In a dramatic and much-watched, high-suspense session of the Parlament de Catalunya on October 4, Carles Puigdemont—President of the Generalitat, the regional autonomous government of Catalunya—announced that the people of Catalunya had earned the right to exist as an independent republic. The result was confusion all around, as supporters and opponents asked whether Mr. Puigdemont had declared Catalunya’s independence from Spain. In fact, there is no ambiguity:
- Mr. Puigdemont obviously did not declare independence, or there would be no question of whether it had happened.
- What he did do was to draw a line between the honorable, law-abiding, nonviolent behavior of the Catalan people and the dishonest, law-breaking, violent behavior of the Spanish central government.
- On such grounds, my own country, the United States of America, declared its independence from the Empire of Great Britain 241 years ago.
- That declaration was unequivocal, and no one found it reasonable to ask whether independence was formally declared.
The meaning of Mr. Puigdemont’s October 4 speech was that there is a fundamental moral right to self-government and to a non-violent civic space. The meaning of his recognizing the right to exist as a free republic is ambiguous only to those who seek to avoid dialogue of any kind and end all further discussion by the use of coercive force. Any further use of coercive force against the people of Catalunya would demonstrate that Spain’s government does not and will not honor that universal right.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has fallen into the trap, and proven himself incapable of peaceful coexistence, good-faith dialogue and adherence to the rule of law.
- He has jailed the organizers of nonviolent protests against his own illegal use of violence against voters;
- he reportedly has used threats and illegal favors to coerce companies into relocating their headquarters, effectively looting Catalunya’s economy in a campaign of collective intimidation;
- now, he seeks to suspend regional autonomy and seize control of media and government offices.
Leaders in the European Union warned Mr. Rajoy that invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to seize power in Catalunya would be interpreted as an undue attack on the democratic rights of millions of European citizens. The Prime Minister of Belgium has outright said that failure to open dialogue would necessitate external mediation between Spain and Catalunya.
Even within the Spanish political factions that side with Mr. Rajoy against Catalan independence, there has been talk of Constitutional reforms that would convert the Constitutional Monarchy into a Federal Republic and grant irrevocable autonomy to the federated regional states. It is unclear what level of support for monarchy in any form would be part of this new system.
Mr. Rajoy appears to be betting everything:
- that the European Union will not intervene,
- that no media entity anywhere will file suit against the authoritarian takeover of independent Catalan press,
- that election experts inside and outside of Spain will not question the legitimacy of any vote where dissident parties are banned,
- that the courts inside and outside of Spain will stand by his extralegal effort to prohibit or restrict dissident speech,
- that the violent campaign of voter intimidation he orchestrated will not be prosecuted anywhere,
- and that no one in Spain will see his leadership, his behavior, his intransigence as a threat to the nation.
The Spanish Prime Minister is likely to be disappointed on most or all of these counts, so his gamble is incredibly ill-advised and dangerous. He risks not only his own future—both in politics and as a free man—but also the unity and integrity of the country he is sworn to govern, and the viability of the current system of nation-state governance of the European Union.
There is no ambiguity in Mr. Puigdemont’s declaration of a right to independence with a suspension of the unilateral action to become so. He was simply saying: the people of Catalunya have a right to self-government, and at present, the willingness of the Spanish government to honor that right is very visibly in question.
Mariano Rajoy has forfeited his credibility as the chief constitutional officer of the Spanish democracy. He has replaced the rule of law with a demand for “obedience” backed by violence against innocents and the jailing of critics. He is modeling dictatorship, distorting every discussion of law, and refusing to recognize the right of the people to live free from fear. His obsessive repetition of the idea that there is ambiguity is an effort to sow fear and confusion for his own empowerment.
He can get some of it back and better protect his country’s future by taking concrete steps to show good faith and foster dialogue.
For the people of Catalunya and of Spain to once again live under the protection of democratic self government:
- political prisoners must be immediately and unconditionally released;
- the coordinated paramilitary violence against voters on 1 October must be investigated by an independent prosecutor;
- allegations of “sedition” and “rebellion” must be withdrawn, as no revolutionary activity has taken place;
- activation of Article 155 must be indefinitely suspended;
- external mediation is urgently needed, to end this period of abuse and move to good-faith dialogue and a negotiated solution.
The featured image at the top of the page shows a moment during the referendum on October 1, when a civilian embraced one of the regional police officers who refused the illegal order to assault voters, as shown on a news broadcast of TV3, Catalan television.