Originally published in International Business Times
This week in Portugal, right-wing president Pedro Passos Coelho has decided to overrule the decision of the people and decline to invite the left-wing majority to form a government. Meanwhile Greece’s ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is travelling across Europe, trying to explain how 60% of the Greek people voted no to the EU’s austerity plan yet were ignored by the government who accepted it anyway. And every week in Catalonia, the Spanish government tells us that we have no right to peacefully, democratically, decide our own political future. When did Europe become so afraid of democracy?
This week in Catalonia, the newly constituted Parliament tabled a resolution based on the electoral platform on which it was elected, declaring the “initiation of the process of creating an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic“. Spanish press and government called it a “coup d’êtat” and a “provocation“, respectively, while the foreign press has tended to describe the movement as an orchestrated manipulation by the current Catalan president Artur Mas to simultaneously hold onto personal power while covering up the corruption of his fellow party members.
The promise of democracy is that if you are dissatisfied with your government, you can change it by voting. In Spain, that promise has been repeatedly broken, often brutally, by dictatorship. The last one was recent enough that a third of the population still has first-hand anecdotes to share about it. Europe offered the hope that it could civilise Spain and allow democracy to flourish and Catalonia has kept the faith.
Fuel to the fire
Since Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia has done everything possible to make the union work. We have contributed more of our economic share − and have ended up worse off than our neighboursbecause of it − in an effort to get along. We have doggedly defended our culture and language in a state that professes interest, but actually teaches Catalan less than the UK, France, Germany or the US and prohibits its use in its own Congress. At the same time, we have learned Spanish and loved Spanish literature. We have privately funded roads, airlines and airport connections, while Spain lavishes money on high-speed rail to a town with 28 inhabitants.
Throughout 2005 and 2006, with the most favourable configuration of parties possible in Madrid and Barcelona, Catalans made a best-faith effort to negotiate a better fit. But Madrid didn’t keep its promises. The list is too long to go into here, but the frustration generated in Catalonia, the humiliation still felt by Catalans when they think about how former Spanish PM José Luis Zapatero (until 2011) promised to support the statute agreed on in the Catalan Parliament, and how his then deputy Alfonso Guerra later chortled on camera about how they had whittled that statute down, cannot be underestimated. The currently ruling PP only added fuel to the fire by bringing the already withered statute to the Constitutional Court to reduce it even further.
A different nation might have responded with violence. Catalonia responded with mobilisation and democracy. Small demonstrations in 2006 and 2007 to support the statute led to 10,000 people marching on Brussels (1,300km away) and straw polls on independence scrupulously organised by 60,000 volunteers held in 500 different towns gathering 850,000 participants with no institutional support whatsoever. There were candle lightings, bicycle rides, mountain climbs, conferences, videos, concerts, dinners, door-to-door canvassing and countless speeches. After waiting patiently for four years for a ruling from an increasingly politicised Constitutional Court that couldn’t abide the word “nation” even in the statute’s preamble, one million people marched− peacefully − behind a placard that made their feelings clear: “We are a nation. We decide.” We want democracy, we want to vote.
The Spanish government’s answer was no again − no improved statute, no better fiscal arrangement. Neither does Spain keep its word on commitments to additional investments, or indeed to annual infrastructure investment. Approved and budgeted line items are simply not paid. Promised roads, bridges and rail connections are never sent out to bid. When the EU places limits on how much debt Spain can incur, the state reserves the lion’s share for itself, and limits Catalonia and other autonomous communities to 1.5%, even though this required, in Catalonia’s case, 4 billion euros (£2.9bn) in cuts to its budget that is primarily responsible for health and social services, education and local policing.
Spain still doesn’t understand democracy
Again the Catalan people responded with democracy. The newly born Catalan National Assembly organised our first march in 2012 and got a massive response − 1.1 million people in the street, not a single window is broken. The goal is always the same: to have a voice, to have a vote, democracy. When Spain’s current prime minister Mariano Rajoy refused any compromise, the president called new elections with a promise of a referendum.
In 2013, we organised 1.5 million people to line up from one end of our territory to the other, over 400km. Even more remarkably, hundreds of thousands of people actually signed up ahead of time online with their first and last names and ID card numbers and 30,000 volunteers made sure that there are no holes in the human chain. All we wanted was a vote. This time we were rewarded with a question and a date for the referendum.
In 2014, we outdid ourselves with an 11 kilometer long Catalan flag on Barcelona’s two broadest boulevards in the shape of a V for Vote. On November 9th, we defied the Spanish Government which had turned us away in Madrid’s Congress, overturned our own Catalan Parliament’s law, and then outlawed even our alternative, volunteer-led, watered-down ‘participatory process’: 2.3 million of us go vote anyway. Europe should be proud of and inspired by such rebels! This year we underscored ten objectives of a future Catalan state: democracy was number one.
We play by the rules. Spain hits back by overturning our laws, insisting that bullfighting is a cultural heritage that we cannot forbid, refusing to let us take care of our families who need help with their utilities in the winter under the incredible guise of “equality” and a dozen measures more. Phantom police reports and media frenzied raids on political party headquarters seem designed to undercut and divide our political leaders, while much larger and better substantiated cases get no coverage at all, revealing the real motivation. Spain still doesn’t understand democracy.
All the while Spain says no, no, no. You’re not a nation, you can’t vote, it doesn’t matter what you think, you belong to us. In response, Catalans don’t fight, we don’t yell, we still don’t break things. Instead, the president calls the only elections he can legally call so that Catalans can express their will at the polls: Parliamentary elections, 27 September 2015, which are framed as a referendum. Spain organises a fear campaign that would put Better Together to shame. And we win again. More votes than before. A majority of seats and almost 10 percentage points more than the No’s. A democratic mandate to pursue an independent state. This is how Catalonia rolls. Democracy, peaceful and determined. Don’t be afraid of us. Embrace us. Learn from us.