This Hollow Declaration of Independence is Not History But Political Calculation

Whatever this was, it did not look like the birth of a nation.

After a fortnight of political tussle, Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, finally declared independence. Despite the cries of joy from nationalist supporters that evening, the crowd before the Catalan parliament had largely dispersed by 11 o’clock. In Spain (including Catalonia), that is when real parties get going.

Having previously briefed that separatist parties would seek elections within the existing constitutional framework, Puigdemont then changed his mind and a day later called a vote of the Catalan parliament. It was a meeting boycotted by pro-Spanish parties, in which MPs voted 70-10 in favour of independence. One day he was willing to give it up, the next day he went ahead and proclaimed independence. It was tactical decision, not a principled move driven an inevitable shift in history.

Perhaps the revellers knew that Puigdemont’s dismissal as Catalan president, together with the sacking of his cabinet and 150 top officials, would make the proclamation hollow. In little under two hours, Spain’s senate had approved powers for Mariano Rajoy to impose direct rule from Madrid until fresh elections in December. By Sunday evening,  sources within the prosecutors' office warned that Puigdemont and others faced charges of rebellion.

Images are deceitful. The sight of Spain’s semi-militarised police on the streets of Barcelona creates a heavy-handed impression: they force the image of a plucky underdog subjugated by jack-booted oppressors. The propaganda videos of bright-eyed children calling for help further set a narrative.

Those who, from a distance, fan the flames of grievance with hashtags of support are no more than useful idiots. They ignore that there is not one but two sides to this dispute as demonstrated by the huge pro-Spain crowds in Bracelona over the weekend.

Moreover, this is not a crisis caused by Madrid. This is a crisis caused by a hardened minority of separatists and nationalists who called a vote they knew to be illegal. They used the result of that referendum - one that to any reasonable eye has zero democratic credibility - to foment political agitation.

Puigdemont does not stand in a line of great liberators

Turnout was estimated at a miserable 40%, meaning a mere 38% of the electorate vote for separation. Ballot boxes were supervised by partisan supporters of Catalan independence. Even their parliamentary mandate is based on a plurality of Catalonia’s voting populace not a majority. Opinion polls for December’s parliamentary elections give anti-separatist parties a slight lead, with the nationalists’ share of the vote down on 2015.  

Puigdemont does not stand in a line of great liberators such as George Washington and Nelson Mandela, but with cheap populists such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage who subvert liberal democracy for their narrow purposes. The tactics are the same. The condemnation should be equal.

The time between Puigdemont’s original response to the referendum and today should have been used to decrease the tension in the stand-off. Instead, by declaring independence the nationalist parties have created a dangerous situation.

The risk will be increased if separatists follow through on talk of forming a shadow e-government, based on Estonia’s digital government piloted in the 2000s. If regional mayors and councils form shadow administrations, it will make the imposition of order by Madrid harder if not impossible.

It is also a flagrant act of defiance against the rule of law, Spain’s democratically-endorsed constitution and Catalan's majority.

This is a political situation that is not nearing its endgame but is only just beginning. Having previously stepped back from confrontation, Puigdemont is now provoking it.

Having miscalculated before, Rajoy cannot afford to do so again. He has been heavy-handed when he should have inspired. Soon he might have to act with force because he becomes boxed in politically. Yet, Western societies have changed since a monopoly on violence could guarantee victory. Subtlety must find a willing adversary. It is up to brave hearts to find patience in misfortune, to reference Sancho from Don Quixote.

idealism needs to hold reality tight, otherwise it is mere dreaming

The only slither of hope lies in Puigdemont’s seeming willingness to participate in December’s regional elections, conceding that real legitimacy does not lie with his party or referendum, but with the government of Madrid. They are acknowledging their role in the crisis and admitting the illegitimacy of their plebiscite.

However, if other separatist parties refuse to participate then the crisis with only continue, and worsen. There is a risk that inconclusive elections continue the stasis but a genuine democratic election that encourages all sides to participate offers a rare salvation.

Revolution makes for great imagery. Its language provides some of the most stirring in literature. Though there may be madness in too great a reality, idealism needs to hold reality tight, otherwise it is mere dreaming. And in this instance, dangerous dreaming.

The reality of this coup is that independence would lead to a massive capital flight, thousands of business relocations, instant hard borders with Spain and France, and a country without trade agreements with the outside world. This dream would impoverish one of Spain’s wealthiest regions. The democratic illegitimacy of this independence dream would cause civil unrest.

The realisation of national identity - even in a global world -  is something incredible. Self-determination has been a political ideal for nearly a century now.

In 1994, the world watched as Mandela took over the presidency of a new South Africa. His moral authority was unrivalled because his case was made with moral foundations.

In contrast, here we see calculation looking for political fortune. And, to revert to de Cervantes’ parting wisdom, it does not know who it is casting down or who it is raising up.

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Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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