Catalan separatism faces new dilemmas one year on

Catalan separatism faces new dilemmas one year on

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FOR Catalans of whatever persuasion, October 1st 2017 was a day of infamy. Catalonia’s 2m or so separatists recall Spanish riot police baton-walloping citizens waiting to vote in a referendum on independence. Other Catalans recall that the referendum was unconstitutional, and see the unilateral declaration of independence that followed it as an alarming plot to break up Spain.

A year on, nothing and everything has changed. Spain’s government suspended Catalan autonomy and its courts charged Carles Puigdemont, the regional president, and 12 others with rebellion. Having won a narrow majority of seats (though not votes) in an election in December, the separatists are back in charge of the Generalitat in Barcelona, the regional government. The declaration of independence might never have happened.

Still, tens of thousands of Catalans marked the anniversary this week with a demonstration at which they carried scores of the ballot boxes used last year. They see October 1st as a bigger defeat for the Spanish government than for their own cause. “It put Catalonia on the international map,” says Elsa Artadi, a senior official at the Generalitat. “It showed that the state doesn’t control some parts of Catalonia.” But the horizon is different. In Madrid Mariano Rajoy, the stolid conservative who sent in the riot police, has given way as prime minister to Pedro Sánchez, a Socialist. The Catalan nationalists backed the censure motion that brought Mr Sánchez to power. Unlike Mr Rajoy, he says Catalonia requires a political solution. Several ministers have said they would prefer the prisoners not to be in pre-trial detention (though only the courts can free them).

These changes have left the separatist movement “disoriented”, without a clear strategy and increasingly split, says an adviser to Mr Sánchez’s administration. The rhetoric remains confrontational. Quim Torra, Mr Puigdemont’s replacement, claims to be “building the [Catalan] republic”. This week he gave Mr Sánchez “a month” to agree to an independence referendum or face a withdrawal of Catalan nationalist support in parliament.

This is bluster. Mr Torra commands only a few of the MPs in question. In practice, the Generalitat is acting within the law. “We are re-establishing normal relations,” says an official in Madrid. While Ms Artadi warns that Mr Sánchez has so far offered “a few words” but no action, she says the Generalitat wants to talk, even as it mobilises its supporters.

The divorce between rhetoric and reality is prompting splits. Hours after Mr Torra called on radicals, organised in the Committees for the Defence of the Republic, to “keep pressing”, they broke away from the October 1st demonstration to attack Catalan police with smoke-bombs and bottles.

Perhaps half the 2m independence supporters want to pursue civil disobedience, says the government adviser. The other half might settle for reforms in Catalonia’s home rule, but are inhibited from speaking out until the trials, due to start in January, are over. Mr Sánchez can do little without winning a clear mandate at a general election. The opposition in Madrid already accuses him of appeasement. “This will take years,” says a minister. Indeed so.



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