The Spanish supreme court’s deeply unjust verdict, handing out harsh prison sentences to nine Catalan government and civil society leaders for organising a peaceful referendum on self-determination in Catalonia, is for many the sign of a country slipping towards authoritarianism and away from western European-style democracy. But truth be told, for us Basques, this kind of behaviour is nothing new.
For years Spain was able to disguise its undemocratic nature under the cloak of the “fight against Basque terrorism”. Denial and rejection of the political nature of the armed conflict in the Basque Country became quite easy to them, especially after 9/11. The line was that there was not a political problem in Spain, just a criminal one. “Spain is a democracy”, they used to tell us. “Everything is possible without violence” was the repeated mantra. We still remember the words of Spanish home secretary Alfredro P Rubalcaba: “They must decide: bombs or votes.”
Yet when some of us in the pro independence Basque movement began down the difficult path to convince those who still believed in violence to continue our struggle for self determination by peaceful and democratic means, we were arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms. The truth is that Basque violence ended not thanks to Spanish government efforts – but in spite of its obstacles and obstruction. (Don’t misunderstand me: many wrongs were done by the Basque side, many things that should never have happened, did. We have acknowledged our share of the blame for what was wrongly done by both sides during years of violence). My arrest was 10 years before the Catalan politicians were convicted of Sedition, and it was only after we had served our prison term that the European Court on Human Rights ruled our trial had been unfair (it was the second time in my person the ECHR convicted Spain). The same could easily happen to the Catalans. The fact the Spanish state still holds more than 240 Basque political prisoners in jail despite ETA ending its armed campaign in 2011 shows their lack of interest in a lasting peace.
The verdict against the Catalan pro-independence leadership for organising a democratic and peaceful referendum, and the subsequent violence the Spanish police are using against peaceful Catalan demonstrations show us what we always knew: the Spanish state is uninterested in democracy and will use violence to conceal its undemocratic nature. This is why they play up, and at times instigate, violence in the region – the Spanish media and courts have even started talking about “terrorism” in the Catalan case. Spain will not hesitate to use this lie. Its government would love to transform Catalans’ legitimate and peaceful demand for self-determination into violence. That is what their police and military forces have been trying to do the last few days with their violent tactics.
Fortunately, the Catalan nationalist movement is committed to peace. As we are in the Basque Country. We know that our “force of reason” is stronger than their “reason of force”. But at the same time we both are completely committed to achieving our fundamental democratic rights. Because it is time to complete the unfinished business of the Spanish fake transition. There will not be real democracy in Spain until its plurinational character is recognised, just as in the UK or Canada.
The Catalan and Basque demands for democracy will increase and a time of uncertainty will come. We shall see whether the Spanish State is capable of solving the unfinished business of the fake transition and become a truly plurinational democracy, recognizing the right to self determination, or finally implodes and gives birth to new democratic Republics.
Rather predictably the Kingdom of Spain is going in the opposite direction: the direction of authoritarianism, counter-reform, the recentralisation of powers and responding to democratic demands with an iron fist. All this gives wings to the fascist extreme right. History shows us where this leads.
Repression, imprisonment, and centralisation will not work. Like in most similar cases around the world there is no lasting solution to this kind of conflict without dialogue. Like in the north of Ireland, Scotland or Quebec, the only way to solve those tensions is through democracy. And anyone with a bit of political sense knows that to solve the Catalan issue there is a need to engage with legitimate Catalan representatives. A policy of repression with no talks and no negotiation is unnacceptable.
All the while European institutions and states look the other way. A change in policy from the Spanish state requires international admonishment, . Yet at the moment all we see is blind loyalty to Spain so as to maintain internal stability within the bloc. This conflict can only be resolved internationally – European institutions and states should raise their voices in favour of a negotiated solution, before is too late.