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Moment that mattered: Catalonia declares independence from Spain

Members of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona celebrate on 27th October 2017 after voting to declare the region’s independence from Spain

Members of the Catalan parliament in Barcelona celebrate on 27th October 2017 after voting to declare the region’s independence from Spain

On 27th October I was in the Catalan parliament as MPs voted to approve a motion declaring independence,” says Marcel Mauri, vice president of civic organisation Òmnium Cultural. “By that time my boss Jordi Cuixart had already been in prison for several weeks.”

For Mauri, it was a day of mixed emotions. “On one hand it vindicated the referendum of 1st October, in which the citizens came out and voted for independence, despite the violence meted out by the national police,” he says. “On the other hand we were anxious because certain anti-independence Catalan politicians were not in the chamber with us but in Madrid, voting in favour of the application of Article 155, imposing Spanish direct rule over Catalonia.”

In the 1st October referendum 92 percent of the votes cast were for independence. Turnout was 43 percent, with many of those opposed to independence boycotting the poll. The Spanish government designated both the referendum and the subsequent independence declaration by Catalan MPs illegal on the grounds that they breached the Spanish Constitution of 1978.

“To understand the independence movement, you can look back three centuries to 1714 when the Bourbon monarchy abolished the political institutions and freedoms of Catalonia,” says Mauri. “Or you can look at Catalonia’s persecution under the Franco dictatorship. But I think it’s more useful to look at what has happened in recent years. Catalonia is a modern society which has tried many times to come to an agreement with the Spanish state that recognises the cultural, linguistic, economic and social differences between them. The answer has always been ‘no’.” The economic argument has proven particularly powerful for some independence campaigners since the financial crash of 2008, which ushered in an era of harsh austerity in Spain. Catalonia is one of the economic powerhouses of Spain, and each year it pays ten billion euros more in tax to Madrid than it receives in return.

In 2006, the parliament of Catalonia approved a statute of autonomy defining the rights and duties of its citizens and the region’s relationship with the rest of Spain. Then, in 2010, the constitutional court of Spain decided to rewrite 14 of its articles and specify the interpretation of another 27, most of which related to fiscal policy, the Catalan language and justice. The decision was greeted with huge protests on the streets of Barcelona.

“It was a real watershed moment,” says Mauri. “Many people who had not been in favour of independence started to realise that the Spanish state could never truly defend the interests of the citizens of Catalonia. After their rights under the statute were limited, Catalans wanted to vote again, to decide the shape of our relationship with Spain. A referendum like this had been allowed in Quebec and Scotland, but Spain would not allow it.”

“Ten years ago only 15 percent of Catalans wanted independence and now it is almost 50 percent”

Mauri’s organisation, Òmnium Cultural, was founded in 1961 during the Franco dictatorship. “Our aim was to defend Catalan culture, language and civil rights,” he says. “In 2010, after the statute of autonomy was limited, Òmnium decided that in order to continue defending these things, Catalonia would need to be a state of its own. As the biggest and most influential civic-cultural institution in Catalonia, with 100,000 members, Òmnium wanted to help give the public a voice.”

“Franco managed to close down Òmnium for four years during his rule,” says Mauri. “But even Franco never dared to put our president in jail, which is what happened on 16th October 2017, under the democratic government of Spain. On that day Jordi Cuixart went to the high court in Madrid to voluntarily give testimony. He was not allowed to leave. He has been remanded in jail for more than four months, accused of sedition and rebellion, crimes he did not commit. These are crimes which carry an implication of violence, despite the fact that the independence movement has always been peaceful. The only violence that has occurred in Catalonia was on 1st October when police violently tackled people who were going to vote in the referendum.”

Jordi Cuixart is not the only Catalan leader still in custody. “So is Jordi Sànchez, former president of the Catalan National Assembly. So are Oriol Junqueras, vice president of Catalonia and Joaquim Forn, the former minister of the interior,” says Mauri. “It’s shameful that these people are in jail.” On 1st February 2018 British lawyer Ben Emmerson QC lodged an application to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention claiming that the imprisonment of Cuixart, Sànchez, Junqueras and Forn by Spain “is an affront to human rights, designed to prevent them from performing their role as political representatives of the Catalan people.”

Former president of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Brussels along with several members of his deposed cabinet, and on 1st March he suspended his attempts to return to office. But despite the loss of key leaders, Mauri believes the independence movement is far from over. “Ten years ago only 15 percent of Catalans wanted independence and now it is almost 50 percent,” he says. “We want to learn from everything achieved so far and to keep building momentum.”

Mauri was encouraged by the regional election of 21st December in which, much to the upset of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy who had ordered it, independence parties won an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament. “We saw that people are still backing our project – but we also want many more to join it,” he says. “There are many Catalans who are not part of the independence movement, but have watched the repression of rights and the taking of political prisoners with horror. We want to reach out to them.”

Four months after the declaration of independence, Mauri remains optimistic. “The independence movement has mobilised citizens to defend their right to decide and my hope rests with the people,” he says. “Democracy is in danger in Spain and we remain committed to defending it.”

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