A jingoistic Spanish ‘war’ from the past

The President of the Spanish Government, Mariano Rajoy, presented an institutional declaration at Moncloa Palace in Madrid, on Sunday 1 October 2017. (Spanish government work, Pool Moncloa / Diego Crespo).

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” Samuel Johnson wrote in the 18th century and unfortunately history keeps justifying this early political essayist. During the last few days, the Catalan separatists and the Iraqi Kurds held referendums to declare national independence, which were not at all needed. Both regions have as much self-governance as they need. It was the political leaders who needed the catastrophic chauvinistic paroxysm and the precarious confusion, not the people. Such referendums usually rekindle perilous jingoism and bolster mind blinding ‘patriotic pride’. Let alone that it has also refueled Spain’s deep social and economic problems, like the 35% unemployment rate plaguing the Cataluña youths.

On the other side of the spectrum, the UK held the Scottish referendum in 2014, in a climate of functioning democracy and civilized debate. It was a calm confrontation between the two opposing sides. Compare the political idiosyncrasies and the wider political backgrounds of four politicians; the ex British PM David Cameron who allowed the Scottish referendum, the populist Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, the quasi dictatorial Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani and the political ‘robot’ Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy. The real comparison is actually between an old democracy, a new democracy and an Asian autocracy. Let’s return to last week’s developments.

Pure jingoism or deception?

The three major actors of the current unwarranted troubles Puigdemont, Barzani and Rajoy are doing what they do, not paying attention to the damage they cause to their nations and countries. All three of them are politically in a limbo state. The first is a populist who chooses jingoism to secure his lead. The second is undoubtedly a totally unscrupulous Asian despot and the third, being nicknamed political ‘robot’, heads a shaky minority government. All of them are invariably stained by corruption scandals and head almost bankrupt administrations.

But let’s focus on the Cataluña referendum, not because it plays a more important role on a global scale than the Iraqi Kurdistan, but because it touches a chord of our European values. Not to forget that Cataluña was the first European nation to oppose militarily Nazi Germany, when Berlin backed General Franco to obliterate democracy in Spain. On top of that, this is primarily a European newspaper, and what happens in Barcelona is much more painful for all us Europeans.

Cataluña of our dreams

Currently now, everybody knew that under normal circumstances, the Cataluña separatists, that is, the ones who really want to leave Spain, before last week were surely – probably still are – in minority, and deeply divided themselves. They comprise quite differing political groups from extreme leftists to right wing ‘patriots’. So, it was not too difficult for Madrid to divide them and win the game.

Callously enough, Rajoy thought he had an opening, to gain political capital nationwide, by turning a ‘fiesta’ into a real political war. The English lesson suggested by many for him, to follow the paradigm of what David Cameron did with the Scots, went in vain. Rajoy didn’t want to miss the opportunity to show how much of a ‘Spaniard’ he was, by creating a much bigger issue, out of a ‘national festival’. Madrid’s reaction under him surpassed any European political code of conduct or set of principles.

A risky game

No wonder why the Spanish and the British political universes are worlds apart. So, the political myopia of Rajoy prevailed and the whole thing got out of hand. Not all the Spanish prime ministers though have reacted to the Cataluña separatism violently. In this matter there is no place for egotistic attitude from Madrid’s side or toxic jingoistic mentality, reminiscent of Europe’s past catastrophes. The attack of the murderous regime of General Franco against Barcelona, in a way started WWII.

On the other side of the fence, the governments of socialist Prime Ministers Felipe González and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had accorded a high degree of autonomy to Cataluña. In this way, they effectively controlled separatism. Unfortunately, the Rajoy administration greatly diluted the powers of the regional bodies of the region, in a way rekindling the separatist movement.

Rajoy’s blunder

For one thing, he tried to promote himself as the uncompromising guarantor of the Spanish unity, hoping in this way to secure his grip on the country’s top job. There must be more to it. Many analysts believe his target was not the Catalan separatists but something else. Being a minority Prime Minister, Rajoy may have estimated that the socialist party’s support in parliament will be cemented in view of a national crisis. This may act in both directions. A major Catalan problem can also justify the socialist party’s support for his right wing government.

Of course, the socialists of today are not the powerful party of González. The Spanish socialists have followed the fate of their Greek PASOK counterparts. They have become a political party of single digit electoral ratings, by supporting as junior partners right wing party governments for years. They jointly imposed unpopular economic measures in order to save their countries’ imprudent banks. Not to say anything about the repeated corruption scandals which broke out during the past years.

The Barcelona player

The other part of the Spanish crisis duo, President Puigdemon proves to be quicker and more unscrupulous than Rajoy. He callously exploited a national crisis in order to prevail in the rocky political scenery of today’s Cataluña. Let’s follow his latest flip flop. Last Monday, after the traumatic experience of Sunday’s painful scenes he said: “We don’t want a traumatic break… We want a new understanding with the Spanish state“. This was an obvious attempt to lower the tones and to be seen as a thoughtful and moderate politician, caring primarily about the security and the well being of his fellow citizens.

Yet, only hours later, on Wednesday morning, Puigdemon told a BBC journalist the region would declare independence “at the end of this week or the beginning of next” and at any rate when the result of referendum is published. This was on the opposite direction, strongly fueling the fire he had tried to put out on Monday. Even worse, the not much loved King Felipe spoke hard about Cataluña in a statement. It was as if he too wanted, like his Prime Minister, to turn the issue into a perilous dead end conflict between Madrid and Barcelona.

Unkindly words

The head of the state said those who organized the referendum are “disrespectful to the powers of the state”. Felipe added solemnly “They have broken the democratic principles of the rule of law”. Not a word about last Sunday’s unnecessary and brutal police violence indiscriminately targeting the general public. Baton and plastic bullet gun equipped police sent more than 900 wounded peaceful civilians to hospitals, who just wanted to vote in a more or less graceful state of mind. The whole world watched the semi-military police units assaulting old people, women even children.

As things presently stand, there are no communication channels between Madrid and Barcelona. Unfortunately, after the harsh statement of the King, a rather certain declaration of independence of Cataluña on Monday will make future developments completely unpredictable. The Spanish constitution gives Madrid the right to install a direct administration in Cataluña and arrest the members of the regional parliament who voted for ‘independence’. This will certainly make things worse, also because the two sides have locked themselves into an aggressive stance. Reportedly, there is no light at the end of the tunnel of animosity.

Who will clear the mess?

In any case, the issue doesn’t seem to significantly affect the rest of Europe. There is no strong side taking by any other EU country or leader. By the same token, there is definitively no perceptible backing for any separatist movement in the EU. In conclusion, similar separatist ideas, for example in Scotland, or in the Flanders are strongly opposed by the EU institutions and governments and the same is going to happen in the case of Cataluña. The Spaniards have to clear their mess themselves. They will find willing mediators only if they show signs of reconciliation. It’s not a ‘Homage to Catalonia’’ it’s a harlequin of it.

 

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