“When one joins the civil guard, one declares civil war,” wrote the novelist Ramon Sender in 1936, the year his native Spain disintegrated into war.
The paramilitary civil guard were a repressive instrument of the decaying Bourbon monarchy in the 19th century. They became a symbol of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who emerged victorious from the civil war and ruled Spain between 1939 and 1975.
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy won’t have been insensitive to this symbolism when he sent in the civil guard to crush Catalonia’s independence referendum. After all, his governing Popular Party (PP) was founded by Manuel Fraga, a minister under Franco.
Of course, apologists will be quick to insist that the PP is a liberal-democratic party—nothing to do with the bad old Franco days. This is true only up to a point.
The PP defends the tradition of Castilian centralism that became entrenched under the Bourbon monarchy in the 18th and 19th centuries. This involved the suppression of the rights of the non-Castilian regions—most notably Catalonia and the Basque country.
This repression returned to haunt Madrid in the early 20th century.
Catalonia and the Basque country developed into economically advanced regions that increasingly asserted demands for autonomy or independence. This helped stoke the crisis of the Spanish state that led to the civil war.
Franco ferociously repressed Basque and Catalan nationalism in particular.
The latest bout of repression is justified by appeal to the 1978 Constitution, which established today’s parliamentary democracy in Spain.
But this is a highly contradictory document that affirms both “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation” and “the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed”.
The Constitution was the product of a specific constellation of circumstances. Efforts to make a “negotiated break” with Francoism left the key institutions of the Spanish state and of Spanish capitalism in place.
The negotiations involved three highly undemocratic institutions – the modernising wing of the Francoist movement, represented by its ex-leader, prime minister Adolfo Suarez, the army, and the Communist Party of Spain, then the most powerful left-wing party.
The Basque and Catalan nationalist movements had fought against the dictatorship, and so had to be given rights of self-government. But the army retained the duty “to defend [Spain’s] territorial integrity”.
The compromise stuck, despite a long-running guerrilla war in the Basque Country. The Spanish state became a pillar of the European Union (EU). The European connection—trumpeted by Spanish and EU politicians—may however be its undoing.
Catalonia is economically the most important Spanish region, accounting for a fifth of national income.
But, like the rest of the state, it has been hit hard by austerity implemented by Rajoy. He has pretty faithfully implemented the instructions of the European Commission and the European Central Bank since he took office in 2011.
Rajoy and the PP also successfully campaigned against a deal negotiated by the preceding Socialist Party government that would have given the regions more powers.
So Catalonians have been confronted by an intransigent right wing government in Madrid simultaneously imposing austerity and resisting their right to self-determination.
Brussels’ support is important to Rajoy, who presides over a minority government kept in office by the Socialist Party. And the Commission first vice-president, Frans Timmermans, defended what he called the “proportionate use of force” by Madrid’s riot squads.
The reason is clear enough. “The Catalan crisis poses a threat to the European order,” wailed the Financial Times last week.
“Just as the eurozone’s sovereign debt and bank crises came close to unravelling decades of European construction, so the Catalan nationalists’ push for independence risks opening a Pandora’s box of problems.”
But Rajoy’s bully-boy tactics have already rebounded on him. After Greece and Brexit, Catalonia is the latest confrontation that exposes the fragile and undemocratic nature of the corrupt neoliberal European “order”.