07 December 2017
Permanecer o Independencia
by J.R. Thomas
To Remain, or to Leave, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The rubber bullets and batons of outrageous fortune,
Or to take flight across a sea of troubles,
And in Brussels, contemplate them over lunch.
Not Mrs May, lunching with Mr Junker (scallops, turbot, tarte tatin but ending abruptly with a bad Strangford Loch oyster suddenly emerging from its shell to bite her). No, the deeply pondering luncher is Carles Puigdemont, President, at least for now, of Catalonia, who is currently in Belgium avoiding arrest by the Spanish authorities for his (allegedly) seditious activities in holding an illegal referendum and declaring Catalan independence. No doubt mi learned friends would put their finger-tips together and look over their spectacles and say “It’s a nice point” if asked to argue the merits of the case, but to a layman it all seems very clear. As in: there was a referendum, and in view of its overwhelming endorsement of independence (92% of those voting), albeit off a very low turnout (43%), independence was declared. As both those matters are illegal under the Spanish constitution, Mr Puigdemont may encounter some difficulty in establishing a defence. But great national heroes of the past have never troubled too much about making sure that what they were doing was legal. Garibaldi did not seek a ruling by the Supreme Court of Savoy before beginning his unification and democratisation of Italy; the French Republicans of 1789 were not confounded in their fervour by their undoubtedly illegal actions; Lenin did not fill his sealed train with lawyers looking for legal substance in what he was about to unleash on Tsarist Russia. Oliver Cromwell took the view that what he was doing was legal whatever the King said; but he felt he had a direct line to God in that particular case.
It will be noted that none of these revolutionaries ran their uprisings from agreeable restaurants whilst their fellow up-risers languished in jail. Whilst Mr Puigdemont understandably wishes to avoid plank beds and gruel, or whatever the current standard of Spanish prisons might be, most of his accomplices, his Catalan ministers, have done their bird and are now out on bail fighting the approaching elections to the Catalan Regional Assembly, to take place on 21st December. Mr Puigdemont however cannot participate in this because of his offshore status. More than this, not only can he not add his peseta-worth to the electoral battle, his continuing reluctance to join those advocates of the cause which he leads seems to be considerably undermining it. To add further confusion, having let it be known that he was hoping for European Union support for independence (he might have usefully sought some insights from Mrs May on that), he has since criticised the EU as “decadent”, and says that he wishes to break away from that too. As Catalonia is one of the most pro EU parts of Spain, that seems more than a little eccentric.
As we have pointed out in these pages before, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is not a man to rush around doing things unless they become absolutely necessary. To paraphrase the late great Willie Whitelaw, not only does he avoid stirring up apathy, he likes to add his own apathy to the pot. Consequently he was very slow to deal with the approaching referendum and its likely effects, rather belatedly sending in troops who then over reacted by pushing and shoving outside polling stations and generally causing international outrage.
However Mr Rajoy soon recovered the political skills which he has deployed successfully over a long career (doing very little on a timely basis can be a very considerable political skill). He started the process by declaring that the declaration of independence was illegal and suspending the regional government, taking direct control from Madrid. At that moment he must have had his fingers and toes carefully crossed, but there was no noticeable dissent in Catalonia. He then called elections for a new assembly. Quite what result this will produce is still a matter of conjecture, but what Mr Rajoy surely was not expecting was the piece of good fortune that Mr Puigdemont, no martyr, turned out to prefer mayonnaise and chips to porridge.
Without him in Barcelona his party, the Catalan European Democratic Party, PDECat, seems to lack the verve to fight the independence fight. (This party is one of three parties, all wanting independence, all leftish leaning, all subject to leadership struggles, and most confusingly, all with very similar names. Comparisons with the Judean Peoples Front, the Peoples Front of Judea, and the Grumpy Peoples Front of Judea, ex parte Python’s Life of Brian, are difficult to avoid.) The opinion polls do not help – readers may say they never do – but as always the responses depend on how those polled understand the question. If the question is whether Catalonia should be independent or not then there is currently a very narrow majority for “no”, remain part of Spain. But that changes from week to week and indeed from poll to poll, the change swing being around 5%. In other words, it is a matter on which the electorate are evenly split. Asked though if independence should be obtained through constitutional means, surprisingly around two-thirds of Catalans seemed to be in favour – but what they were actually been asked is if in the event of independence they would wish for a parliamentary process or active resistance. Peace is the answer, they said.
If there is a discernable trend, then it may be against independence – and at least partly on economic grounds. Many major Spanish companies have their headquarters in Catalonia, which is Spain’s wealthiest region, but there has been a flight of business from there since the referendum poll on 1st October. This is already showing in the jobless figures and is likely to produce a turndown in output at a time when the rest of Spain is achieving strong economic growth (before the referendum, not just as a result of it). The other trend, admittedly long term, is that with increasing population movement both within Spain and from outside, the “native” Catalans are slowly diminishing in number compared with residents not born there. That indeed may have influenced M Puigdemont’s decision to go for independence sooner rather than later.
But whatever the result on 21st December, it seems that Mr P’s star is in the descendant. His PDECat is declining in the polls, losing votes to its great left wing rival, the Republican Left of Catalonia, and in danger of being overtaken by the broadly anti-independence Socialists Party of Catalonia (whose banner line must be mentioned; in translation: “Solutions. Now, Iceta!”. Mr Iceta, its leader, is the spitting image of ex-President Hollande of France; it is not clear if this is an order to him or a suggestion to the electorate.) There are seven parties likely to qualify for seats in the parliament but some of those are coalitions glued together for the contest, which may not adhere long after.
The best guess is that there will be a small independence supporting majority of deputies after the election, but with splits on left right and centre that it will make it impossible for anybody to form a solid enough coalition for a government; the modern European way, you might say. At which point Mr Rajoy has at least temporarily solved his problem – and the effluxion of time and circumstance may eventually do the rest. And Mr Puigdemont will have to decide whether to use his return ticket when he ceases to be President of Catalonia.
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