Spanish nationalism demonstrates against talks with Catalan parties

Disappointing turnout at Spanish nationalist rally in Madrid protesting at Pedro Sánchez’s “high treason”

On 5 February, the Spanish vice president, Carmen Calvo, announced that the Spanish government was prepared to have a “relator” to “take notes” at meetings between Spanish and Catalan parties to discuss the issue of Catalonia. A “relator” is a legal figure that combines the roles of secretary, notary and mediator according to one of the many attempts at explaining the word, unknown to the vast majority of Spaniards until a few days ago. Other translations include “rapporteur”, “observer” and “arbiter”:

relator: a person who prepares meetings, follows the deliberations, takes note of what is said and calls the people at the negotiating table to new meetings

La Vanguardia

José Maria Aznar, former Partido Popular (PP) leader, Spanish prime minister and godfather to the “new” Spanish right – distinguished by getting Spain involved in the Iraq war against the will of the people and presiding over the most corrupt government of modern Spanish history – also used a “relator” in talks with ETA.

The Spanish government at last seemed prepared to take a small step towards meaningful talks with Catalan political parties, practically non-existent since the PP’s 2011 election victory due to the Catalan government’s desire to discuss a self-determination referendum and the Spanish government’s refusal. Having replaced the PP in government last June after successfully presenting a motion of no confidence, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) promised the Catalan government that “anything could be discussed”. There has been occasional contact, but it has been inconsequential. Speaking from his prison cell in October, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) leader, Oriol Junqueras, insisted on the need to establish a “bilateral relationship” and that the “appropriate way” to resolve the Catalan crisis was that of “dialogue, agreement and pact”. In December, Sánchez promised that the Spanish government “wants to solve the crisis in Catalonia, and it takes generosity, dialogue, responsibility and sense of state”.

Deputy Prime Minister Calvo’s proposal was a response to the Catalan government’s request that an agreement with the Spanish government be put “in writing”, with the text announcing all-party talks incorporating a “neutral” figure to act as a “witness” and corroborate the negotiations to resolve the conflict. The proposal made by Catalan Minister of the Government, Elsa Artadi, that all-party negotiatiations include State bodies was rejected.

And then it kicked off, Spanish nationalist style, again. All-party talks are announced and the Spanish right cries foul to force elections. PP leader, Pablo Casado, and Albert Rivera of Ciudadanos (Cs) called a demonstration in the Plaza Colon, Madrid’s emblematic Columbus Square. The opposition added that it had not ruled out the possibility of bringing a motion of no confidence against the Spanish government, though it lacks the necessary support in Congress.

The PP and Cs were quickly joined by far-right party, Vox, to re-form the right-wing triumvirate currently running Andalucia, where Vox have taken over the department responsible for ensuring observance of the Historical Memory Law to turn it into the department for “coexistence”, a much used euphemism for keeping quiet about the crimes of the Spanish right and ignoring the mass graves left by the Franco era across the country. There is no Swedish-style cordon sanitaire in Spain. This PP-Cs-Vox bloc sees itself in government and wants elections as soon as possible. According to polls, the right needs its far-right partners to achieve a majority in parliament. It is shocking that more alarm bells are not ringing about Spain, as they are about Poland and Hungary.

Support was also quick to come from Pedro Sánchez’s own party, PSOE, and a host of Spanish nationalist parties and organisations including Falangists, Fascists and Nazis. The PP, Cs, Vox, Hogar Social Madrid, Falange Española de las JONS, Alternativa Española, Democracia Nacional and España 2000 would be “presentes” in Columbus Square to rally against talks with the Catalans. And, of course, the “posterboys” of the Spanish nationalist establishment – former French prime minister, Manuel Valls, now a candidate for the mayorship of the Catalan capital, and Nobel prize-winner and selective defender of human rights, Mario Vargas Llosa – would be there too.

The demonstration against dialogue was heavily advertised by the Spanish right-wing press, and television screens and column inches were filled with vilification, insults, and inflammatory hyperbole from the demonstration’s promoters in the days leading up to the rally. Most hysterical among the campaign to discredit Pedro Sánchez was Casado’s incendiary description of the talks as “high treason”. Anyone inclined to look up the offence in the Spanish penal code would quickly realise the emptiness of Casado’s rhetoric: no induction of a foreign power to declare or wage war on Spain; no assistance of invaders nor arming of a foreign power; no spying nor starving of the Spanish armed forces.

Casado was prepared to go one step further, onto even shakier legal ground, to make one of his now familiar threats. “I’m not ruling anything out against Sánchez for his high treason against Spain”, said the PP leader. Nothing?

Pablo Casado is incapable of opening his mouth without causing or committing an offence. Who could forget his reminder to the current speaker of the Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent, to think about his family before acting. Or his warning to exiled Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, that he should be careful not to end up like President Companys, executed by one of Franco’s illegal councils of war in 1940. Casado is outvoxing Vox, growing into the clothes he has stolen from the new far-right party, which itself grew out of the PP in 2013. The Spanish right scaremongering about imagined deals that will lead to the secession of Catalonia, whipping up anti-Catalan feeling and mobilising Spanish nationalism with catalanophobia is nothing new.

Pablo Casado is incapable of opening his mouth without causing or committing an offence

Desperate to make the demonstration a success, Casado even offered to pay for anyone wanting to go. Spanish nationalist demonstrations are traditionally heavily dependent on free sandwiches, buses and flags for their success.

ln one interview, in a matter of minutes, Casado, called the Spanish prime minister: a traitor, a felon, a mental health, patient, a bungler, a compulsive liar, a squatter, a catastrophe, a piece of work, mediocre, illegitimate, disloyal and irresponsible. The rhetoric used to discredit Pedro Sánchez and his government is reminiscent of that used against PSOE prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, during his tenure from 2004 until 2011.

Casado is under investigation for this week’s flood of possibly felonous abuse but is unlikely ever to be held to account. In the early months of his leadership, he was allowed to dodge the charges in an apparently open-and-shut case of academic corruption that would have led to the resignation of any self-respecting German politician. This, however, is the real Spain.

Amongst the most vociferous opponents of the talks and supporters of the demonstration were the “grandees”, past and present leaders of Sánchez’s own party. “We do not need “arbiters”, said PSOE godfather, Felipe González, who felt that the talks represented “institutional degradation” and were “very dangerous for the proper functioning of democracy, the value of the parliament of Catalonia and the whole of the State”. Former PSOE spokesperson, member of Congress, Soraya Rodríguez, said that “dialogue between the State and an autonomous community must respect the Constitution, the Statute and the institutions”.

Sánchez will not give in to the blackmail of the independentists, the cancer of democracy that we must put a stop to.

PSOE President of Aragon, Javier Lambán

For the president of Castilla-La Mancha, Emiliano García-Page, the talks were negotiations and “when we are talking about Spain, all Spaniards should decide”. He added that a self-determination referendum was “absolutely impossible”. PSOE President of Aragon, Javier Lambán said that “approving a budget does not justify concessions that call into question the Constitution, the unity of Spain, the rule of law and decency” but was “sure that Sánchez will not give in to the blackmail of the independentists, the cancer of democracy that we must put a stop to”.

However, well before today’s demonstration took place, the Spanish government gave in to the pressure from above and from the right, announcing that the talks had been abandoned and blaming the “intransigence” of the Catalan government. So far, the PSOE government has not actually given one sign of making any concessions. The demonstration went ahead all the same, with the Spanish press producing a few appropriately nationalistic front pages for the big day.

Such demonstrations are either shows of strength or weakness, and today’s whirlwind performance was much more of a dust devil than a tornado. In the end, it was over in a flash with the official attendance given as 45,000, well below expectations and a far cry from any pro-independence demonstration in Catalonia in the past eight years. To the bemusement of most, both the PP and Cs conjured up the figure of 200,000, inspiring a host of jokes about loaves and fishes. The disappointing turnout was also reflected in the social media campaigns, with PSOE’s #YoNoVoy – I’m not going – more than doubling the number of shares of #YoVoy – I’m going. The crowd was predominantly middle and old-aged and waved banners demanding the imprisonment of the Catalan “coup leaders” and a more extreme form of direct rule in Catalonia.

“Stop selling Spain to the nationalists”, they said without irony. The Spanish nationalist narrative does not recognise the existence of Spanish nationalism. In the narrative, the nationalisms of the nation states cannot be toxic because they do not exist. In the propaganda, Spain is always inclusive and respectful of diversity. Even on days like today, the contradictions remain invisible to most Spaniards.

The poor showing did not dampen the zealotry in the right-wing leaders’ short statements or the three main, but rather brief speeches given by journalists. There was a “most vigorous rejection of the treason perpetrated in Catalonia by the government of Spain” and condemnation of the “State’s unprecedented humiliation” due to the concessions made to “independentist blackmail” by Sánchez in the “suicidal drift” of his government, all because of the now irrelevant agreement to include an arbiter in a round of cancelled talks.

Prior to the journalists, Casado had warned of “more Socialist surrender” and called for “the immediate cessation of dialogue with those who want to break up Spain”. In a clear message to the Supreme Court judges hearing the case against the Catalan process, Rivera said that the protest was a way of saying “no to pardons and privileges, and yes to Spain”. Ex-PP far-right leader, Santiago Abascal, called for the arrest and imprisonment of the Catalan president, Quim Torra, arguing that he was “still threatening a violent, Slovenian-style uprising to declare Catalonia’s independence” asserting that “the coup has to be put down” and “all of its perpetrators and conspirators arrested”. The leaders of the right-wing nationalist bloc formed by the PP,, Csand Vox ended the act on stage together.

The leaders of the right-wing nationalist bloc formed by the Partido Popular, Ciudadanos and Vox stood together

While the Spanish right rallied in Madrid under the slogan “for a united Spain, elections now”, Pedro Sánchez was in Santander, Cantabria, asking the Catalans to look on Brexit Britain as a cautionary tale. A look at the role of British and Spanish nationalism in plunging the two countries into crisis might be more valid than drawing dubious parallels between Brexit and Catalexit.

Any possibility of meaningful talks between Catalan pro-independence parties and the Spanish government has been quickly extinguished, and accompanied by the customary demands for independentists to renounce self-determination under threat of imprisonment and greater control of Catalonia from Madrid. Even dialogue with the Catalans is unacceptable.

Independentism has been criminalised and Catalan independentists demonised. Today’s demonstration was also designed to put pressure on the Supreme Court on the eve of the trial of the Catalan independence leaders for organising and holding a referendum in October, 2017. They face charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement and sentences of up to 25 years. The trial begins on Tuesday in the capital of a country where the the principle of the presumption of innocence is long-forgotten.

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