‘Constant Aggression, Repression by Spain Is Helping Catalonian Independence’

By William J. Furney

Mike Eastabrook is a UK-based vice president of the advocacy group Foreign Friends of Catalonia, which seeks to counter what he calls “the crude repression of the Spanish state against any who see their future differently” as the protest-hit region of northeast Spain convulses amid failed attempts at independence and those leading the political charge jailed. 

“For me, as a democrat who also has a connection through marriage and familiarity to Catalonia, what is happening there has big implications for Europe and the future of western democracies — turning a blind eye for political convenience is not good enough,” Eastabrook told me earlier this week. “All Catalans deserve to be respected and to determine their own futures, and as EU citizens we should be demanding basic standards of democratic freedom to apply to all states,” he said. 

The following is an interview I conducted with Eastabrook on the issue of Catalonian independence, whether there’s any possibility that the wealthy Spainish region will ever break free from Madrid’s firm grip — and what should happen to those who have been jailed, and the secessionist movement’s exiled leader Carles Puigdemont.

If a new government does manage to be formed after the latest general election, do you think it will approach the Catalonia issue in a different way?

Very difficult to know. Basically, as I see it, (Acting Prime Minister Pedro) Sanchez is faced with trying to build a coalition of the left and, as the numbers stand, that can only be done with Podemos, who although not pro-independence are more conciliatory towards self-determination. Even with Podemos, the numbers are not really enough for a stable majority, so in theory the next obvious partners would be ERC — Catalan pro-indy left party — or Basque nationalists. However, with ERC leader Junqueras in jail, there is very little chance of co-operation without some indication of talks on self-determination or amnesty for the political prisoners. 

In theory it would be a small step for PSOE to enter into some meaningful negotiations on this, but this is Spain. Negotiation and compromise are often seen as weakness and Sanchez showed himself as intransigent on the issue during the election. The important factor in perhaps forcing a change for this government will be international pressure. The organisation I work with — Foreign Friends of Catalonia — is one of many who are trying to internationalise the debate and with some success. However, even greater pressure may yet be brought to bear as the new European Arrest Warrants are issued for the exiles, the ECHR (European Court of Human Rights) starts to hear the appeals of the political prisoners and continued protests across Catalonia start to impact the economic and political stability.

What is your view of the jailing last month of nine Catalonian independence leaders for between nine and 13 years?

Disgraceful but unfortunately very predictable. The trial itself was quite farcical by the standards of most Western democracies, with no real evidence of the massive crimes of sedition or rebellion being presented, just hearsay and innuendo. The most any reasonable commentator could have seen as legally justified was disobedience — which would not carry a prison sentence, just suspension from public office and fines — yet they ended up with sentences longer than that served by (former military officer Antonio) Tajero, who staged an actual, violent coup d’etat, with tanks and guns fired. 

But it was predictable in the sense that the court system, especially Supreme Court and Constitutional Court, is very much a legacy of Franco and the notion that the “unity of Spain” is more important than any other considerations, including democracy or human rights. The Catalans mounted a challenge to that notion, albeit peacefully and democratically: in the eyes of the deep state, they were therefore guilty of treasonable crimes and the penal code had to be bent to ensure maximum punishment.

What are the basic reasons or arguments for Catalonia becoming independent?

For me there are two main questions to ask for a legitimate claim to independence: Could the area/region/nation feasibly function at least as well if it became an independent state? And do the majority of its population want to become an independent state?

In answer to the first question, the answer would have to be yes. Not only is it an economic powerhouse in its own right, but it also has a substantial population, of 7.5 million people — larger than many other EU states — has its own language and distinctive culture and in many ways is more advanced than other parts of Spain. There’s little doubt that without the huge fiscal deficit — the balance which goes to Spain — it would be able to thrive even more, although it’s a mistake to think this financial issue is the main driver. It is not, for most Catalans, the feeling of being Catalan more than Spanish is more important than the financial liberation from Spain.

As far as the second question, there’s no clear answer at the moment, which is why a binding, legal referendum is essential. You will hear lots of unionists claim that the independence votes are less than 50 percent — based mainly on party election results — but the fact is this will never be known until all Catalans are asked the direct question. In fact, logically, if this was really believed, you would expect the unionists to be most active to push for a referendum, to settle the issue for a generation. But most do not, which is an incongruous position.

From my perspective, from having been involved for a few years, I see the constant aggression and naked repression of the Spanish state working very much in favour of the pro-independence numbers. My gut feel is that if a referendum were held tomorrow, it would be a vote for independence by about 55-45 percent.

If Catalonia became a country, how would it finance itself, apart from tourism?

Catalonia is a very productive economic region and certainly not just based on tourism. It has the highest GDP of any of Spain’s regions, with an economy about the size of Denmark. In terms of trade, its exports were worth $71bn in 2017, accounting for more than a quarter of Spain’s total. So, in essence, do not think this would be a stumbling block to independence – indeed even the most ardent anti-independentists rarely use this as an argument.

Why not better together, and stronger and wealthier, instead of being apart, and weaker and poorer?

Well, stronger and wealthier together would certainly be worth a try — but no sign that Madrid-centric Spain is willing to do that. Catalonia has tried many times to change what it sees as an unfair relationship between itself and the rest of Spain, whilst still remaining part of Spain. The most recent was the negotiated change in the Estatute, which governs this relationship [and that] proposed, amongst other things, a better fiscal arrangement — similar to what the Basques have — as well as recognising Catalonia as a “nation” within Spain. 

This was agreed and voted on in both Catalan and Spanish parliaments and passed by referendum of all Catalans in 2006. But it never came into being — in 2010, the Constitutional Court stripped all these key elements from the democratically agreed legal arrangement. This was what proved the catalyst for the current independence push: the state demonstrated it could not be trusted to deliver a fairer arrangement within Spain; hence many people decided the only route was independence.

Is the Catalonia issue doomed anyway, as it’s apparently not possible to break away, due to the might of Madrid, and opinion polls don’t overwhelmingly support it?

That would be the hope of many in the rest of Spain — and maybe Europe — but perhaps history will tell a different story. This is a remarkably strong and resilient movement, very much people-led — not politician-led — so don’t expect it to go away anytime soon. The end of apartheid in South Africa or the USSR was never likely to happen, until it did.

Do you think the protests in Barcelona, many of which have been violent, will harm the city and the region’s tourism, as people decide not to visit over fears they might be caught up in it?

In the short term, perhaps a little, but really the violence has been very overstated. Anyone visiting Barcelona, or anywhere in Catalonia, will see very quickly how safe it is there. What violence there has been — certainly indiscriminate violence — has largely been on the part of the police. 

Protester “violence” has mainly equated to setting rubbish bins on fire and a very few isolated incidents of other violence — spectacular but not dangerous. There are no incidents I am aware of where any tourists have been hurt by protesters in the last nine years of protests. Barcelona and Catalonia are so popular amongst tourists, it’s very unlikely that people will stay away for long, if at all. 

Also worth noting, in spite of much propaganda from Spain, in reality very few businesses have relocated away — clearly there is not a genuine concern for safety and security. Part of the aim of the organisation I am involved with … is to encourage journalists, academics and other interested people to come and visit and stay with families in Catalonia, not to lecture or promote pro-independence, but just to allow people to see for themselves the reality. The impression most are left with is of an overwhelmingly civic, friendly but determined movement and a wonderfully welcoming nation.

Is the only reasonable solution to the Catalonia issue to grant it more autonomy to manage its own affairs?

This is the typical — and reasonable — response of democratically minded outsiders. But the 2010 debacle over the Constitutional Court rejecting the Estatute after all democratic process shows how unrealistic this is. Spain is explicitly not a federal system: on paper, Catalonia — and other so-called “autonomous communities” — have lots of areas that come under their jurisdiction; the reality is any measures passed in the Catalan parliament can, and regularly are, rejected by the central state and removed. The time has passed for there to be any trust in this being a solution from a large number of Catalans.

Is there a parallel between the Catalonian independence struggle and the ongoing protests in Hong Kong? Both movements have in recent times declared their support for each other.

Yes, I think there are some parallels. Mainly what they have in common is that they are both very much bottom-up organisations fighting for democracy against a much larger state and both very creative in their approach to organising and protesting. Their supporters are both, in the main, well-educated and driven by a desire for greater democracy. 

Also worth noting is that neither are in any way about “nationalism”, in the sense of superiority — unlike some of the other “populist” movements in Europe and elsewhere. But with all that said, each struggle is also different in many ways, and each has unique aspects, so it’s important to treat (them) as separate whilst acknowledging some similarities.

Should Catalonian independence leader Carles Puigdemont, currently exiled in Belgium, be allowed back to Spain without fear of prosecution?

Of course he should. At some point, Spain has to do politics instead of just repression. The claim for self-determination is not going to go away, and Carles Puigdemont is clearly part of the solution. He is not the problem. Having met him a few times, I would also say that he is an extremely pragmatic politician who is driven by principals more than ideology, so would be an ideal partner for Spain and hopefully an international mediator to work with to broker a solution. But much the Spanish state and media demonise him — putting him in prison would be a huge mistake and would come back to haunt them in the future, I believe.

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