Sunday 23 September 2018

Catalonia crisis is stirring the ghosts of Spain's grim fascist past

A protester holds aloft a placard calling for the release of political prisoners in Barcelona. Photo: Getty Images
A protester holds aloft a placard calling for the release of political prisoners in Barcelona. Photo: Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

Europe has seen few political dramas quite like it in recent years: a political showdown followed by a constitutional crisis followed by a deposed regional president surfacing in Brussels as he and his associates face sedition charges back home.

The twists and turns of the crisis in Catalonia - and the speed at which it unfolded - have taken everyone by surprise, as have the high emotions on all sides.

This week, a Spanish judge locked up nine former ministers in Catalonia's regional government pending trial on charges including rebellion and sedition - only allowing one, Santi Vila, to be released on bail as he had quit on the eve of the illegal declaration of independence.

They are among some 20 people - including deposed president Carles Puigdemont - facing charges that could lead to sentences of up to 30 years in prison. Puigdemont's decision to steal away to Brussels was a calculated one: "We are here because Brussels is the capital of Europe," he said after arriving. "This is a European issue and I want Europe to react."

The crisis is another headache for an EU already burdened with the fallout from Brexit and facing several other regional movements inspired by the Catalan separatist push.

In Brussels, Puigdemont remains defiant, describing himself as the "legitimate president" of Catalonia though the regional parliament was dissolved last week. He says he is not seeking asylum but that he came to Brussels "to have more security".

Few could have imagined this scenario in the run-up to the controversial independence referendum on October 1.

Clashes and a heavy-handed response by police on the day further ratcheted up tension. Last Friday, its parliament boldly declared independence, a move that immediately triggered Madrid to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution for the first time and impose direct rule on Catalonia. Most of Catalonia's political parties have agreed to snap elections in December, which will bring about a new regional government.

What flavour that government may have is an open question: while many Catalans are inflamed over what they see as Madrid's hamfisted approach, others took part in a massive pro-unity rally in Barcelona. Catalonia is divided and support for the secessionists is far from the dominant mood.

Much can happen between now and December and many fear the simmering animosities could yet again flare into violence. In the meantime, there is the economic impact of Spain's worst political crisis in decades to reckon with.

Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people, generates about one-fifth of the country's overall economic output. But uncertainty about Catalonia's future has prompted some 2,000 banks, multinationals and mid-size companies to move their headquarters outside the region. Figures released this week showed that unemployment rose sharply in Catalonia by 3.67pc - affecting 14,698 people - the largest loss of jobs in all of Spain's regions. In comparison, Madrid experienced a rise of just 0.08pc during the same period.

On Thursday, the Bank of Spain warned that the upheaval resulting from the independence drive - if the uncertainty continues - could markedly slow economic growth in the next months. All the signs indicate that the turmoil is set to continue.

The move to detain the eight regional ministers accused of rebellion and sedition has already brought thousands of angry Catalans to the streets in Barcelona in protest. Rallies in their support have also been held in other Catalan towns. From Brussels, Puigdemont deplored the detentions as "an act that breaks with the basic principles of democracy".

Prosecutors are also seeking a European Arrest Warrant for Puigdemont, who says he will not return to Spain unless he receives guarantees of a fair trial. His presence in Belgium is ruffling feathers there. "We really shouldn't be importing Spanish problems," a Belgian official told the Politico website.

Back in Spain, many have been taken aback not only by how quickly the situation escalated but also how the crisis has led to a resurgence of reactionary right-wing nationalism in other parts of the country.

The sight in recent months of counter-independence demonstrators in Madrid and other places singing Franco-era anthems and making salutes associated with the dark decades of his fascist regime has disturbed many.

The ghosts of Spain's history are being stirred.

Irish Independent

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