Students tackle the Catalan crisis in the first CSMCH Discussion Group

Thanks to the hard work of its affiliated students, the CSMCH now has an informal discussion group. This new initiative is designed to allow students and early-career scholars to discuss different aspects of the yearly theme in a more intimate setting. History PhD student Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz took the lead for the very first session, which was about the Catalan crisis, and wrote this report for the blog.

Since October 2017, the Catalan conflict has been all over the news. The images of the violence exercised by the police drew international attention. While the conflict has been polarised in the last few months, it has been an issue in Spanish politics for a long time. Inside the complexity of the Catalan conflict lies a core question of democracy.  An important element is the different understandings amongst the political parties of what democracy is – and should be.

To help the participants get a grip with the complexities of the crisis, I gave a short introduction to the different political movements struggling over the future of Catalonia.

Iker introduces the discussion group to the intricacies of the Catalan crisis

The “Catalan nationalist side” has three main tendencies. ‘Together for Catalonia’ has traditionally been a representative of the middle class and entrepreneurs. Since 1980, it has been the hegemonic force in Catalan politics.  Neoliberalism and conservatism are prominent aspects of its ideology and, until 2012, it was always a political ally of either the centre-left Socialist Party or the centre-right People’s Party.

For ‘Together for Catalonia’, democracy has always been related to parliamentary politics, elections every four years and the rule of law. Nevertheless, immersed in many scandals since 2010 about the party’s funding, it suffered significant political defeats. This situation pushed them into radical politics, trying to profit from the situation created by the crisis in Spain around the far-left Indignados movement and the growing mood for independence in Catalonia.

Alongside ‘Together for Catalonia’, there is the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), a centre-left party. In the 1930s, it was the principal Catalan party. From 1980, it was a marginal political force in Catalonia until 2012 when it successfully harnessed the anger engendered by the crisis by supporting the independence and the Indignados movements.

Finally, “la Cup” (Popular Unity Candidacy) is a revolutionary and anti-capitalist party. Its ethos is based on a strong defence of democracy from below inspired by the “Municipalism theory” and “assembly” politics.

Since 2012 the Catalan nationalist side has asked for a legal referendum to determine the future of Catalonia. In the last elections in 2015, they claimed –because they had the majority of MPs in the parliament – that they had a majority of people willing to push for a referendum to determine the future of Catalonia, and that they had a democratic mandate for this, even if it was not “legal” in terms of Spanish law. Together for Catalonia and ERC wanted to use the referendum as a demonstration of civil disobedience to attract an EU intervention to force Spain to negotiate a legal referendum. For “la Cup”, the contradictions between the people’s hopes during the referendum and the oppression of the State would have triggered a revolution.

On the anti-independence side, there are two main tendencies. On the right, Citizens, a right-wing party born in 2016 as an anti-Catalan party, funded by a major Spanish entrepreneur. It is composed of strong elements of neoliberalism, centralism, Spanish nationalism and neoconservatism. Since 2012, because of its anti-Catalan character, it has been an emerging force in Catalonia attracting voters who have a strong hate and anger against Catalan nationalists. The party defends the “empire of law” and Spanish Unity by any means necessary. Also on the right, the People’s Party is the largest party in Spain – currently in government – but the weakest political force in Catalonia. It has always been marginal in Catalan politics.

These two right wing parties share many similarities in terms of democratic feeling. For them, the unity of Spain counts above all else. It must be unconditionally defended. This posture can be traced back to the Spanish Civil War and the Francoist side, which articulated the idea that one should not talk with the enemy, but, on the contrary, “eliminate” him. For them, there simply cannot be a referendum because it is illegal according to both law and the constitution.

On the left of the anti-independence movement, Catalonia in Common defend the particularities of the peoples of Spain, a legal referendum, a reformed or new constitution, and decentralization of the Spanish State. However, the left has been characterised by emergent strong contradictions between adherence to internationalism, on the one hand, and accommodating particularistic nationalism, on the other. They have tried to occupy a “middle” place by supporting neither Catalan nationalism nor the right-wing parties.

Inevitably, this brief presentation gave rise to a whole host of questions.

Those present asked about whether civil disobedience is a legitimate mode of democracy? If so, why? Do you have to follow the law, even if it is unfair or could you rebel against it? Can the left be nationalist and internationalist at the same time? Is self-determination possible in today’s Europe? Can we create new states inside the EU? Can a majority of MPs in a parliament legitimate decisions that are outside law? What is the relation between decisions taken at the top by the political parties, and what the people think or do? What was the referendum in democratic terms?

Overall, three themes emerged from our lively discussion: first, how each side in the Catalan conflict understands democracy, and how those differing interpretations were used to push for or against independence; second, how other nationalism movements have acted – such as in Scotland or in Taiwan’s regionalist movement; and, finally, how the past is not only used to justify present decisions, but also the myriad ways in which it permeates and shapes contemporary conflicts.

If this first experience is anything to go by, our discussion group will be an exciting and lively forum for debate, with many overlapping perspectives. Fortunately, we have several more sessions planned over the coming months. Stay tuned for further information!

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977).