”, and any dialogue or agreement with these “delinquents” an “impossibility”.
Spain’s strong response to Puigdemont’s speech showed that the central government classifies any demand for dialogue coming from Catalonia as a terrorist act, a treason.
Currently, the situation in the country is one of complete disappointment for both sides of the conflict. On one hand, Catalans view the suspension of the declaration of independence as a betrayal of the overwhelming results of a referendum they fought hard to actualise. On the other hand, some sections of the Spanish society want the central government to take more forceful action against the demands for secession.
A day before Puigdemont’s highly anticipated speech, Pablo Casado, the Spanish government’s deputy secretary for communications, said during a press conference that if the Catalan leader declared independence he may end up like Lluis Companys – the Catalan leader who was swiftly tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison for declaring independence in 1934. He was eventually executed by the Franco regime in 1940.
“Let’s hope that nothing is declared tomorrow because perhaps the person who makes the declaration will end up like the person who made the declaration 83 years ago,” Casado said.
Catalan supporters of independence and many others in Spain immediately reacted with fury to Casado’s ambiguous, yet threatening comments.
These are indeed frightening days for the citizens of the deeply divided country. But there is still hope because many Catalans and Spaniards, whether or not they are in favour of Catalan independence, are asking their political leaders to engage in political dialogue. The Catalan government already acknowledged this call, and the Spanish government can also choose to take this most sensible path, and demonstrate that Spain is indeed a European democracy.
The European Union can also play a more open and active role to facilitate mediation in the conflict – EU leaders should not be afraid of offending the so-called “Spanish pride” and they should take action to make sure the Spanish democracy, which is currently cracking with each move Rajoy makes, is functioning.
Rajoy said “there was no independence referendum in Catalonia”, arguing that the referendum he deems illegal was not “a democratic tool”, as anything that is outside the law is not democratic. The Spanish state must open the door to dialogue and stop hiding its political incapacity behind the laws.
What will happen in Catalonia after this?
The Spanish government has already activated the mechanism known as Article 155 (an article that allows the cancellation of the powers of the autonomous communities, in this case, Catalonia) and has forced the Catalan president to withdraw the proclamation of Independence – or more accurately his call for dialogue – through a judicial requirement.
Catalonia is now left with two options: to disobey the Spanish state and declare independence anyway – something that would not be appropriate – or to give in and withdraw its proposal for dialogue on independence – discarding something the Catalan government was elected by its citizens to uphold.
If Catalonia defies the Spanish state and declares independence, the history will repeat itself: Spanish state will intervene, using the full strength of the law and its security forces. They will silence Catalan aspirations and add yet another bitter chapter to the political history of Catalonia. This will not in any way solve the problems of Spain’s Catalan citizens – it will only silence their voice until further notice.
The only thing Catalans can do now is to be optimistic and hope that Catalonia, once again in its history, will trigger change in the Kingdom of Spain. There is already talk, however muted, by the Spanish opposition of some sort of a constitutional change that would give the Catalan government more control over Catalonia – in exchange for dropping its more radical demands.
I want to believe finding a sensible solution to this crisis is still possible: The European Union can intervene and mediate, making sure that both sides are participating in a dialogue from equal positions.
But whatever happens, it is certain that difficult times await us in Catalonia.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.