History tells us that when politics in Spain reaches boiling point —which is a regular occurrence— the path of emotions, even of the bloody kind, prevails over reason and temperance, with devastating results. We are witnessing the mercury rise in Madrid, where Pablo Casado’s PP has succumbed to Vox’s threatening style, dumping the discretion inherited from Rajoy to adopt the provocative, inflaming rhetoric that echoes the purest strand of fascist populism that preceded the Spanish Civil War. Vox has become the agent of chaos in Spanish politics, fuelling the more extreme positions within the conservative bloc that it forms with the PP and Ciudadanos. While Casado draws a comparison between Catalonia’s independence movement and ETA, conveniently forgetting that his mentor, former PM José María Aznar, held talks with the Basque terrorist group, the process of whitewashing the far right that began with the coalition government in Andalusia continues full steam ahead in politics and media.
Robert A. Heinlein once wrote, that “you can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic”. And that is what happened this Sunday with the Spanish nationalist demonstration staged in the streets of Madrid with the aim of toppling PM Pedro Sánchez by branding him a traitor. As a matter of fact, last Friday the political parties that called Sunday’s march were rewarded with the short term political victory that they were after [when Madrid called off talks with Barcelona]. It will be interesting to see if the Spanish government will reverse Friday’s U-turn. Spain’s deputy PM, Carmen Calvo, succumbed to mounting pressure and put an end to the efforts made to bring both governments closer, only one day after she had ardently spoken in favour of negotiations and dialogue “to the last breath”. As had happened before to its Catalan branch, Thursday saw a new implosion within the Spanish socialist party when former Spanish PM Felipe González appeared deus ex machina on a video where he decried the country’s “institutional degradation”. With the media’s support, the old socialist leader let off a volley aimed at the unruly prime minister, a premier no longer trusted by part of his own cabinet. A long time ago Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the socialist party, made it very clear that he would not dance to the tune of the party’s old guard and that his leadership was supported by the PSOE’s rank and file. However, there is a limit to what you can withstand when you only have 85 seats in parliament and the far right is screaming its head off.
The budding talks between the Catalan and the Spanish government to set the grounds for a negotiation came to an abrupt end with a text message on the chat group shared by Calvo, Aragonès and Artadi, following the earthquake triggered by ERC’s motion to reject the budget bill tabled in the Spanish parliament. Calvo, the Spanish deputy PM, privately wished her Catalan counterparts “good luck” while she stated in public that “we shall never agree to a self-determination referendum [in Catalonia]”. Therefore, the key discrepancy was not the role of the rapporteur, but the conditions for dialogue and, in particular, the timing of the Spanish budget and Madrid’s annoyance at ERC’s gesture at a time when talks seemed to be making some headway.
Sánchez’s government expected Catalonia’s pro-independence parties to agree to back the Spanish budget in parliament before clinching a deal about the framework of their talks with the Catalan executive. Madrid’s argument was that you cannot put the Spanish government “between a rock and a hard place” or bring them “down on their knees”. The Catalan negotiators, in turn, were conditioned by the transfer of the indicted pro-independence leaders to Madrid prisons and the start of a trial that will be a test for the State. The trial against the Catalan leaders will not only affect the credibility of Spain’s justice system, but the quality of Spanish democracy as a whole. The Catalan government saw the Spanish budget as one of the few elements of leverage in their negotiation with Madrid, while their Spanish counterpart threatened with a hypothetical right-wing government coalition, like in Andalusia, that would wipe out Catalonia’s self rule.
In praise of reason
Abraham Lincoln used to say that, as the memories of the Revolution faded with the passing of time, the freedom of the nation was jeopardised by disdain for the government institutions that protect the civil and religious liberties inherited from America’s founding fathers. Lincoln prescribed “reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason”. In Spain, the memory of the Civil War and the ensuing forty years of oppressive regime that led to the political Transition is fading. The heat is on and the Spanish right is pulling all the stops to topple the Spanish PM, aided by elements within his very own party, the PSOE. They have successfully instilled fear in the Spanish leader. Equally successful are those who claim that the end of the world is nigh and there is no point in strategising the talks because all is lost. Unfortunately, Spain’s history is proof that everything can always get worse.
This week a trial will kick off with the State sitting in the dock. Spain’s justice system will be scrutinised by Strasbourg and the Catalan political prisoners will get a chance to be heard, make their point and explain their actions. Spain sits at a truly historic junction, unaware of what is at stake.