Catalonia’s National Day and Spain’s problem

If the independence movement has a strategy problem, then Spain also has its own: when will it engage in politics?

Catalonia’s National Day this complicated 2018, marked by the imprisonment and exile of the pro-independence leaders, has once again mobilized the independence movement in a massive, peaceful, festive manner, despite the gravity of the moment. In spite of all the differences and doubts surrounding the correct strategy, the movement’s strength remains on the streets. The optimism of the last seven years has turned into a more realistic commitment, one that is more aware of the difficulties, while the movement’s behaviour has remained impeccable throughout. Violence? Not even a hint of it, as ever. On September 11, the exemplary civic display was the norm from one end of Barcelona’s Avinguda Diagonal to the other, throughout the one-million-strong demonstration. The facts, once again, disprove the accusations of rebellion (violence, in other words) that hang over the heads of the Catalan political prisoners and exiles, whose predicament coloured the whole day, a day of resistance, of perseverance. Ultimately, today has shown itself to be the political preamble to the trial of the independence leaders that will doubtlessly overshadow the coming months, the outcome of which will be decisive in deciding what democratic path Catalan society takes with respect to Spain, and what Spain’s answer will be.

On the one hand, the independence movement is in the process of rethinking its political strategy, following a serious confrontation with a state that has shown a slide towards authoritarianism, embracing a kind of punitive populism that turns ideological dissidence —especially, though not exclusively, a call for Catalan independence— into a criminal offence. Meanwhile, on the other hand, Spain has a problem of its own: the realisation that a desire for Catalan independence persists, one which is plural and civic, and one which refuses to be weakened by internal rifts. This reality ought to encourage Spain to reflect on the fact that it is not so easy to break a deeply democratic and free society that integrates differences in language and origins, and which rejects the lack of dialogue, to the point that there are men and women in prison for having given the electorate a voice and a vote.

In an interview with the BBC released on Catalonia’s National Day, Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, declared his refusal to accept that the Catalan politicians being held on remand are political prisoners. Naturally. No state governed by the rule of law which considers itself to be minimally proud of its democratic system can feel comfortable locking up its ideological rivals, political and grassroots leaders who are profoundly democratic. However, what Mr Borrell barely dares to say ought to become a political reality. And sooner rather than later. The purely judicial route, of a form of justice which turns rights into crimes, of this bizarre criminal law which sees enemies instead of citizens with rights, will do nothing to help find a solution to the Catalan case. And if there is no solution, there is conflict. The exceptional circumstances and mass mobilizations will continue for as long as there are political prisoners and others in exile. As long as there is no genuine political dialogue, there will be discredit and democratic erosion. This is Spain’s problem. When will it engage in politics?