A Way Out for Spain and Catalonia?
The Catalan leadership has stopped short of declaring independence from Spain, calling instead for talks with the Spanish government. We speak to Fusion host Nando Vila and Professor Sebastiaan Faber of Oberlin College
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The Catalan leadership has stopped short of declaring independence from Spain following a referendum in favor of that earlier this month. Speaking today, Carles Puigdemont said that while Catalonia has earned it’s right to separate from Spain, he will first seek talks with the Spanish government. Spanish authorities have rejected the Catalan vote and have threatened to impose direct rule. Thousands of independent supporters had gathered outside Catalan’s parliament in the hopes of celebrating the birth of a new state. Instead, the uncertainty over Spain’s worst political crisis in decades continues.
I’m joined now by two guests: Nando Vila is a host and producer at Fusion and Sebastian Faber is a professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, author of the forthcoming book Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War.
Welcome to you both. Professor Faber I’ll start with you. Help us understand what’s happened today. We were, many of us were expecting a declaration of independence but that’s not quite what happened.
S. FABER: In principle, Puigdemont disavowed the legitimacy after referendum and the laws on which it was based, which were adopted about a month ago in the Catalan parliament. At the same time that he has implored the parliament, not quite to declare independence yet and to leave some room for negotiations. This is generally seen and read as a gesture toward Madrid at putting on the break. If this is a game of chicken of two cars driving to the abyss, then he’s slowed down his car to leave some room for maybe a peaceful outcome. At the same time that he has not quite given up on the idea that what Catalonia’s trying to do is legitimate and necessary.
So, a lot will depend on how Madrid will respond. If this is again an imagine war, as the referendum was on Sunday, in a way Puigdemont looks like he is opening up room for negotiation. He looks like the reasonable party. I think if Madrid now insists on it’s zero tolerance response, it might again lose an image war. At the same time, it’s not clear what other options that are necessarily on the table, given the little space for maneuvering that both parties have given each other in the past years, and months, and weeks.
AARON MATÉ: And when you say image war, you’re referring to the harsh crackdown by Spain on the referendum when it was held?
S. FABER: Yeah, indeed. I think the, the interpretation, the images coming out of the October 1st referendum were ones of peaceful voters trying to exercise democratic riot. Instead, police in riot gear hammering down on them. Currently, I think the image is of a president of Catalonia who is saying “Look, I’m willing to sit down and talk,” which again, would seem like a reasonable kind of position. Madrid has replied already that it will not sit down to talk because it doesn’t think there’s anything to talk about. Since Puigdemont is maintaining pretty much that the referendum was valid and that it’s consequences will be real in juridical terms.
AARON MATÉ Nando Vila, your sense of what’s going on and is this standoff intractable?
NANDO VILA: I think, certainly with the conservative party in power in Madrid, La Partia Vocular de Marin, I do see as intractable in this context. I just don’t see him or his party entertaining any sort of dialogue no matter how- limited it would be. I mean, they’ve entrenched themselves in this position and that’s just, I just don’t see them moving away from that. So, I do think that the current status quo is kind of an unsustainable intractable position on both sides. I do think that- most pro-independence people are quite disappointed today in Puigdemont because I think that a lot that I’ve spoken to suspect, and I think correctly, that they kind of needed to capitalize on their moment of international attention and that the longer this thing drags out, people will just move on.
Like the only thing they have is international sympathy going for them in a sense. They don’t have any institutional support from, you know, other EU governments or certainly not from the government in Madrid. So, the one thing they had kind of on their side, is sort of having the world’s attention after this incredibly violent crackdown from the government of Madrid. So, for Puigdemont to prolong this sort of sense of “We don’t know what’s gonna happen” for a few days or a few weeks or however long it is, seems to me like a miscalculation in if- what their ultimate desire is to break away.
AARON MATÉ: And Nando, your own personal feelings about what’s going on, you’ve spoken out. You’re part Catalan and you’ve spoken out about your own conflicted feelings around this independence issue. Both as someone who has ties there but also having progressive values and the seeming potential tension in that, in that dynamic there. Your sense of what is happening, your feelings as you watch it unfold from afar.
NANDO VILA: It’s been incredibly, sad for me to watch this. It’s been a very disheartening process because I feel like the whole thing has just gotten way out of hand. You know, I’ve-I’ve been listening to the pro-independence arguments basically my whole life. I’ve never been quite convinced, with them, they’ve always struck me as weirdly reactionary, even from people that are on the left in Catalonia. The reasons tend to be either, reactionary in terms of, based on a sense of nationalism or sense that we just can’t get along because we don’t like them. Or a sense that they’re taking our tax dollars, which I find to just be a conservative, you know, way to look at things. Or out of some misguided or idealistic sense that should Catalonia break away, that the left there would be able to build socialism because, while they wouldn’t be able to do that in the rest of Spain because it’s just a horribly retrograde of backwards place.
I’ve never really been fully convinced, so I- I’ve never supported the independence movement, although I did recognize that the energy was with the independence movement and that there was a sort of, certainly enough of a political will within Catalonia that self-determination and some form of a vote on independence was necessary and I think correct, but that doesn’t mean I would’ve support, that I would then vote to break away, or would I try to convince people to vote to break away. I would try convince people to stay within Spain. Especially in this moment of economic crisis where it’s seemed like the left in Spain could make some serious electoral gains and you know, we saw how Podemos captured the mayor’s ship of Barcelona, and Madrid, and Valencia. So three major cities in the wake of indignados movement, which sparked the Occupy Wall Street protests around the world.
That whole energy has been sucked out for a lot of reasons but a big one has this sort of shift of attention toward the independence questioning Catalonia.
AARON MATÉ: Sebastian Faber, on that point about Podemos, they’ve offered some proposals in an attempt to bridge this gap. Can they be decisive here?
S. FABER: That’s a good question. Andy Robertson wrote a piece in The Nation yesterday saying that they could be. I’m not so convinced. I think Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona who was just mentioned was elected in 2015, has a lot of political capital and- and has been trying to use that to push for a negotiated solution and that negotiated solution would include very prominently a- an official approved referendum on solitary of nation as happened- we saw happen in Scotland, and in Quebec and things like that.
So, I think that she is coming out of this with increased political capital, but it doesn’t mean that she’ll be able to push through a negotiated solution. I think it’s true that the escalation on the issue of Catalonia’s status within Spain has served to divide the left more than anything else, to the extent that the CUP, which is the left assembly based party in Catalonia that is supportive of the independence movement is, has said already that considers Ada Colau and Podemos as traitors because they won’t go along with that. So I think Podemos, I’m not sure if Podemos Madrid, the Spanish version of Podemos, has enough political capital at this point to push through a negotiated solution, or to come out winning.
It- it seems that whatever the outcome of this crisis is, both in Catalonia and in Spain, eventually it’s gonna go to elections. And a lot of the behavior, in my view, of both sides. Both Puigdemont, who represents that catholic, conservative party and Rajoy represents the Spanish conservative party, I think both of their behaviors can be explained as a maneuvering with an eye to elections. And I think the only reasonable political explanation for Rajoy’s harsh and zero tolerance and seemingly politically not so smart position Vis-à-vis Catalonia is that he, it’s counting on gaining politically out of this in the rest of Spain. And given what we’ve seen of the streets for example, in the past couple days, and the reactions in some other parts of Spain, he might be right there. So it might be the ultimate outcome of- one of the outcomes of this crisis will be at least a temporary gain for the right.
AARON MATÉ: It’s amazing how universal the trend of, you know, riling up tension in a bid to appeal to you bases, I mean we’re speaking in the US under President Trump. And it’s interesting to see that happening on both sides in Spain and Catalonia. But professor, do critics of the Catalon independence movement have a point when they say that “Yes, the turnout- or the vote was overwhelmingly, you know, in favor of independence,” but the turnout was below 50%.
S. FABER: Yeah, I think that they have a point. I mean, the referendum was symbolically really important. And in legal terms, it- was not an actual referendum. And there’s no way about it. That’s not really the fault of Catalonia. Catalonia asked for and pushed for, for a long time for an actual referendum. Madrid kept saying no, so Catalonia did what it could and the Catalan people did what they could. Still, it’s- in strictly legal terms, it’s not a referendum. I think the best possible outcome out of this crisis is an actual referendum… where also the futures of independence will be clearly put on the table so that people can make an informed choice.
I also have plenty of friends in Catalonia who are insecure about independence or not because they simply don’t know what independence will look like. And part of the draw of the independence movement, is I think this vagueness of independence. So, it allows different groups to project their ideal Catalonia onto that empty space that is now an independent Catalonia. But I think it’s, to be fair to the voters, Catalonia. What they deserve is a proper referendum, preceded by a proper campaign in which the realistic options will be put on the table.
AARON MATÉ: Nando Vila, I’ll end with you. Your sense of where this is going next and what you wanna see happen.
NANDO VILA: I agree with the, the professor in what he’s saying but it is undeniable at this stage that some form of referendum has to happen. I mean, just this idea coming from the Spanish right in Madrid that, you know, it’s illegal. Therefore, they shouldn’t do it and therefor it’s- it just doesn’t reflect the political realities on the ground. You know, it’s the, the sentiment on the street is very clearly for self-determination in some form. And it’s unclear that even now, even after the events of October 1st that the independence vote would win out in a proper legal referendum. It’s, I don’t think that that’s a guarantee, even at this point.
But I, but I do think that what the professor pointed out that- that sort of different aspects within the independence movement have been able to project their own version of Catalonia onto this independence idea is a very key one to understand. And I think, it’s very hard from the outside to see the divisions within Catalonia and even the division within the pro-independence movement. I mean the idea that Carles Puigdemont, who is the leader of the party that is you know, the inheritors of the traditional Catalan party of the right are in a political coalition with the CUP, which are radical leftist anti-capitalists, shows you just how radically different their own visions for independent Catalonia must be. I mean these people have literally nothing in common, outside of their desire for an independent Catalonia. So, I think that there’s a, this simple narrative in the English speaking world at least, around Catalonia that doesn’t show the nuances that exist within Catalonia and even within the pro-separatist movement inside of it.
AARON MATÉ: Well, we thank you both for helping us try to understand these nuances and we’ll continue to follow them and hope you can come back to join us. Nando Vila, host and producer at Fusion. And Sebastian Faber, professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, author of the forthcoming book, Memory Battles of the Spanish Civil War. Thanks to you both.
S. FABER: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.