Pedro Sánchez reacted to the conviction of Catalonia’s independence leaders by adding more fuel to the fire. His rhetoric was reminiscent of a gloating army general who thinks he has defeated his enemy. He ruled out any chance of an official pardon, insisted that full prison sentences must be served and proudly referred to the trial as exemplary. Not one word of empathy, nor the slightest hint of any sympathy or care for the defendants and, more importantly, for the section of Catalan society that feels deeply wounded by the guilty verdict.
The PSOE decided to shut out Catalonia’s reality a long time ago and instead hide in a fantasy world where there exists no problem between Catalonia and Spain, but merely a coexistence issue within Catalonia itself. At a meeting in Florence a year ago some intellectuals who were close to the Spanish government spelled out the most cynical implication of this narrative: they would do nothing. They believed that no action was required because independence support had already peaked. Without international support —and because it had never exceeded the 50 per cent mark, not even during the most strained period in 2017—, it didn’t pose a serious threat to the State. Therefore, the State didn’t need to offer a political response, merely contain the movement and punish it with the instruments provided by the rule of law: the police, the courts of law and prison sentences. And then wait until it ran out of steam as a result of the combined efforts of repression, exhaustion, the lack of a horizon, internal rifts and the polarisation within Catalan society.
This is the world view that has guided the reckless behaviour of the Spanish government all these months. This, and the permanent weighing of potential electoral gains in the short term, which is the only thing PM Pedro Sánchez is good at. He seized the opportunity to be voted president by the majority who removed his predecessor through a no-confidence vote, although it was a majority he never wanted. He merely took advantage of it to take office without doing anything substantially different from Mariano Rajoy, and he has just prolonged the endless game of chess that they have turned politics into.
What would have happened these days, if the Spanish government had taken the Catalan president’s repeated phone calls?
The breadth and intensity of the people’s response to the verdict, which is goes well beyond nighttime rioting, should have prompted a reaction. But there won’t be one because they are mired in their own narrative. They just keep insisting that independence support is on the wane, minimising the scope of the response and threatening everyone with the criminal code, regardless of whether their actions are violent or not.
This week, when too many things have happened for us to be able to take them in, they have shut down the website of Tsunami Democràtic (1) and they have announced that they will press terrorism charges against a group whose actions have always been peaceful. It is another step in the illiberal drift of Spanish democracy, which chose —a long time ago— to pay the price of containing Catalan secessionism without having to respond to its demands politically.
Pedro Sánchez’s frivolous recklessness is but the latest episode in the State’s total lack of a political response. Many years have passed since 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down the Catalan Statute. So far they haven’t budged one inch. That’s why, if we want to understand where we are today, it is imperative to ask ourselves what would have happened if the State’s response had been different.
What would have happened these days, if the Spanish government had taken the Catalan president’s repeated phone calls, changed tack and started a conversation, rather than send the minister of the Interior to encourage repression and threaten with more prison sentences? What would be happening in the streets of Catalonia without the police brutality and abuse that everyone has witnessed these days? What would have happened if Pedro Sánchez’s response to the verdict hadn’t been a fresh attempt to humiliate and a display of heavy-handed arrogance?
What would have happened if Spain’s Supreme Court had dropped the case against the Catalan leaders, had found them not guilty or convicted them of disobedience, rather than unleashing the criminal law of the enemy? What would have happened if, once elected to office, Pedro Sánchez had chosen to govern with the same coalition that voted him in and start a dialogue? What would have happened if the PSOE hadn’t backtracked and walked away from the negotiating table following the demonstration in Madrid’s Plaza de Colón?
What would have happened if the PP government hadn’t passed the buck of the 2017 crisis to the Public Prosecutor and Madrid’s Audiencia Nacional court? What would have happened if Spanish media had strived to offer an accurate, nuanced picture of what was going on in Catalonia all these years instead of a twisted caricature dotted with catalanophobic lies? What would have happened if PM Rajoy hadn’t sent thousands of Spanish police and Guardia Civil to beat up the civilian population who was peacefully defending its right to political participation on October 1, 2017? What would this week have been like if they hadn’t thrown Jordi Sànchez and Jordi Cuixart in jail for trying to reassure the protestors on September 20, 2017 with safe corridors of volunteers, loudhailers and mediating with the police?
What would have happened if there had been an attempt to dialogue and negotiate between the Spanish government and its Catalan counterparts when the Catalan Parliament requested to be granted the powers to hold a referendum —and Madrid slammed the door on its face? What would have happened in 2012 (when then Catalan president Artur Mas travelled to Madrid to try to negotiate a fiscal deal) if they had tried to come up with a formula to amend the situation that the Statute failed to correct? What would have happened if Spain’s Constitutional Court hadn’t trampled over key aspects of the Catalan Statute that had been agreed upon and voted in a referendum? What would have happened if the PP hadn’t launched an anti-Catalan campaign that culminated with an appeal filed before the Constitutional Court to strike down what they had failed to stop by democratic means?
(1) Tsunami Democràtic is a Catalan protest group advocating for Catalan independence, formed and organised in the lead up to the final judgement on the Trial of the Catalonia independence leaders. It organises supporters of the Catalan independence movement through the use of social media, apps and other online resources