Spain, Catalan Nationalism and the Rule of Law

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David Rodríguez Vega

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Having spent a great deal of time reading what many different newspapers in Britain, Spain and France have published about the recent events in Catalonia, I still find myself unable to conclude whether or not at least some of the actions of the National Police and the Guardia Civil on Sunday 1st October were justified. It is evident to me, however, that Mariano Rajoy roused from his slumber far too late and that he is proving to be a not very skilful statesman. I also believe that more should have been done to avoid police violence. And in hindsight it would appear that the authorities should have let the vote take place even though it went against the letter of the Constitution and contravened the rulings of the Spanish judiciary.

I am also inclined to think that the news that some media outlets in this and other countries are circulating is not always accurate or complete. It would seem that both the accounts and the views of the Catalan government and of its nationalist supporters are rarely questioned, while those of the central government and of the Catalan citizens who do not support the separatist cause are all too frequently ignored or disregarded. In addition, some of the comments I have read and heard make me worry that many journalists and members of the British public are seeing the policies of the government of Madrid as further confirmation of deeply ingrained prejudices against the Spaniards, who for centuries have been portrayed not only as lazy, backward and dishonest, but often as authoritarian and sometimes even as barbarous. In this frame of mind, Catalonia would now be seen as the latest victim of a people who has not yet achieved modernity and democracy. To the horrors of the Inquisition and the crimes of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship we could now confidently add the crackdown on thousands of peaceful citizens who only wanted to express their opinion on what should be the future of their country.

The ‘Catalan problem’ is not only reinvigorating old prejudices; it is also attracting the interest of far-right enthusiasts and various nationalist groupings outside Spain, as well as of those left-leaning devotees who, ever dreaming of new revolutions, are always keen to offer support to whichever freedom-fighters come to their attention. This spurious alliance of apparently antagonistic political forces could not but oppose the government of Mr Rajoy, a politician so conventionally committed to the market economy and European integration, and has naturally sided with the Catalan nationalists, taking advantage of the state of affairs in Spain to try to discredit the EU, which they accuse of supporting or even inspiring political repression in Catalonia.

In these circumstances, I consider it pertinent to remind the reader (or perhaps to inform them) that the Catalan government has been breaking the law for years, and that this second referendum on independence was banned by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Catalonia’s High Court ordered the Mossos d’Esquadra to prevent the referendum from taking place, and the National Police and the Guardia Civil intervened only when it was evident that the Mossos would not carry out the instructions they had received. Moreover, the reports I have read in the Spanish newspapers make me believe that the brutality of the Spanish police forces has been greatly exaggerated by a regional government that is proving to be much more media adept than its national counterpart.

It is also worth noting that even the lawyers of the Catalan parliament deemed the law on the referendum to be illegal, that the main opposition party in Catalonia has repeatedly asked for self-rule government to be suspended, and that the vote that was held on 1st October lacks even the minimal democratic guarantees. Besides, as far as we can ascertain, most of the Catalans still wish their region to continue being part of Spain, and it needs to be more widely known that a large proportion of the Catalan population feel and have long felt ignored, disenfranchised and even intimidated by both successive nationalist governments and by their sympathisers.

Before passing judgement on the events in Catalonia, I would also like to encourage the reader to remember that the first duty of the Spanish government, as of any other government, is to uphold the law, that the rule of the crowds, however vociferous they may be, is not the same as democracy, and that those who most invoke freedom are not always those who most cherish it. Perhaps even more pertinently, we should not forget that, as Abraham Lincoln once stated, the ‘constitution (…) must be maintained, for it is the only safeguard of our liberties’.

A country’s constitution as well as its other laws exist indeed to protect all of its citizens regardless of their status, actions or political views, and they should never be considered as a nuisance or as the last recourse of the establishment (whatever this trite term may mean) to protect its privileges. And we should all be worried when Gina Miller, the members of the British High and Supreme Courts and now the Spanish government and judiciary are condemned as enemies of the people for upholding the same laws that were created to protect every one of us from tyranny and abuse.

If free laws allow us to live a life worth living, nationalism, Spanish, Catalan or any other, can only be considered a force of evil. It narrows our intellectual and emotional horizons, exempting us from moral responsibility towards outsiders and making us believe that we are intrinsically different and better than those who do not belong to our same national community. Nationalism incites us to see foreigners as enemies and ultimately aims to turn us into slaves of imagined national identities, which are always built upon myths and lies.

Even though history shows us that nationalism has only brought misery to the world, it still continues to mesmerise hundreds of millions of people everywhere. And it is clear that since the beginning of the financial crisis it has gained considerable strength in Europe, particularly in those regions and countries where it is common to believe that collective resources are being exploited by outsiders.

It is this latest wave of nationalist fervour that has utterly split Catalan society between those who aspire to create a culturally homogeneous country where Catalan language and traditions will have more rights than individuals, and those who prefer to belong to a political community defined by common laws rather than by a narrow ethnic identity. The result of the struggle now unfolding in Catalonia will affect all of us both inside and outside Spain, since the triumph of the separatists would further bolster nationalism.

I was raised in a free country, under a free constitution and surrounded by people determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The EU embodied the promise of a future of prosperity and boundless opportunities, we took democracy for granted and many thought that nationalism would slowly ebb away. At school and at home we were constantly reminded of the savagery of the Spanish Civil War and many times hear that the first battles of the Second World War had been fought in Spanish soil well before the invasion of Poland.

I am now wondering if the events happening in Catalonia will herald a new dark age where the rule of law will be a thing of the past and nation states as we know them will be replaced by a myriad of minute ethnic political entities. If we refuse to engage in a resolute struggle against the fallacy of ethnic identities and let ourselves forget that freedom and democracy can thrive only under the law, that might well be the case.

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