Saturday, May 26, 2018

‘Racist’ Catalan president vows to build republic as Spain vetoes ministers

I post below, with thanks, two articles by Barcelona-based correspondent Dick Nichols that were first published in Links, International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Nichols reports on recent developments in the Catalan struggle for national self-determination, and assesses the ideology of the newly installed prime minister Quim Torra. Highly recommended reading for socialists in Quebec and Canada, in particular, seeking to understand the politics of a certain conservative nationalism that is prevalent in movements for independence led by pro-capitalist political parties.

Richard Fidler

Quim Torra at Catalonia investiture

Quim Torra takes office as Catalan’s new president. The yellow ribbons on seats behind him represent jailed MPs prohibited by Spanish courts from attending to their parliamentary duties.

‘Racist’ Catalan president vows to build republic as Spain vetoes ministers

By Dick Nichols

May 24, 2018 —  On May 14, 199 days after the Catalan pro-independence bloc re-won a majority at the December 21 elections imposed by the Spanish government, the parliament of Catalonia finally voted in a new president. Quim Torra, MP for Together For Catalonia (JxCat) — headed by exiled outgoing president Carles Puigdemont — was invested as head of government by 66 votes to 65 with four abstentions. On the first round of the investiture, held on May 12, the same vote was inadequate because an absolute majority of 68 was required.

The votes in favour came from JxCat and its ally in government, the centre-left Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). Seven of the votes were delegated by jailed and exiled MPs. The votes against were those of the new right, militantly Spanish-patriotic Citizens, the Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC), Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP) and the Catalan branch of the People’s Party (PP), which rules in the Spanish state.

The four abstentions came from the anti-capitalist pro-independence People’s Unity List (CUP), which in this way guaranteed the relative majority needed for Torra to be invested on the second round. At the same time, the CUP announced that it would be going into opposition against a government whose commitment to “disobedience” and “unfolding the Republic” it doubts.

The day before, the CUP’s National Political Council (CPN), meeting at the request of three of the anti-capitalist force’s 13 territorial assemblies, voted 40 to 24 to facilitate Torra’s accession. A second vote on how to do this — via support or abstention — was 59 for abstention and three for support. This decision reaffirmed the CUP’s position of abstaining on the investiture of any JxCat candidate other than Puigdemont.

Two other potential obstacles to the investiture had previously been overcome. First, the Spanish PP government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had decided not to appeal against the decision of the Catalan parliament’s speakership panel to allow the delegation of the votes of Puigdemont and exiled health minister Toni Comín. Citizens and the Catalan PP appealed this decision to the Constitutional Court, but it ruled against provisional suspension of this right while their appeals were being heard.

As the court usually suspends the application of laws and regulations when the Spanish government is the appellant, the Rajoy government’s decision not to appeal was attacked by Citizens’ leader Albert Rivera as showing “latitude towards the coup-mongers” because it allowed the pro-independence forces to keep their majority in the Catalan parliament.

Secondly, the membership of the small pro-independence party Democrats, descended from the now defunct and once-ruling Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and part of the ERC caucus, had voted 88% in favour of backing the investiture of Torra.

A win for ‘the law’?

On the surface, the investiture of Quim Torra could be interpreted as a win for the Spanish government. It successfully prevented the investiture of “people facing criminal charges”, Puigdemont and then JxCat’s two replacement candidates — first jailed former Catalan National Congress president Pedro Sánchez and then minister of state and government spokesperson Jordi Turull.

However, after the last two hundred days of vain judicial and political efforts to tame the Catalan movement the political balance is tilting increasingly against Madrid and the political cost of such “wins” keeps growing. At the same time, Spain’s main pro-unionist (“constitutionalist”) parties are engaged in a three-way war to prove who is the toughest and most reliable defender of Spanish unity against the “secessionist threat”.

Winning so far is Citizens, which began life as a “social democratic” party opposed to having Catalan as the language of instruction in the local school system. Since then, it has developed neo-liberal positions on nearly all other issues and attacks the Rajoy government for being too complacent, conciliationist and slow in its reactions to the Catalan rebellion.

The latest Metroscopia poll, published in El País on May 13, gives Citizens 29.1% support, followed by Unidos Podemos and the progressive coalitions forces aligned to it (19.8%), the collapsing PP (19.5%) and the PSOE (19%). If this tendency continues it could well mark the decline and fall of the parties of the 1975-82 transition from the Franco dictatorship, and set up the next Spanish election as a battle between the Spanish chauvinism of Citizens and Unidos Podemos’s plurinational conception of the Spanish state.

An important battle lost for the Rajoy government was the April 5 ruling of the Higher Regional court of the German state Schleswig-Holstein not to implement the European arrest warrant for “rebellion” issued against Puigdemont by Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena. This decision not only put the legal argumentation of Llarena in the spotlight: it also exposed before a broader European audience the Rajoy government’s basic method for dealing with the Catalan crisis — to treat it as a police matter to be processed by a compliant Spanish legal system.

The tactics of JxCat are aimed at increasing that exposure. By proposing first Sánchez and then Turull as substitute presidential candidates for Puigdemont, the lead pro-independence force compelled judge Llarena to produce two bizarre rulings. The first prevented Sánchez from being allowed to leave jail to appear before the parliament (despite a clear precedent to the contrary in the Basque parliament); the second returned Turull to jail to prevent his election.

When the Catalan parliament next passed an amendment to the investiture law that would have allowed Puigdemont to be invested in absentia, the Rajoy government appealed to the Constitutional Court, which provisionally suspended it. Editor, journalist and business lawyer Quim Torra, chosen by Puigdemont, then became JxCat’s fourth candidate, with the goal of his investiture being held before May 22, the day on which new elections would have had to be called.

Torra: ‘xenophobic, racist and supremacist’?

Who, then, is Quim Torra, Catalonia’s 131st president (and tenth of the modern era)? Inés Arrimades, leader of the opposition and head of Citizens in the Catalan parliament, gave her opinion on May 14: “We have before us at the head of the Catalan government a person whose ideology is perfectly clear from his articles: an ideology that defends xenophobia, that defends an exclusionary identity, defends populism.” Arrimades quoted from a 2012 piece from Torra called “The Language and the Beasts”, in which he said:

“You look at your country now and you see the beasts talking, but they are of another kind, scavengers, vipers, hyenas, beasts in human shape that drool hatred … against everything that the language, the Catalan language, represents … [T]hey recoil from everything that is not Spanish and in Castilian.”

Arrimades quoted another line from Torra: “Our nation is threatened by the avalanche of immigration with being dissolved like a sugar cube in a glass of milk.”

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau had previously commented on Facebook:

“For me and millions of people it is important to know if someone who is standing as a candidate for the presidency thinks that there are first and second class Catalans according to where they were born or what language they speak.”

In the first investiture session (May 12) Xavier Domènech, leader of Catalonia Together-Podemos (CatECP), asked Torra: “In Catalonia today around 70% of the population feels Spanish with greater or lesser intensity. What do you think today about ‘the Spanish’? “Torra apologised if his comments had caused offence, but did not answer Domènech’s question.

On May 14, Torra repeated his apology and this time added a further comment:

“What I want [the Catalan Republic] is what I want for everyone, the freedom I want for my own people I want for all peoples. And for the Spanish people and for the Catalan people, freedom has the name of republic, Catalan Republic and Spanish Republic.”

That will not be enough, however. When taken out of context and conveniently edited, Torra’s effusions from before he was elected on the Together for Catalonia (JxCat) ticket provide good ammunition for the parties of the Spanish establishment, intent on denying the Catalan right to self-determination and to keeping the incoming Catalan government on the shortest possible leash.

On May 15, after meeting with prime minister Rajoy to agree a joint approach to the ongoing Catalan rebellion (including maintaining control of Catalan government finances), Pedro Sánchez, leader of the opposition Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), announced this last point in a joint PP-PSOE five-point plan to confront the ongoing Catalan challenge:

“To make known abroad, especially in European institutions and society, that the xenophobic and supremacist writings of President Torra in no way represent the values and principles of Catalan society and are contrary to the European values defended by all European Union member states.”

By May 18, speaking in Extremadura, Sánchez, described Torra as “the Le Pen of Spanish politics”.

“The tweets, the declarations and the reflections of Mr Torra have scandalised European public opinion. It is profoundly disturbed on learning that xenophobia has taken charge of and established control of the independence movement in Catalonia…

“What we are seeing in Europe is the rise of reactionary, populist and xenophobic movements. And in Spain this has taken the form of this reactionary movement in Catalonia…

“As a result Mr Torra should understand that the left of government [i.e. us in the PSOE, not Unidos Podemos] will stand up to his thinking and his policies. The left defends equality of rights and freedoms, and the PSOE is going to defend the rights and freedoms of Catalan society.”

On May 21, Sánchez went even further down this road, calling Torra a “racist”, demanding that the new Spanish law on equality of treatment that the PSOE is involved in elaborating be able to be used to sanction the “xenophobic”, “racist” and “supremacist” actions of the Catalan president.

He also flagged that the PSOE could give support to an extended application of the Spanish government’s article 155 takeover of the Catalan government, a not-so-veiled threat to bring Catalan public media and education under central government control.

Spanish unionism’s manipulation of anti-racist sentiment against the Torra government has been so blatant that SOSRacism Catalonia felt compelled to issue a statement about it on May 18. This declaration clarified a previous May 15 statement which could have been read as implicitly supporting unionist charges of racism against Torra and which “has led to some confusion and manipulation”. The May 18 statement said:

“First of all, we wanted to stop the manipulation of the anti-racist struggle. Using the concept of racism to refer to this type of action banalises racism and trivialises the suffering of its actual victims. We believe that in various circles the concept of racism has been misused in the controversy around the current President in the same way that other circles misuse it to refer to attacks against Catalan citizens. And this misuse of the concept, wherever it comes from, weakens and undermines the anti-racist struggle that we social movements, collectives and associations have been carrying out every day for many years.”

The declaration added:

“The controversial messages of Mr Quim Torra...we consider are not racist, but we consider that this is a dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable narrative, which other politicians also use. Talking about ‘the Spaniards’ as well as talking about ‘the Catalans’ as homogenous and counterposed groups represents an excessive simplification of a much more complex, diverse and rich reality.”

Ongoing collision

Of course, the problem for the Rajoy government and the “155 bloc” is not Torra’s intellectual positions, rather typical of conservative Catalan nationalism, but his program for government and his refusal — continuing the approach of his predecessor Puigdemont — to accept the legitimacy of any impositions from the Spanish government that flout the December 21 election result. In the May 12 parliamentary session he outlined three essential points:

“First, our president is Carles Puigdemont. Second, we will be loyal to the mandate of the referendum of self-determination of October 1: to build an independent state in the form of a republic. Third, our program of government is the economic prosperity and social cohesion of Catalonia.”

This project will be unfolded in three different political arenas: in the “free space of Europe”, where the Council of the Republic will promote the Catalan case internationally; within Catalonia’s institutions (the parliament, local councils and a new body of elected representatives); and via citizen involvement in the process of developing a constitution for the Catalan Republic.

Torra also committed to reintroducing into the Catalan parliament sixteen laws adopted in the previous legislature — covering such areas as climate change and guaranteed minimum income — that have been held up by Spanish government appeals to the Constitutional Court. He also stated that all public servants who had been fired during the Spanish government takeover of Catalan administration would be reappointed.

A new round of conflict between the Catalan movement and government and the Spanish state is now inevitable, with clashes certain over the planned constituent process, the creation of the Council of the Republic (an illegal “parallel body” according to Madrid) and the ongoing central state monitoring of Catalan government finances.

On May 19, Torra named his cabinet and included in it two existing ministers presently in jail (Jordi Turull and Josep Rull) and two ministers presently in exile (Lluís Puig and Toni Comín), demanding that they be allowed to attend the swearing-in session. The Rajoy government immediately denounced this as a “provocation”, and responded with a declaration that article 155 could be extended and broadened if the new Catalan administration didn’t see sense.

The Spanish establishment’s problems with recalcitrant European courts also continues. On May 16, two days after Torra’s investiture, it suffered a further serious setback when the Belgian courts, after consideration of the European warrant for the extradition of Toni Comín and former ministers Meritxell Serret (agriculture) and Lluís Puig (culture), declined to send them back to Spain because that warrant was not backed by an equivalent, underpinning, Spanish warrant.

The Belgian prosecutors had informed Llarena of the need for a Spanish arrest warrant on which the European warrant could be based but he declined — out of ignorance, arrogance or laziness — to correct the defective procedure, leading to the exceptional scene in the Brussels court of the Belgianprosecutors demanding that the European arrest warrant be declined. The substantive issues — whether Comín, Serret and Puig had a case to answer for as regards “rebellion” and “misuse of public moneys” — didn’t even get discussed.

Next, on May 22, the Higher Regional court of Schleswig-Holstein refused to change its April 5 decision to free Puigdemont provisionally, rejecting a Spanish Supreme Court request that he be held in custody on the grounds of “risk of flight.”

All these conflicts will finally make it impossible for the European Commission to continue pretending that Catalonia is an internal Spanish issue, as effectively conceded on by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker after being exposed to a heated debate on Catalan rights in the Flemish parliament on May 9.

Any number of scenarios is possible, but one stands out as more probable than the rest: that, in the face of repeated blocking of Catalan government initiatives, the Torra administration goes to an early election with a view to making the Spanish state’s creeping crisis even deeper.

* * *

Quim Torra

The conservative Catalan nationalism of Quim Torra

By Dick Nichols

May 24, 2018 — Is new Catalan president Quim Torra just another right-wing xenophobe, as claimed by Pedro Sánchez, leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE), the equivalent in the Spanish state of Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in the Netherlands, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Hungary’s Victor Orban and their counterparts in Denmark, Sweden and Finland?

As the battle over Catalonia’s right to self-determination increasingly gets fought out on the European stage it is vital for any democrat to answer this question correctly.

A useful starting point is the Torra essay with which Citizens leader Inés Arrimades sought to horrify the Catalan parliament and Spanish public opinion in the May 14 session of the Catalan parliament (Arrimades nearly always speaks in Spanish when addressing the Catalan chamber because her audience is overwhelmingly made up of Spanish-speakers within Catalonia and beyond.)

The complete essay, which appeared in the December 19, 2012 issue of the pro-independence web-based daily El Món, is translated as an appendix to this article.

What is immediately clear from reading Torra’s piece is that it is not, as Arrimades gave her listeners to understand, directed against the Spanish or Spanish-speakers in general. The “beasts” that feature in the article are not the Spanish as a collective but a particular sociological type: the Spanish individual who recoils from anything Catalan — the Catalanophobe. It was not in Arrimades’s interest to make this clear: her scheme was to take some phrases out of context and imply in them a universal anti-Spanish xenophobia that is not there in the article.

From outside the social and political universe of the Spanish state Torra’s essay — imparting bestial attributes to Catalanophobic behaviour — seems to suffer from the same sort of visceral revulsion that it ascribes to Catalanophobia itself. However, to put the two attitudes on the same plane is to miss the essential point. Catalanophobia is an extreme, sociopathic, expression of the core — the chronic — problem of the Spanish state: the denial by its establishment (main parties, legal system, monarchy and media) of the right to self-determination of Spain’s component nations. It is the result of generations of cultivation of hatred and suspicion towards those whose difference potentially makes them a threat to Spanish unity.

For those for whom this unity is the supreme law, any strengthening of Catalan (or Basque or Galician) specificity simply represents a menace. This is the reason the history of these three national collectives has been one of fighting to maintain their language, culture and customs against direct repression, discrimination and studied indifference from ruling Spanish-nationalist, Castilian-speaking “normality”. This is why Citizens was first established as a supposedly necessary champion of Spanish-speakers who had to suffer their children being educated in Catalan.

Given this fact of life and history, PSOE leader Pedro Sánchez’s assertion that Catalan nationalism of Torra’s type is the same thing as right-wing populism in France, Germany or Sweden is an Orwellian inversion of reality. It paints those whose right to self-determination has been trampled underfoot as the oppressors and supremacists. And, in the case of Sánchez and the PSOE, these Catalan “oppressors” are to be countered with the full force of an organisation which boasts that “we are the left” — even as it competes with the parties of the right to be toughest against the Catalan right to decide.

The fact that Sánchez’s shameless support for the right’s Spanish-patriotic crusade may help the PSOE in the short term in its life-and-death struggle with Podemos for hegemony over the all-Spanish left goes a long way to explaining the enthusiasm with which its leader is accusing Torra and the Catalan independence movement of racism.

‘The destiny of Catalonia above all’

This critical distinction once grasped, what is the character of Torra’s brand of Catalan patriotism?

Torra is a socially conservative Christian Democrat, for whom Manuel Carrasco I Formeguera, founder of the now-extinct Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) and executed by the Franco dictatorship, “has always been my maximum political symbol”. Torra was a long term contributor to the web-based bulletin El Matí, which began life as the name of the pro-independence minority within the UDC.

In 2009, he joined the formation Reagrupament (Regroupment), which started as a tendency within the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) opposed to its participation in the 2003-2010 ”tripartite” government led by the PSC and including Initiative for Catalonia-Greens (ICV). Explaining why a social conservative like himself had joined Reagrupament, Torra wrote in 2009:

“The attraction of Reagrupament as an electoral option is precisely this, the turning upside-down of the political discussion in our house. Now it’s no longer a question of ‘Catalanism of the right’ or ‘Catalanism of the left’ (if anyone in Catalonia knows what these things exactly mean), nor ‘liberalism’ or ‘social democracy’, nor even of ‘Christian democracy’ or ‘socialism’: today the battle is between ‘unionism’ and ‘independentism’, Spain or Catalonia, province or State. When the homeland is living through a moment of national emergency, when the risk is being run of the nation dissolving like a sugar cube in a glass of milk,[1] when all the alarms are simultaneously sounding as to our survival as a people, the ideological discussion can in no case be the axis that separates us: above and beyond lies the destiny of Catalonia.”

This remains Torra’s position to this day — the struggle for Catalan independence always comes first and only those leaders who have sacrificed themselves to this goal are worthy of respect. Consequently, the permanent temptation for the Catalan pro-independence left — chiefly the ERC — to form a “social” alliance with Catalan forces linked to the all-Spanish left has to be rejected outright.

At the same time, the socially retrograde positions of Catalan leaders who have stood up to the Spanish state get minimised. Examples are former ERC leader Heribert Barrera (advocate of the progressive expulsion of migrants) because of his “fierce intransigence against giving a millimetre in the conquest of our freedoms”; former president Artur Mas (one time critic of the ruling PP for its lukewarm neoliberalism) because of his commitment to calling a referendum on independence; as well as corrupt Catalan president Jordi Pujol, because ... “wouldn’t the pro-independence movement be irresistible if he fully joined it and led it?”

In the same vein, in the unending debate within Catalan nationalism between the poles of cautious consolidation of social support for independence and bold and hopefully inspiring confrontation with the Spanish state, Torra belongs in the second camp. His heroes include Francesc Macià (in 1931 the first Catalan president of the modern era) who in 1926 conducted a failed liberation invasion of the country from the French Pyrenean town of Prats de Molló. It is clear that Torra regards Puigdemont in a similar light to Macià.

‘The Spanish’

Alien to any class analysis of Catalan and all-Spanish social reality, Torra’s diagnoses of Catalonia’s afflictions in his writings and tweets have featured the crimes of “the Spanish”, who are treated as an undifferentiated horde oppressive of Catalan rights, language, literature and customs. Here are some of the new president’s tweets between 2011 and 2014:

  • “Shame is a word that the Spanish eliminated from their vocabulary years ago.”
  • “The Spanish only know how to plunder.”
  • “Jokes aside, gentlemen, if we keep going down this road many more years we run the risk of ending up as mad as the Spanish themselves.”
  • Hearing [Citizens’ leader] Albert Rivera talk about morality is like hearing the Spanish talk about democracy.”

Nonetheless, substitute “the Spanish” with “the Spanish establishment” in the above phrases and they are perfectly accurate, just as is this 2010 comment of Torra’s on Spain’s October 12 “Day of the Race”, celebrating the conquest of Latin America:

“The Spanish conquest [of Latin America] between 1492 and 1650 carried off more than 70 per cent of the 70 million people who were living there when Christopher Columbus arrived. More than 200 languages have disappeared. The archive of the Indies reveals that in 1503 alone 185,000 kilos of gold and 16 million kilos of silver arrived in Sanlúcar de Barrameda from the American colonies. At present prices this gold and silver would liquidate the debt of the entire continent, and there would still be some left over. In short, five centuries later, more than 200 million people are poor and 79 million are poverty stricken, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL)….

‘Spain, essentially, has been an exporter of misery, materially and spiritually speaking. Everything the Spanish have touched has become the source of racial discrimination, social difference and underdevelopment.”

Yet when writing about Catalan history Torra’s nationalism expresses nostalgia for supposed ancient glories that are not sufficiently celebrated in today’s Catalan schools. Here, for example, he deplores the lack of celebration of the 700th anniversary of the Catalan mercenary expedition that took Athens in 1311 (and whose troops pillaged and raped just as the Spanish conquistadors did two centuries later):

“An exceptional opportunity to explain a part of their history to our boys and girls, maybe the only part based on victories and legendary adventures and which should serve to create a collective national narrative … So used as we are to defeats and failures, for once we have glory and triumphs to offer, to explain that names like Llúria[1], Rocafort[2] or Entença[3] are something more than streets in the Expansion[4] and to try to explain that these four provinces [of Catalonia] have been an empire....

“Seven hundred years ago we conquered Athens — Athens no less! — why not revisit the occasion? Let friendly shades, the old ghosts of Catalan culture surround us and under a burning sky, the most burning sky possible, of a blazing red, let’s dream again of the nation we once were, the country of navigators that conquered Mare Nostrum and turned it into our sea.”

In Torra’s writings Catalan history is viewed as the decline of a once-hegemonic maritime power, worthy rival of the Genovese and Venetians, until its rights and freedoms were finally extinguished after the 1714 conquest of Barcelona by the Borbon forces in the War of the Spanish Succession. It is the national sentiment of a ruling elite prone to feel it was cheated by history, betrayed by its supposed allies and never given its deserved role. When he was the director of Barcelona’s Born Historical Centre, Torra said that “1714 was our Year Zero”.

Given this outlook, Torra’s positions on social struggle are no surprise, even as he shows compassion and concern for those stuck at the bottom of the heap (as in a 2011 piece on the struggle to survive in the Barcelona underworld). In June 2011, he described the “Surround the Parliament” action that arose from the May 2011 indignado square occupation movement as equivalent to the February 23, 1981 failed military coup against the Spanish parliament.

The socially conservative Torra is not a neoliberal. On the basis of two decades of experiences in the Swiss insurance industry he wrote the book Swiss Knifings, noting:

“The big corporations and multinationals are under pressure for returns as short term as by tonight or tomorrow at breakfast time. … Confronting this vertigo in an epoch of uncertainty and lack of definition such as the capitalist world has never experienced before is reserved only for the strongest, the most evolved individuals. Today, Darwin would arrive at the same conclusions if instead of boarding the Beagle and spending five years travelling the world he took part in a shareholder AGM for five minutes.”

Catalonia in the Spanish state

Torra’s thinking tends to see everything in terms of conflicts between nations. In the Catalan case, he has also expressed the common sentiment in conservative Catalan nationalism against the injustice of civilized, productive Catalonia’s forced inclusion in the oppressive, backward and bureaucratic Spanish state, compelled to fund its poorer regions, but without the Basque Country’s command over its own tax income.

This sentiment is at bottom due to the peculiar character of Spain, in which the capitalist elites in the most industrialised and most socially advanced parts of the country (Catalonia and the Basque Country) were at best conceded only secondary positions in the Castilian, later Spanish, state machine — made up of the monarchy, armed forces and Catholic church and the judicial and civil service systems with which they maintained their rule.

At the same time, given the fact that large parts of the working class that have generated value for the Catalan (and Basque) economic elites have come from the most poverty-stricken parts of Spain (Andalusia, Castilla-La Mancha, Murcia), it’s inevitable that many immigrant workers identify Catalan national sentiment in its entirety with the Catalan rich and that anti-Catalanism always tries to makes use of class resentment to produce a “social” justification for its denial of democratic rights.

No scientific study of Catalan history would deploy the category of “the Spanish” as Torra does, but it remains perfectly understandable as a reaction to national humiliation, in the same vein as the reaction of other oppressed nations to their oppressors, such as Irish aversion to “the Brits”, or Polish hatred of “the Russian”. Even less are the shortcomings of Torra’s conservative nationalism a justification for denying the Catalan nation its right to self-determination.

Reactions on the pro-sovereignty left

Within Catalonia, some reactions from left supporters of Catalan sovereignty to Torra ascension to the presidency have been sharply critical. For example, historian and journalist Marc Andreu, interviewed in the May 14 edition of the web-based journal Crític commented:

“Torra’s narrative represents an important step backwards for Catalanism. He has an essentialist and ethnicist vision, quite unusual in the history of Catalanism….

“That the pro-independence left should support for president someone who is so far to the right is strange … Torra’s narrative creates a feedback loop with that of Citizens….

“[The] cultural hegemony of the [independence] process has been won by the most conservative right. They used to say that the process was turning the country leftwards, but now we see that not only is it not turning to the left, but that it has ended up strengthening the narrative of the most conservative right wing.”

But is Torra free to implement his conservative nationalism in the present Catalan political context, even if he wanted to? In the same number of Crític Jesús Rodríguez, editor of the web-based daily Directe, noted:

“[A]n identity-based, essentialist personality has been nominated president, someone opposed to the values that have emerged from the republican independence process, values that are mainly of the left. Nonetheless, I ask myself: will that be what be projects in his work of government? I don’t have that clear because the process, especially in its last phase, since October 1, has had an impact on pro-independence people who before were more conservative and reactionary. If the government of Quim Torra follows an exclusionary political line, it will commit suicide. Either he changes his way of seeing Catalan politics and society… or he’ll have a very short term in government.”

In the new context created by the formation of Torra’s government the job of the left outside Catalonia is clear enough: to strengthen support for the country’s right to decide and solidarity with its struggles against Spanish state oppression. Action along this line will in turn give heart to left and progressive people inside Catalonia and contribute to the independence process continuing to move leftward.

In such a context Quim Torra’s ideas as conservative Catalan nationalist intellectual will find less and less space for practical expression.

Appendix: The language and the beasts

Opinion (El Món, December 19, 2012)

“They are here, amongst us. Any expression of Catalanness repels them. Theirs is a sick phobia”

By Quim Torra

At home my parents made sure an old copy of a book that all we brothers had read passed from hand to hand: When the beasts spoke by Manuel Folch i Torres. Father was unbending and considered that one could not grow up without having read it, along with Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring and Josep Maria Folch i Torres’s Bolavà. It was a delightful book where owls, bears, elephants, fawns and bumblebees spoke, a collection of fables for the education of children.

Now you look on your country and you see the beasts speaking once again. But these are beasts of another breed: birds of prey, vipers, hyenas. These beasts have a human form, and drool hatred. A disturbed, nauseating hatred — like false teeth covered in slime — against everything that the [Catalan] language represents.

They are here, amongst us. Any expression of Catalanness repels them. Theirs is a sick phobia. There’s something Freudian about these beasts. Or there’s a glitch in their DNA chain. Poor individuals! They live in a country of which they know nothing: neither culture, nor traditions nor history. They are waterproofed against any event that conveys the Catalan reality. It gives them urticaria. Everything that is not Spanish and in Castilian just bounces off them.

The beasts have names and surnames. We all know one of them. The beasts abound. They live, die and multiply. One of them starred the other day in an incident that has not yet arrived in Catalonia and that deserves to be explained as an extraordinary example of the bestiality of these beings. Poor beasts, they cannot act otherwise.

One of the few airlines that has accepted Catalan as normal is Swiss. If you have taken any of their flights to the Swiss Confederation, you will have discovered how they use our language when it comes to taking off and landing the aircraft. An exception, given that, unfortunately, with the rest of the companies we get treated exactly as what we are, the last colony in Europe.

Well, a couple of weeks ago one of these beasts travelled on a Swiss flight. On arriving at its destination, the typical observations prior to landing were announced in Catalan. Automatically, the beast began to secrete its rabid saliva. A sewer stench arose from its seat. It twisted, restless, desperate, horrified by having to hear four words in Catalan. It had no escape. A mucous sweat, like that of a toad with a cold, was pouring from its armpits. Just imagine the state of the beast, after such a long time — those that can live in their Spanish world without any problems, hearing four words in a language they hate! Outraged, he decided to write a letter to a German newspaper in Zurich, complaining about the treatment he received because “his rights were violated” since Spanish is the «first» official language of Spain. And the complaint of the beast was published and given prominence.

Thank God, the good friends of the Casal Català of Zurich replied and clarified matters (so many [Catalan] embassies and consulates and, look, a small Casal Català is the one that has mobilised thanks to the decency and dignity of his members).

But why do we have to mobilise every time? When will the attacks of the beasts end? How in 2008 can we put up with so much harassment, so much humiliation and so much contempt?


[1] Roger de Lluria (Ruggiero di Lauria in Italian) was a Sicilan admiral who served with the Crown on Aragon. See here for more infomation.

[2] Bernat de Rocafort was the third leader of the Catalan expedition, from 1307 until 1309. See here for more infomation.

[3] Bereguer d’Entença led the Catalan expeditionary force (almogàvers) after the death of their first leader, Roger de Flor.

[4] The Expansion (Eixample) is the area of Barcelona designed after the original city walls were demolished in the mid-19th century, lying between the old city centre and surrounding villages. See here for more detail.

[1] Although the metaphor (the sugar cube in the glass of milk) is the same as in the quotation cited by the Citizens leader in the previous article, Nichols informs me that these quotations are taken from different articles by Quim Torra. – RF

Monday, May 7, 2018

Canada: A paragon of democratic national self-determination?

Madrid’s stubborn refusal to allow Catalans to vote on their independence prompted some commentators, paradoxically, to praise Canada’s support for Quebec self-determination.

“Quebec got off light,” wrote Louis Bernard,[1] a former top official in Parti québécois governments, referring to the Supreme Court of Canada judgment in the Reference re Secession of Quebec. After the almost-victory for the OUI in the 1995 referendum, he recalled, the federal government asked the Court to declare that Quebec had no right in Canadian or international law to choose unilaterally to “become a sovereign country, separated from Canada.”

“If the Supreme Court had accepted Ottawa’s argument, Quebec would now find itself in exactly the same position as Catalonia,” said Bernard. “Fortunately... the Court held that democracy should prevail over strict legalism.” It said, in part, that a clear majority vote for secession, in response to a clear referendum question, would give secession a democratic legitimacy that “all the other participants in Confederation would be obliged to recognize.” And it would then be up to “the political actors to determine the content of the negotiations and the process to follow.” These were essentially political questions, beyond the purview of the courts.

Quebec had “undeniably won its right to self-determination,” said Bernard. René Lévesque and Jacques Parizeau had exercised that right in the referendums of 1980 and 1995, respectively. And now the Supreme Court of Canada had made it official.

But what about the Clarity Act the Liberal government had Parliament adopt in response to the Court’s ruling? Bernard dismissed it as a face-saving gesture to give the “illusion that Ottawa continued to have a right to monitor a future Quebec referendum that it could not prevent.”

However, the Clarity Act provides that the federal House of Commons will determine whether it accepts the legitimacy of a Quebec vote for secession based on its opinion as to the clarity of the question, the size of the majority, and “any other matters or circumstances it considers to be relevant.” In subsection 2(3), it lists a host of documents and views it would consider in making that determination. And section 3 states that “an amendment to the Constitution of Canada would be required for any province to secede from Canada, which in turn would require negotiations involving at least the governments of all of the provinces and the Government of Canada.”

What the Supreme Court really held

This was consistent with the Supreme Court judgment, which insisted that a clear popular vote for secession would not only necessitate negotiations involving “all parties to Confederation” (para. 88), but that these negotiations could not be limited to “the logistical details of secession.... We hold that Quebec could not purport to invoke a right to self-determination such as to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties: that would not be a negotiation at all” (paras. 90-91).

And the Court adverted to the “wide range of issues, many of great import” that would have to be addressed in such negotiations.

“After 131 years of Confederation, there exists, inevitably, a high level of integration in economic, political and social institutions across Canada. The vision of those who brought about Confederation was to create a unified country, not a loose alliance of autonomous provinces. Accordingly, while there are regional economic interests, which sometimes coincide with provincial boundaries, there are also national interests and enterprises (both public and private) that would face potential dismemberment. There is a national economy and a national debt. Arguments were raised before us regarding boundary issues. There are linguistic and cultural minorities, including aboriginal peoples, unevenly distributed across the country who look to the Constitution of Canada for the protection of their rights. Of course, secession would give rise to many issues of great complexity and difficulty. These would have to be resolved within the overall framework of the rule of law, thereby assuring Canadians resident in Quebec and elsewhere a measure of stability in what would likely be a period of considerable upheaval and uncertainty. Nobody seriously suggests that our national existence, seamless in so many aspects, could be effortlessly separated along what are now the provincial boundaries of Quebec.” (para. 96).

Furthermore, the Court stated, “there would be no absolute legal entitlement” to secession and “no assumption that an agreement reconciling all relevant rights and obligations would actually be reached. It is foreseeable that even negotiations carried out in conformity with the underlying constitutional principles could reach an impasse” (para. 97). The Court refused “to speculate here as what would then transpire.”

After a lengthy survey of the international law on self-determination, the Court concluded that “a right to secession only arises... where ‘a people’ is governed as part of a colonial empire” or “subject to alien subjugation” and “possibly where ‘a people’ is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part.” [emphasis added] [2] The Québécois are not a colonial people or an oppressed people, it concluded, and therefore did not have an unfettered right to secession. (para. 154)

“Homage to Canada, from Catalonia”

What Louis Bernard overlooks, others highlight. The pre-eminent voice of Anglo-Canadian journalism, the Toronto Globe and Mail, offered Ottawa’s approach to Quebec secession as a proud antidote to Madrid’s treatment of Catalan independentists. “Somebody needs to enroll the entire Spanish government in a remedial course in Canadian constitutional history – pronto,” wrote the Globe editors.[3]

“The sight of Spanish police storming polling stations in Catalonia, and beating would-be voters to stop what the central government declared an ‘illegal’ independence referendum, has turned an old political dispute into a potentially fatal crisis for Spain. The outrage against Madrid's overreaction has radicalized people on both sides of the issue, polarized society, and given a huge and likely permanent boost to Catalonia's independence movement. Spain may not survive.

“If only Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government had a Canadian in the room. No country has more experience managing independence movements and referendums, legally and peacefully.”

Over the years, said the Globe, Ottawa has “sought to derail the indépendantistes by every means at its disposal – reason, passion, concessions, firmness, money, the law – except one. Ottawa never tried to crush it by force. It beat the sovereignty movement with patience, not truncheons.

“The Spanish government, in contrast, lost patience and turned a political argument into a police action.”

Canada’s alleged “patience” now has legal cover in the form of the Clarity Act, the Globe noted. In future, the federal government “would scrutinize the referendum question; it would not accept it as a given, as in the past.” If, in Ottawa’s view, the referendum was “conducted under unacceptable circumstances, or delivered an unclear result, Ottawa could simply ignore the result. Which is what Madrid should have done.”

And if Quebec, thinking it had won a clear mandate, then issued a declaration of independence — as the Catalan parlement had done — and, moreover, proceeded to implement it (which Catalonia did not do), how would Ottawa react? The Globe editors were silent on this.

The Globe and Mail did, however, draw attention to the key difference between Canada and the Spanish state in their respective approaches to internal national movements. Canada’s federalism, the editors said, incorporates a 150-year-old division of powers between the federal and provincial governments, creating a political culture that has been “bred into the country’s political bones.” Jurisdictional disputes “can go on and on, opening the door to negotiation, compromise, changed minds and cooled passions.”

“Spain's federalism, in contrast, is newer and weaker. The limited autonomy of regions like Catalonia is officially not even a type of federalism, in which sovereignty is divided among levels of government.”

Both the Supreme Court and the Clarity Act imply that Quebec secession would require unanimous consent of the provinces, not just the federal government. Not to mention that Ottawa has a wealth of powers. procedures and institutions at its disposal that could be deployed in any major confrontation over Quebec secession. Not least, its military and police. If Ottawa was prepared to occupy Quebec with the Canadian army in the October ’70 crisis, ignited by a couple of kidnappings by a handful of FLQ militants, we can hardly ignore its possible use in a much graver challenge to the authority of the central state.

The Canadian state is stronger, more resilient, and its ruling class (including the Quebec component) is supremely confident of its ability to counter centrifugal pressures, the main one in the last 50 years being the Quebec independence movement. There is no reason to think that a Quebec vote for secession will be readily accepted by the authorities and institutions of the Canadian state. Its likelihood of success will ultimately depend on the relation of class forces, the mobilizing capacity and determination of the Québécois and the degree of active solidarity they can arouse among the workers and progressive movements in the rest of Canada.

Quebec sovereigntists need to think about how these realities must shape their strategy in the years ahead. The general  approach so far has been to focus on developing a democratic process that can produce a convincing majority for sovereignty that will somehow dissuade Ottawa from preventing its achievement. History and the law indicate that a winning strategy will entail much more.

Quebec’s Law 99: “Completely constitutional”

The federal Clarity Act was countered by Quebec’s PQ government with the adoption of Law 99, the Act respecting the exercise of the fundamental rights and prerogatives of the Quebec people and the Quebec State.[4] The Act provided that in any referendum under Quebec legislation “the winning option is the option that obtains a majority of the valid votes cast, namely 50% of the valid votes cast plus one.” (Section 4) And it declared that “No other parliament or government may reduce the powers, authority, sovereignty or legitimacy of the National Assembly, or impose constraint on the democratic will of the Québec people to determine its own future.” (Section 13).

A court challenge to the Act by the English-rights Equality Party finally resulted in a 93-page judgment handed down April 18 of this year by Quebec Superior Court Judge Claude Dallaire.[5] Following an exhaustive review of “the context,” including the Supreme Court secession judgment and the Clarity Act, she concluded that “all sections of Law 99 pass the test of judicial review and the Act complies with both the Constitution and the Canadian Charter [of Rights and Freedoms].” (para. 31) adding that “Law 99, including all the articles the applicant challenges, is completely constitutional.” That is, Quebec remains subject to both the Supreme Court judgment and the Clarity Act. In drafting the bill, the PQ government had implicitly acknowledged this.

In support, she cited (inter alia) the words of Joseph Facal, the minister sponsoring the bill in the National Assembly, that all the bill did was to combine the applicable long-held legal and political principles in Quebec within a single legislative text. (para. 548) The Quebec Attorney-General had defended Law 99 on the ground that it was never intended to allow a unilateral declaration of independence.

The Superior Court judgment was greeted by Quebec nationalists as “a victory for the Quebec people,”[6] possibly because the federal government had intervened in the case arguing that Law 99 was unconstitutional. Ottawa now says it will not appeal the judgment.

[1] Louis Bernard, “Comparativement à la Catalogne, le Québec l’a échappé belle,” Le Devoir, October 7, 2017.

[2] In a 2006 judgment, the Quebec Court of Appeal addressed the issue, dodged by the Supreme Court, of whether a breakdown of inter-governmental negotiations following a Quebec vote for secession would justify unilateral secession. “It is only if this negotiation is fruitless could the Quebec parliament choose to make a unilateral declaration of independence, valid under the Constitution and consequently binding on the political institutions of the rest of Canada.” (Alliance Québec v. Directeur général des élections du Québec, 2006 QCCA 651, para. 29.) Could this reasoning justify Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence?

[3] Print edition headline: “Homage to Canada, in Catalonia,” The Globe and Mail, October 7, 2017.

[4] S.Q. 2000, ch. 46.

[5] Henderson v. Procureure générale du Québec, 2018 QCCS 1586.

[6]Une victoire pour le peuple québécois,” editorial (signed by Robert Dutrisac), Le Devoir, April 21, 2018.