Dimarts  10.06.2014  14:39

Autor/s: Liz Castro

Alfred Bosch, MP and Leader of Catalan Republican Left in Spanish Congress, today on #CatalanTalk


Alfred Bosch is a historian and has taught at universities all over the world, including Barcelona, Chicago, London, Ibadan (Nigeria), Witwatersrand (South Africa), and Washington DC. He is a prize-winning novelist and has written extensively about Africa.

In 2010, Bosch was named spokesperson for Barcelona Decideix, the organization behind the April 2011 non-binding referendums for independence carried out in the city of Barcelona, as well as 166 other municipalities. 

On November 20, 2011 Bosch was elected MP and leader of Catalan Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya) in the Spanish Congress and just recently announced plans for running for Mayor of Barcelona in early 2015.

He wrote the following essay as part of the collection, What's up with Catalonia? (Catalona Press, 2013).

Judo in Madrid 

Recently I held a debate with an official from the ruling party in (autonomous) Catalonia. I was insisting about the importance of working in Madrid and furthering our pro-­independence cause in the capital of Spain. He was a staunch Catalan patriot, and sustained that he wanted separation as much as me, or even more; indeed, he believed that doing anything in Madrid was pure nonsense. I remarked that Artur Mas, his party boss and president of (autonomous) Catalonia, had just made two historical announcements in Madrid; these statements had revolutionized Catalan politics and triggered international attention. He fell dead silent.

As in any process of national liberation, we encounter voices calling for a complete withdrawal from the seat of power. Some people will have nothing to do or nothing to hear from the capital—where institutions and forces have punished Catalonia for ages. Many others would not be so adamant but would simply find it absurd and tedious to take the trouble to travel 625km and back just to try useless dealings with Madrid, as if forgetting the fact that we are not yet independent. Similar criticism was encountered by those who headed for their respective metropolitan capitals in times of national liberation elsewhere: Gandhi from India, Purnell from Ireland, Martí from Cuba, Nkrumah from Ghana … and many of our predecessors from Catalonia as well.

Let me say that Madrid is portrayed here as a political reality rather than a big bunch of ordinary citizens busily looking for a normal life. Madrid is where the Spanish government sits. The legislative chambers are there, as well as the Crown, the ministries, the army headquarters, the embassies, and increasingly so, transnational companies and broadcasters, which tend to drift under the shade of power. Madrid is, therefore, also a concept and has to be understood as a weighty political factor, like Brussels or Washington DC.

No one would be foolish enough to think that Catalan independence has to be gained solely in Madrid, but no one would be blind enough to ignore that it has to be gained from Madrid. Especially if the desired process is a democratic and peaceful one—as is the case—it has to be built and nourished within the Catalan bounds. But that does not imply that the seat of power has to be skipped; it must be visited, studied, utilized, and ultimately envisaged as the location for negotiating a friendly divorce. That is the reason President Artur Mas staged his epic declarations in Madrid, vindicating plebiscitary elections and self-­determination. No other political theatre or loudspeaker can be compared to those of the capital city.

There are three outstanding obstacles in the way of free determination for Catalonia, and they have to be dealt with in Madrid. The three of them derive from age-­long stigmas of Spanish power, and need to be confronted.
The first barrier could be defined as democratic shortage. The Kingdom of Spain is a very young parliamentary democracy, with less than forty years of ballot tradition compared to a long legacy of bullet tradition. The army is still a warrant of territorial unity, the monarchy heads the military structure, the king is legally unaccountable and unchallengeable, minorities have few safeguards, and the bipartisan pattern of Spanish politics often leaves Catalans starving in the political wild, left out of parliamentary dynamics. Catalan parties are underrepresented in the Spanish system of constituencies, in Congress, and even more in the Senate.

Democratic malfunctioning leads to huge frustration, as was the case of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia. This text was approved in (the Catalan autonomous) parliament and voted in the polls, just to be cut down by the Spanish legislative and eventually blown up by the highly politicized Spanish Constitutional Court. The further away you drive from Madrid, the more this democratic shortage affects voters. That Catalonia was a hotbed of anarchism in the early 20th century was not a mere coincidence; mistrust regarding Spanish authorities had a lot to do with it, and right now such mistrust is still a driving force behind separatism.

One of the main functions of Catalan politicians in Madrid, thus, is the patient, stubborn denunciation of undemocratic practices. From a reformist point of view, such a job is clearly exasperating and futile; but for champions of independence it can be a blessing in disguise. The realization that Spanish power is anti-­democratic heightens the need to break with an unbendable system, it dissipates hopes of changing Spanish power into a kinder, milder reality and therefore pushes minds and hearts toward rupture. It is not strange to meet inhabitants of Madrid who confess the urge to exit the Kingdom … although not knowing where to go from there. Catalans are very much aware that leaving the Kingdom is a sound option.

The second obstacle could be defined as legal blockade. The argument that something is not legal, or even illegal, is endlessly exploited by Spanish advocates of the status quo. It has been sustained against any measure of devolution to Catalans, be it economic, political, or cultural. It is in fact the main stumbling block upheld against self-­determination or independence. It is not much of an argument, since nothing is legal until it is enacted, and Catalan independence has obviously not been enacted, for if it had, no one would demand it any more. Looking back at world history, few if any paths toward independence have been in accordance with established legal procedures; such political prospects are seldom enshrined in constitutional provisions.

It is true that the Spanish Constitution of 1978 considers Spain a unitary state and the monarchy and the army are the gatekeepers of its territorial integrity. It is also true that this piece of legislation was drafted under the still-beating legacy of the Franco military dictatorship: that time has since passed; that some forceful clauses have been altogether disregarded (such as military service); that new clauses have been rushed in by express methods (like the deficit limitations introduced in 2011); and that, naturally, all legal texts ought to be prone to amendments.

Regardless of these commonsense considerations, the Constitution and other major Spanish laws have been presented as a conservative cage designed to prevent change rather than build a house of liberties. Any proposal for increased self-­government has always met a vicious circle; the law is the law, and it must be abided. New developments are not possible because they are not legal, and if they are not legal they cannot be developed. This has been repeated hundreds of time in Spanish congress, ignoring the obvious fact: that MPs are not robocops, but legislators elected to set new rules and adapt them to evolving times and troubles. The function of legislators is precisely to engineer useful laws, trying to respond to the people’s demands.

The same day that the UK government delegated in the Scottish autonomous government the power of holding a referendum for independence, our party (ERC) proposed exactly the same method for holding an identical poll. The proposal was defeated on the grounds that it was not legal, when there is a specific article in the Spanish Constitution that allows such a delegation, and it has been used in the past for devolving, for instance, police capacity to the Catalan administration. Other similar and imaginative resources have been suggested, and the reply has always been the same: nonlegal devices cannot be accepted. The vicious circle is shut and there is no predictable majority for opening it.

The situation can only be defeated by engaging in two alternative paths: international law and (new) Catalan legislation. Global treaties and charters accept self-­determination and the rule of democratic mandates, two principles that all Catalan pro-­independence parties or movements embrace at heart. There is, therefore, an option that would enable us to break the aforementioned vicious circle: drafting specific Catalan norms for holding a poll on independence and appealing, in parallel, to international mediation.

The third hurdle I would like to mention is economic stranglehold. For decades, and some would even say for centuries, the Spanish government has lived partly on Catalan wealth. Being the powerhouse of Spain, and with a sturdy productive economy, Catalonia has paid a disproportionate share of Spanish bills. In the last 30 years, about 50 percent of Catalan taxes have never returned as services or social benefits; more than double the amount delivered by the EU to Spain in various development funds. With a population of 16 percent, today Catalans account for 24 percent of revenues. This has been tolerated with compliance in times of fortune, but in years of crisis the burden has proven unbearable and has generated quite a temper—anger, in fact. The general feeling is that Catalans are being plundered by Madrid, and that this constant pillage chokes the economy.

Many different solutions have been offered. The most obvious is Catalonia using the fiscal arrangement that is in place for the Basque Country and Navarre, known as economic concert (by means of a fiscal pact), and which implies fiscal sovereignty: that is, collecting taxes and then negotiating the share that Madrid takes. This, however, has not been accepted by the Spanish government and most surely never will, as it would stop a major flow of taxes into depleted Spanish coffers. Other attempted deals have turned sour in the short run, clashing against a stubborn reality; Madrid will not devolve tax control to the Catalan administration.

Many experts believe this is the main obstacle for Catalan independence or for higher levels of home rule. Spain simply cannot drop its main source of cash, and will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. However, even if we ignore the unfair and undemocratic nature of such reasoning, we have to admit likewise that this stranglehold is also the main driving force behind the urge for independence, as it turns a matter of national spirit into a matter of life and death. It is true that Spanish power will make a fierce stand against the interruption of Catalan funding. It is also true that the leap into independence would be extremely risky for a Catalonia with no tax collectors, no cash, no credit, and no loans in the international market. However, we must concede as well that prospects are gloomier by the day, and that survival points more and more, every passing hour, to economic liberation.

All in all, the Madrid factor must be seen as crucial in blocking further devolution, and as a serious obstacle in the way of an orderly, civilized, bilateral, and constitutional trip toward free determination. The Kingdom of Spain is not the United Kingdom, however similar Catalonia might be to Caledonia. So a British solution seems very unlikely, and apparently this diminishes hope in the minds of many freedom-­loving Catalans. The awareness that Madrid is ready to use all its strength in pushing back the popular will could possibly discourage efforts toward a decent settlement. Any advance by Catalan grassroots society or Catalan administration would look doomed to a prospect of trouble and even sufferance ahead.

On the other hand, sheer force can generate positive reactions. It can lead to intelligent and imaginative devices and help to further the cause. As in Judo tactics, the ruthless energy of the opponent can be exploited against him. Perhaps the best example of this skill was shown in the popular referenda of 2009–2011, when ordinary citizens organized polls on independence in the majority of Catalan municipalities, including Barcelona. The movement was a big success; close to 1 million votes were cast, more than 90 percent in favor of independence, and something that was up to then impossible became possible. The Spanish State proved helpless to prevent it. The stronger judoka was tripped by the smaller one, falling in full fury flat on its face.

Catalan pro-­independence feeling was not among the most relevant in late 20th century Europe. At the start of the second decade of the 21st, it is clearly the most outstanding in the continent. This evolution owes much to the brutish attitude of Madrid and the clever reaction of Catalans, who opposed a democratic shortage with an extra dose of democracy; who dealt with a legal blockade by availing themselves of international principles and uncovering legal alternatives; and who confronted an economic stranglehold by demanding full sovereignty. The Madrid factor probably explains a lot about the progress of pro-­independence mood and the conversion of a relatively harmless linguistic and cultural claim into a mighty democratic, ethical, and economic mass movement. It is always useful to have a clear villain in opposition; and if such rival is a consummate Goliath, there will be no lack of determination or aim on the side of David.

What's up with Catalonia? (Catalona Press, 2013).

Catalonia Press is run by Liz Castro who also coordinates VilaWeb Global.