If justice is not strong, it is necessary for force to be fair (Fenelon)
This now-classic quote from the French thinker has accompanied me from an early age in my political reflections, thanks to the insistence on it of my friend, and teacher in so many things, Gregorio Peces Barba, one of the fathers of the 1978 Spanish Constitution, the speaker of the house during the country’s Transition to democracy, and whose democratic and socialist pedigree positions him away from all suspicion. The allusion to the fair force is relevant, unfortunately, in the face of the institutional, civic and political earthquake that has been unleashed in Catalonia.
The banana-republic style that premier Carles Puigdemont and his crew have stamped on the politics of the region threatens now to turn this vaudeville into tragedy, as so often happens at the carnivals of Rio de Janeiro. Because we are being faced not just with the declaration of independence of a territory, but also the most serious threat to Spanish democracy since the Constitution was approved. It’s even more serious than the attempted coup d’etat of 1981, or the terrorism of Basque separatist group ETA, given that this assault comes from a civil insurrection, one that has been encouraged, programmed, and whipped up from the Catalan institutions themselves. Sedition, rebellion and treason are, on the margins of penal definitions, the true names that the dictionary applies to the attitude of the ringleaders of this attempt to initiate a Bolivarian revolution in the heart of Europe.
The effect that premier Carles Puigdemont has had on the politics of the region threatens now to turn this vaudeville into tragedy
Former regional premier Artur Mas recently confessed in public exactly what so many Catalan separatists say in private, even after the independence declaration on Friday in parliament: that the independence of Catalonia, no matter how it is declared and celebrated, is impossible and unthinkable, given that there are no foreign powers that will recognize it. Also, and above all else, because the government and the democratic parties will not allow it. It is not, then, going to happen under any circumstance, and the consequent frustration of hundreds of thousands of Catalans who are prepared to wave their flags in search of a freedom that they already enjoyed – like the rest of Spain’s citizens – and that they themselves have put into danger, could end up driving the protests to even more dramatic and worrying paths.
The attitude of those who, on Thursday, were out on the streets of Barcelona demanding the release of the now-famous “Jordis”– two leaders of pro-independence groups who are being held in pre-trial custody for their role in protests against operations carried out by the National Police and Civil Guard – switching their ire at the Spanish state into ire against the “traitor” Puigdemont and his phony pretense of calling elections, reveals the populist agitation that has been put into place by the regional government, one that has long been out of their control thanks to its connivance with irredeemable anarchist forces.
Puigdemont is, undoubtedly, a traitor, to the regional Statute setting out Catalonia’s powers of self-government, and to the Spanish Constitution, from which his legitimate powers came. But also, and above all else, to the common sense and decency required of any person in a position of power. It was his obligation to try to unite citizens as part of a common project, not to divide them and pit them against one another, provoking a civil conflict with disastrous consequences.
Puigdemont is, undoubtedly, a traitor, to the regional Statute setting out Catalonia’s powers of self-government, and to the Spanish Constitution
But while the pro-independence challenge is deadly serious, it is not even the biggest faced today by the government and the democratic parties. The true challenge – one that they cannot afford to lose – is the clear threat that has started to gather over what has become known as the system of ’78, thanks to which Spaniards have enjoyed the longest era of freedom and the highest levels of quality of life in the history of the country. The nationalist drives have served as a breeding ground for the incitement to social unrest and the rise of populism, based on increased inequalities after the bursting of the financial bubble a decade ago. The popular irritation over political corruption, the lack of employment, and so many other pressing problems in our society – as justified as it may be – will end up being traded for disappointment, if not despair, if social leaders are unable to channel the desire for change and the expectations for improvement of citizens. And the worst way to do this has been to succumb to the siren calls of nationalism, as some well-known leaders of the left have done.
With their passion for toppling the democratic system recognized in the 1978 Constitution, the representatives of anti-system movements – singularly grouped in Podemos – gave in to the temptation of getting chummy with the separatists, prompting a division within their own ranks. Social-democrats, meanwhile, who are lately more obsessed with slogans and the dominance of their own party than with offering a coherent and possible project for Spain, have become lost in an ambiguity that could lead them into irrelevance, an ambiguity that was only corrected at the last minute.
The result of all of this is an increased strengthening of deepest Spain, a resurgence of the most reactionary Spanish right-wing, which is trying to claim ownership of the flag and its meaning, before the naïve and guilty agreement of the progressive sectors. And at the mercy of the excesses and crimes committed in the name of the Catalan nation, concerns are starting to rise over a drift toward damaging or limiting the configuration of Spain’s regional system, promoting a wave of centralism in the face of the federalism that so many are calling for as the only democratic and plausible solution for the territorial organization of our country.
The spurious alliance between the anti-establishment agitators, the wealthy nationalist bourgeoisie and the squatter movement in Barcelona will not bring independence to Catalonia, but it will endanger the balance of forces in democratic Spain. Especially if the return to constitutional legality in Catalonia forces the government to employ a legitimate use of force. The task that the Spanish state has ahead of it to heal the open wounds, modifying what is necessary in our Constitution, promoting laws that improve social equality and end the rampant inbreeding of political parties, cannot be faced alone by a minority government, one that is even unable to approve the budget, while the left continues to be subjected to the narcissism of its leaders. Much of the social fabric needed to sustain and develop our democracy has been destroyed, and there are years of work ahead of us to recover it. The pro-Constitution parties, united in their approval via the Senate of the extraordinary measures of Article 155, must also work together to implement them. Some think, perhaps rightly so, that a government of national salvation is not necessary nor convenient in these circumstances. Whatever the case, democracy today needs to be saved.
Juan Luis Cebrián is chairman of EL PAÍS and a member of the Spanish Royal Academy.
English version by Simon Hunter.