Misc 04/10/2015

Political rock'n'roll

Catalan separatists, who won the regional elections, are cosmopolitan, enthusiastic Europeans

Peter Kraus
5 min

(This article was originally printed on 30 September by Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung)

The block of independence supporters won a victory last Sunday in regional elections in Catalonia, even if it is a relative victory. In an extraordinarily high voter turnout of 77.44 per cent groups advocating for a withdrawal of Catalonia from the Spanish State obtained an absolute majority of seats in the regional parliament. This high voter turnout is particularly significant, as the ruling party in Spain, the conservative People's Party, and the Madrid media had always argued, a hitherto silent majority of Catalan voters would give independence give a clear rebuff, when it eventually came to the question "secession yes or no". The elections were an attempt of the Catalan side to hold an ersatz plebiscite, a substitute, because, so far, the government of the Kingdom of Spain does not want to allow a genuine referendum at any price. In this regard, Spain differs from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which last year allowed the Scots to vote in a referendum on remaining a part of the British state.

The Catalan “independentistes” (independence supporters), represented by the alliance Junts pel Sí ("Together for Yes ") and the smaller and more radical Candidatura d'Unitat Popular (a loose platform of left-wing, basic-democracy groups) have clearly won the elections as for seats, but they narrowly missed the majority of votes. Ultimately, it remains to be seen how an independence referendum, organized under normal conditions, would turn out in Catalonia. The Catalan question will keep Spain and Europe busy for quite a while.

Germany’s public opinion often looks at the "procés" (“process”) –the term used by Catalans to refer to the way that should lead from the current autonomous status to state sovereignty– from a perspective that seems rather narrow-minded. Firstly, the controversy over the political future of Catalonia is seen as an expression of a conflict between rich and poor regions. Secondly, the spectre of violent ethnic conflicts, such as the well-known case of former Yugoslavia, is brought up. However, economic motives are just one of many factors that drive the Catalan independence movement.

It is much more important to understand that a large majority of Catalan citizens shares the feeling that, as structural minority, they will have no chance to effectively defend their own concerns against a State acting in a centralist way on behalf of the "one and indivisible" Spanish nation, even 40 years after General Franco's death.

A deeply divided society? Even among politicians, the tone remains jovial

It is not very illuminating to interpret the current situation as an expression of an "ethno-national" search for identity in times of global uncertainty. Catalonia is by no means a deeply divided society. It is true that the question "independence yes or no" polarises citizens. What should it be like, otherwise? However, this degree of polarisation –similar to last year in Scotland or 1995 in Quebec– is dealt with in a democratic way and rather well. In the streets and bars of Barcelona there is no feeling of deep divisions. And the tone remains jovial even among politicians who stand for diametrically opposed options, such as Xavier García Albiol, the leader of Spain’s conservative People's Party in Catalonia, and Raül Romeva, the top candidate of the secessionist coalition Junts pel Sí.

From a supposedly enlightened political perspective, which is predominant in Germany, one is inclined to view the Catalan demands for collective self-determination in the light of the German past which, as far as national matters are concerned, is highly complicated. In addition, the nationalist excesses in the Balkans during the dissolution of Yugoslavia may influence German observers trying to assess and judge the current conflict between Catalonia and Madrid.

Catalans are often seen as bizarre, if not disturbing. Their demands seem anachronistic and it is a recurring comment that Europe has more important issues to solve than listening to concerns of a small people wedged between the eastern Pyrenees and the Mediterranean. In the middle of the Catalan election campaign, the German Chancellor seconded the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy by committing herself to the "territorial integrity" of Spain. So far, Catalan demands for self-determination are completely disregarded by the rest of Spain and does not find enthusiastic support among Europe’s powerful one, either.

By now, many Catalans see it as a humiliation that their concerns are persistently ignored, not only by Madrid but also by Brussels and Berlin,. The impressive achievements of the independence movement on the ground, for instance the mobilisations since 2010, may also serve to voluntarily overcome the Catalans’ feeling of impotence and to preserve hope that hard political realities may be altered through collective engagement. This may seem naïve in the eyes of those who do not believe that there is no politics beyond the strict boundaries of the realpolitik carried out by states. For the hundreds of thousands of Catalans who have been defending the “right to decide” for years thanks to a dense network of civil society and political associations, the broad support for their demands is a sign of democratic dignity and legitimacy. In essence, the Catalan process is an expression of the desire of these very citizens to be able to decide their political fate themselves and by democratic rules. In this context, ethnic pathos and backward-looking / rear-facing folklore play a marginal role, at best.

This is immediately obvious every time one hears independence activists talk, i. e. on the Friday before the election during the Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) final rally, a flamboyant coalition which liberal and left-wing political forces, social organisations, intellectuals, artists and athletes formed in order to pave the way for the Catalan Republic. The speeches of politicians were framed by a line-up featuring, among others, local pop bands, Afro-Catalan jazz singer Mònica Green and the gypsy band Sabor de Gràcia. These Catalan Roma from Barcelona's trendy district sing rumbas for independence and were joined by Jerry Medina, who flew in from Puerto Rico.

As top candidates of the parties in favour of independence, Oriol Junqueras and Artur Mas spoke in Catalan to the 70,000 supporters in attendance. However, representatives of Súmate ("Join in"), an organisation that sees itself as a mouthpiece of “immigrated” Catalans in the current process made their statements in Spanish.

This is not a movement that aims to build a 21st century ethnic cultural ghetto in the area of the Spanish Mark founded by Charlemagne, as many a Spanish intellectual has claimed to counter the Catalan cause. This is a movement that was hitherto eager to communicate democratic credibility and cosmopolitan openness in each and every step it has taken so far. Mostly, this is a movement that tries to tear open a gap for the "Europe for the citizens" in middle of "Europe of states" driven by realpolitik. And this is a new kind of movement that, like so many other grassroots initiatives in today’s apparently ever more sclerotic Europe, seems set to tear apart traditional structures and to hail a paradigmatic shift.

This is not about reactionary folklore but progressive self-government

The Catalan process is less about a dusty, or even, a regressive, identity-frolicking traditional costume show, but about contemporary and Mediterranean rock'n'roll. Certainly, there is not only light but also shade. However, in Catalonia unlike Veneto or probably also in Flanders (up to a point), the independence movement is not driven by prosperity chauvinism or völkisch atavism. It is rather an expression of civil society’s self-organisation and a will for self-assertion based on democracy which are not even stopped by the rigid structures established by statehood. It is precisely this innovative element that should be taken seriously in Germany and in Europe, to prevent the European Union from becoming a purely regulatory institution which merely manages the status quo and leaves no room for efforts aimed at democratic change.