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Against all the odds: David and Goliath. An epic struggle

This is an article I drafted on the plane back from Cork, early in September 2014. But much of the information in it has since been added: things are moving extremely fast, as everyone predicted.

Spain has had months to design its assault on an increasingly besieged (and financially throttled) Catalonia whose government, with a coalition of other parties, stubbornly holds to its commitment to ask its citizens whether or not they want Catalonia to become an independent country. In the lead-up to the November 9 ballot Spain is doing its utmost, thanks to its stranglehold on the main media and courts, to steadily increase its pressure on Catalan leaders and society following former PM Aznar's ominous threat that before breaking Spain, Catalonia itself would be broken. The link is for those who doubt a leading Spanish politician could ever have uttered such a vicious, irresponsible claim. 

Spain has been doing its homework for months, funding through a Ministry of Education grant a glossy booklet in various languages, published by the governing party's own Foundation, FAES, in a slanted diatribe containing a host of falsehoods: 20 preguntas con respuesta sobre la secesión de Cataluña. The English version is 20 Questions and Answers on the Secession of Catalonia

Spain has stolen personal data of members of the grassroots Assemblea Nacional Catalana. There is no hard evidence of the Spanish government's involvement, but the circumstances of the dissemination of the (April 2014) theft are highly suspicious: the news was convieniently leaked to the Madrid press just a few days before what was to be the most spectacular organised demonstration in Catalonia's history: a 7-mile Catalan flag along the two main avenues of Barcelona. Spain is avidly keen on putting the Assemblea on the defensive, or even behind bars. A wild series of claims of its links to ETA have been leaked: ETA designed the Assemblea's strategy, we are told by the Madrid daily ANC (April 2014); what is alleged to be a police report claims that the Assemblea is riddled with terrorists linked to ETA (and to organisations that disbanded 19 years ago), according to El Confidencial (October 2014):

Attacks on it have come on financial and fiscal grounds. Even the purported police report claims that the Assemblea receives Catalan government grants, with no evidence at all (who can there by, if it simply isn't true!?). Its 2014 Action plan was deviously misinterpreted as if it had decided to stop paying taxes, in January 2014, when the plan says these taxes would be channelled through the Catalan government.  

In March 2014 PP leaders were reported to be doing their best to get the public prosecutor to investigate the Assemblea. Just a few days later such a request was made openly, by an ultraright wing association, "Manos Limpios", on the purported grounds of illegal activities: to be more precise, illicit association, calling for sedition, and misuse (yet again!) of public funds.

On another front, the attack has been as on grounds of purported tax evasion (El Mundo, April 20 2014). In reports (ABC, September 2 2014), La Información, September 6 2014) "secret" minutes of meetings of the Secretariat were claimed to hint at such evasion. These were published just days before the 7-mile September 11 V-Day rally, which turned out to be a colossal success (see photographs). It was used as an excuse for the Tax authority to start inspecting the Assemblea's accounts for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014, which was widely reported on September 27.

On yet another front, the protection of personal data, a few days later (on October 13, the day after the anti-independence rally in central Barcelona flopped) the Spanish government (who many believe were responsible for the April theft) said it would inspect the Assemblea's data protection systems (rather than investigating the theft!).

All this means that the Assemblea began to be taken seriously at a very late stage: only after having organised the September 11 2012 march in Barcelona and the "Catalan Way" human chain on September 11 2013, both of which were historic displays of strength which the Spanish government seems to have thought were organised by the Catalan government!

In the name of a united Spain low-key violence has begun to be reported in the few media that the Spanish government cannot control. One of the three trunks of a highly symbolic tree for "Catalanistes" in the Pyrenees was felled one night. Statues of politicians, living and dead have been mutilated, and at least one of the many pro-independence flags that have been stolen (or their masts sawn through, always at night) was taken by two Spanish policemen driving an umarked car owned by the police. The latest incident was the vandalic maiming of the monument to the Catalan national dance, the Sardana, built in 1966, that is, nine years before General Franco died.

On the international front, wide-eyed journalists have spoken privately about the earnest efforts being made by Spain's diplomatic service to spoonfeed foreign journalists with its distorted view of the process in which, in horrifying stories, the Catalans are portrayed asbeing little short of poorly disguised Draculas. Diplomats have tried (University of Lisbon Lisbon, February 2014) and even succeeded (Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels, June 2014) in getting organisers of events in which the Catalan independence process is openly discussed to cancel or postpone such seminars and lectures. Early in September (that is, a week before the V-Day rally) the Spanish Embassy absurdly and at the very last minute cancelled the launch of the Dutch edition of a book (written in Spanish) by a Catalan author, Albert Sànchez Piñol, about the War of Spanish Succession and the years after: Victus. Frantically working overtime, embassy officials throughout the world try and nip in the bud any effort by Catalan leaders to put its case in international forums. 

The Spanish government has tried to sell its version of the situation in heavy reports issued by the Foreign Ministry. In December 2013 it sent its embassies a 210-page report entitled "Cataluña en España. Por la convivencia democrática". It broadly follows the UK government's "Better Together" strategy.


From the governing  People's Party (PP) the leader of the group in the European Parliament, Esteban González Pons, recently sent a letter (see above) to his fellow MEPs, again portraying Catalonia as being at the edge of a bottomless abyss. He also claims the ballot is illegal and unconstitutional, ignoring (as do all others) the fact that the Constitutional Court made no objection in 2010 (an issue underlined at the time by a rightwing Madrid Unionist paper ABC) to the article in the Statute of Autonomy by virtue of which the 2014 Ballots (other than referendums) Act and the decree were based, and that the Catalan "Statutory Guarantees Council" in its August 17 2014 report did not recommend a single change to the Bill.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (I shall not dwell upon the reason why a political issue that eveyone round the world hastily admits is Spain's internal affair should be in the hands of Spain's minstry for external affairs!) brought out a second, 14-page report (Consecuencias económicas de una Hipotética Independencia de Cataluña) in which the economic and financial future of Catalonia was described in such catastrophic terms (GDP down by 20%, outside the €-zone, untenable sovereign debt, exports slashed...) that it was laughable (picture, El Periódico, March 13 2014):

All of this effort is not only directed at Spain's propaganda abroad, but as food for the Spanish media, to drip-feed into Catalan public opinion. And to be sure, early surveys showed that the continued membership or otherwise of the EU was, for some Catalans, the variable that most influenced their initial position as regards independence. This is exemplified, for instance, in an official survey commisioned by a Catalan government agency (CEO), Mesura de les identitats. Anàlisi d'escales de mesura mitjançant una enquesta experimental no representativa. 2013 - REO 737
   How they would vote (no conditions attached): 
           53·5% Yes / 28·7% No / 9·8% abstention / 8·4% blank vote (item 2b)
   Provisionally within while a solution is found: 
           55·6% Yes / 25·4% No (item 6uep)
   Automatically out, and reentry can be vetoed by a single member State. 
           45·4% Yes / 37·6% No (item 6uen)

At the more popular level - though some think there are professional trolls working for the Spanish government, a claim that is impossible to confirm - shoals of trolls scour Twitter in search of any excuse to distor, distract, block or simply insult. Those that write without making many spelling mistakes (in Catalan or Spanish) or in passable English seem to be acting in unison, the way flocks of starlings and gulls wheel overhead, or herds of antelopes seem to react simultaneously.

In the face on this onslaught, in which time and again the Spanish government tells Catalans what is legal and what isn't, without any court judgment to support its claims, and celebrates  ...  
The leader of the PP in Catalonia, Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, is recorded as literally saying that the acceptance of the temporary suspension of the decree (that was to channel an electoral commitment and a clear parliamentary mandate) by the CC is a wonderful victory for... democracy! (she is widely quoted on the net as having said "Que no se pueda votar es una victoria de la democracia" though I haven't found the original source) 


Such grotesque claims would deserve a full article, including absurd accusations that we are Nazis and admirers of Hitler and Goebbels (and even Stalin. Metaphors will probably win the day: for instance, portraying Spain as a (single) body and Catalan independence as an amputation. This has been countered, at least since 2010, for instance saying that gangrene requires amputation before the infection reaches the rest of the body. Obviously, an emancipation is a far more appropriate metaphor for supporters of independence: a free decision made by one member, though lamented by the rest!
The attack on Catalonia's claim to full nationhood not only comes from the right and the right wing. The new Socialist party (PSOE) leader, Pedro Sánchez said the November 9 ballot was illegal, without even seeing the text of the decree, which was announced late in September! And former Prime Minister Felipe González was fervent in saying Catalonia's independence was impossible, a few days after the Catalan Way in September 2013. The PSOE favour a federalising reform of the Constitution which, quite frankly, is well nigh impossible even in the mèdium term.

Another strong defence of the unity of Spain has come from the left (many of them Communists and former Communists), who argue in a Manifiesto in favour of a strong working class and against "division and confrontation" between the Catalan people and the other Spanish people. Part of their reasoning is exactly the same as that of other Unionists: they speak of "historical, cultural, emotional and family ties".

A truly catastrophic picture of an independent Catalonia was distributed in the form of a leaflet in a free newspaper, 20 Minutos. It had three pages, of which pages 2 and 3 can be downloaded from the web. Page 1 was a call by the so-called "Societat Civil Catalana", for people to take part in their celebration in Tarragona of the Spanish National Holiday, October 12th (the "Fiesta Nacional", also known as "Dia de la Hispanidad" or even, by those with the longest memory, "Dia de la Raza"). Despite free coaches being offered, their call was heeded by 7,000 people at the very most. Returning to the leaflet, it shows the autors do not know how the Eurozone works, how the pension scheme works, how sovereign debts and interest are calculated and funded, or how the European Economic Area works, while revealing an extraordinary level of imagination, albeit entirely negative (covering even organ transplants and xenophobia!). Its contents have been publicly dissected. Founded earlier this year, and publicly launched on April 7th, some suspect "Societat Civil Catalana" of getting under-the-counter help from the Spanish government. To my knowledge, there is no more evidence to support this than opposing claims. And its microfunding must surely be highly successful, as it appeals to many millions of people in most of the rest of Spain.

Professional economists in Catalonia have tried to clarify the prospects of an independent Catalonia. An excellent collective book has recently been translated into English as a free eBook (neither the original authors nor the translators received a cent for their contributions): The Economy of Catalonia: Questions and Answers on the Economic Impact of Independence. Chapter 13 is a goos summary of the main points raised in the book. Another, written by Dr. Elisenda Paluzie, has just been published in Catalan: Podem. Les claus de la viabilitat de la Catalunya independent.

Yet Spanish public opinion (including the members of the Constitutional Court, I frequently have to add!) has for several years been bombarded by a barrage of opinion leaders and statement opposing the idea of Catalonia's independence. A report published in March 2014, Informe: La política catalana a les portades de la premsa espanyola (2011-2013), by Media-Cat, analyses the front-page coverage of Catalan politics in four Madrid dailies, El País, El Mundo, ABC i La Razón over a period of two years. The main themes were the independence process, corruption and the economy were the main issues. As regards the first of the three, 69% of the headlines portrayed the news in a negative light.

Though I regard surveys on the subject with great caution, the trend detected in Spain (including Catalonia!) between January and July 2013 was a declining acceptance of the idea of Catalan independence: down from 50·0% to 41·5% (GESOP).


Selection of papers, mostly by M. Strubell, on Catalan independence process). http://cv.uoc.edu/~grc0_003638_web/150205_Selection.pdf 

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