"We can provoke the implosion of the Spanish regime": Interview with Catalan Quim Arrufat

Catalonian socialists Popular Unity Candidacy (Cup) has long had strong links with the left in Scotland, particularly with Radical Independence activists during the independence campaign. CommonSpace visited former Cup MP and party activist Quim Arrufat in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona to learn more

THE SEA OF new alliances, electoral platforms and acronyms around Catalan and Spanish politics in recent years can be confusing for those looking in from outside. But while many such names - Podemos, En Comu and others - are remarkably new, the Cup has been around for more than 20 years.

A long build-up of networks and support across Catalonia paid off, and the socialist, pro-independence party now has a 150 assemblies and nearly 400 local councillors. But the election of 10 MPs in the Catalan parliament last year meant the Cup suddenly found themselves holding the balance of power. The election, in September 2015, had been framed as a proxy referendum.

"That 48 per cent voted for 'yes' parties in the election last year doesn't mean that 52 per cent were 'No'," explains Arrufat, 34, as we sit down in the parliament's garden. "Many voted neither yes or no, but simply to have the referendum. The Cup has given its support to the independence government - the 'Together for Yes' alliance. And this government has been working for three months."

The significant gap between those elections and the formation of this government is down to Cup's refusal to support a government with right-winger Artur Mas as president. In a precursor to Spain's own current stalemate, three months passed before Mas - who has been dogged by corruption scandals - stepped aside, and Cup agreed to the leadership of Carles Puigdemont.

But this was back in January this year, and things have been moving quickly in Spanish and Catalan politics. Together for Yes promised to take radical steps towards independence. So where is the Catalan cause now?

"Everybody will tell you there's a pause [in the independence movement]. A silence. But it's because we're awaiting the result of the negotiations in Spain. If we are to have a Spanish government of Podemos and PSOE (Socialist Workers Party)... well at least Podemos is leftist, but PSOE no longer understands anything about Catalan independence. It's become very nationalist, in a Spanish way."

"During the Civil War there was a famous statement made by Francoist troops: 'We prefer a red Sain to a separated Catalonia'."

This abandoning of support for the right to self-determination is one of the (many) criticisms levelled at PSOE, which was previously the 'red' side of Spain's two-party system, but in recent years has fallen from grace in much the same way as Greece's Pasok and the UK's Labour party.

But, of course, Spain has its own Tory party, and on social issues at least, they're arguably more conservative than those at Westminster. The People's Party (PP) is probably known best in Scotland for its leader Mario Rajoy, he of the dire EU membership warnings. Currently ruling as caretaker government while the stalemate continues, PP last year tried to impose severe restrictions on abortion rights. Arrufat describes a potential PP-Cuidadanos government as "very rightwing, ultra-nationalist".

And the fear is that this will be the result if new elections are required: "On 2 May congress will be suspended and new elections called for 26 June. We're scared about this - it's most likely that PP-Cuidadanos will form the government. The hope for change in Spain, associated with Podemos or just with a leftist government, has decreased after seeing the negotiations go on and the disagreement within the left."

"If you are not allowed to build your own democratic project, then you have no possibility of socialism."

"Four more years of rightwing nationalism and austerity isn't affordable for Catalan society", Arrufat says. The parallels with Scotland are pretty obvious. But the 'independentistas' now ruling in the Catalan parliament are certain they will never be granted the right to a referendum as Scotland was. "This conservative, nationalist government will not only forbid our referendum but will take still more rights from the working class. So once we know the results, we will have to take decisions."

The new Catalan government is taking a 'do it anyway' approach; president Puigdemont recently announced his intention to draft 45 laws which will put Catalonia "at the gates" of a new state. It's what they've been calling the 'roadmap' to independence: creating state structures without Spain's permission, and seeing what happens.

Arrufat explains: "The roadmap we have on the table now is that this government has a limited mandate of 18 months. So we've 14 left. We have to write some important bills for the Catalan republic - they'll be passed during the last session of parliament because they're illegal. These are state structures of a new republic."

But there are still many in Catalonia who do not support independence, and did not vote for pro-independence parties in September. How will they take this illegal pursuit of a Catalan republic?

"Nobody said they were intelligent. But it's a disaster, a tragedy actually."

"After we pass these laws, we call for new elections," Arrufat says. "These will be a consultation; we'll ask Catalan society: Do you support these actions the parliament took? If people don't support it then we stop the independence process. It has to be democratic.

"The problem is that if things go badly in Spain and we do get a PP-C government, the 18 months will become nine months.

"We are trying to do a very complicated thing. To create a new republic, to make a democratic, open constitutional process. We are planning to win independence without the permission of the state which administers our land. So we're talking a lot to the international community, but as a central point, mobilising people in our land in a democratic and peaceful manner. That's something that has not happened before anywhere else. Through democratic, peaceful means, a quiet political movement, becoming independent without permission of the state."

Arrufat was an MP in the Catalan parliament from 2012-15, and before that a city councillor. No one in Cup can serve more than one term at a time. A maximum salary of 1,400 euros per month is imposed on all party workers and representatives, similar to the policy of the Scottish Socialist Party, and now electoral alliance Rise in Scotland.

So, his term in parliament over, Arrufat is now working on the party's international links, travelling mainly around Europe. "Mostly the international community has accepted Catalonia's right to independence," he says. "They only ask 'how will you do it?' If it's done in the right way, they'll recognise us." The recent spat over Catalonia's foreign minister visiting Scotland - his position is not recognised by Madrid - is a case in point. "Spain is trying to cut our international links, but they can't," Arrufat says confidently.

Catalan independence has a long history, and is connected to the civil war and subsequent repression under Franco. But mass support for separation is a relatively recent phenomenon, and it seems that the more national governments in Madrid maintain an absolute refusal to budge on the issue, the more support for independence grows. Arrufat nods. "Nobody said they were intelligent. But it's a disaster, a tragedy actually. We can't have a normal debate between Yes and No, a normal campaign in which people can decide as though they were adults. The Spanish regime that was born after the dictatorship has never considered Spanish citizens to be adults. They are like parents with children."

"It's very stupid, but it's the typical approach of an empire which hasn't renewed itself with democratic ideas. Spain is not a democracy - it's a mix. It has elements of a democracy, but the current Spain comes from an agreement between dictatorship and democracy."

"We can provoke the implosion of the Spanish regime here in Catalonia, and contribute to making a new republic."

One argument put forward by Spain is that wealthy Catalonia's desire to break away is a selfish move which would deprive less-developed areas of Spain of much-needed resources. It's an idea, Arrufat admits, with "some basis". But, he argues, the same people who keep Spain poor - the handful of families who own vast tracts of land - are those in the ruling elite who block any reform.

"At the end of the Civil War there were two million people in Catalonia, now we have seven million. 3.5 million immigrants came from southern Spain, when there was nothing there. The same landowners who financed the Franco regime caused great poverty by concentrating wealth and land; they provoked the immigration from southern Spain. And 40 years later you look at the inequality of the regions, you look back to Andalucia - you find the same owners."

"Mostly the international community has accepted Catalonia's right to independence."

A key ally of the Cup in southern Spain is the Andalucian Workers Syndicate (Sat), which supports land reform and redistribution of wealth as well as Andalucian independence. "We share the same view, the same discourse. They want the land for everyone and they are very aware that Andalucia has no economic features, because the landowners don't want development. And the sons of the landowners are leading Party Popular. So what can you do about this?

"So when people say 'You are selfish', we say to Spain, 'Yeah, and you are stupid'. Making the regions so dependent on the state, and on a few families, is not clever. The youngsters in these regions are all going to Europe to work, or to Catalonia, Basque country... They'll never have a future in their land. The only future the state gives them is to be a policeman or to emigrate."

"We have to write some important bills for the Catalan republic - they'll be passed during the last session of parliament because they're illegal."

"And while it's more or less true that Catalonia is the richest part of Spain, the most powerful, it also has highest rate of evictions. We are not all rich; there is industrial wealth but it's not well-redistributed."

Spain's eviction rate following the financial crash of 2008 soared to the highest level in Europe, as mortgage payers defaulted in huge numbers. At one point in 2012, 500 evictions were happening every day. In response, the Platform for Mortgage Victims (Pah) mobilised thousands of people across Spain, blocking bailiffs and fighting the banks, and making one activist famous: Ada Colau. The 41 year old is now mayor of Barcelona, having taken the city elections by storm in 2015 with alliance Barcelona En Comu (Barcelona in Common).

En Comu is similar in rhetoric and policy to Podemos and joined them on a platform for the Catalan elections, as Comu Podem ('Together we Can'). Avoiding the language of the left, and taking no position on Catalan independence other than supporting a referendum, these new parties are either bringing politics to the people, or watering down the radical desire for change, depending on who you listen to.

Arrufat is fairly unequivocal. "It's a new power elite seeking to substitute the old elite. When the Spanish election is decided, we'll see which role they play. The choice will be between supporting a government of PP-Ciudadanos, or the possibility of a new republic. Which will they choose? Will they really say 'At the front of the independence alliance are right-wing MPs, so we'll defend the party of PP-C'?"

This narrative is one which infuriated leftwing 'No' voters during Scotland's referendum: "Choose independence or you're defending the Tories." When the Catalan government is headed by rightwing figures such as Puigdemont, is it really that clear-cut? Could there be a route to socialism as part of Spain? In the context of a leftwing Spain, Arrufat concedes, independence wouldn't have the same support. But the absolute refusal by Spain to devolve power leaves little choice. "If you are not allowed to build your own democratic project, then you have no possibility of socialism."

"Four more years of rightwing nationalism and austerity isn't affordable for Catalan society."

"There is a majority of leftist forces in Catalonia which could take power. But the Catalan government has no money. It cannot collect any tax. All the laws passed by this parliament in the past five years are in the constitutional court, suspended. So it has no legislative autonomy, no taxes, no money, an enormous debt, and austerity. What can a leftist government do with that?"

Arrufat is confident that Catalonia will succeed where Scotland did not. "You went very fas,t, he says, shaking his head. "In 1999 - devolution. A few years later - referendum. In the past I remember Scottish independence was really a minority opinion.

"The other reason you lost is that they really scared you. You have the United Kingdom in front of you. A worldwide power. We have Spain". He stresses the last word as though Spain were some small, laughably powerless state. But in the face of million-strong marches, legal challenges, and now a pro-independence regional government, the government in Madrid won't budge.

Even the possibilty of a left-leaning government, in the form of Podemos and the more traditional left party PSOE (which looks increasingly unlikely) would not, it seems, lead to concessions for Catalonia. Podemos, Arrufat explains, "put the referendum on the netogiating table [following December's inconclusive election], and PSOE said 'We'd have fresh elections rather than a referendum in Catalonia'."

He says this is nothing new in Spanish politics. "During the Civil War there was a famous statement made by Francoist troops: 'We prefer a red Sain to a separated Catalonia'. Well, now PSOE is doing the same - 'We prefer a blue Spain to a Catalan referendum'."

"While it's more or less true that Catalonia is the richest part of Spain, the most powerful, it also has highest rate of evictions."

Arrufat and his fellow 'independentistas' know their plan is drastic and won't be easy. The fragile alliance between left and right in the Catalan parliament would need to hold fast in order to take steps that are, technically, illegal.

He is optimistic though, because of the change taking place outwith parliament. Cup has what some might see a healthy scepticism towards such institutions and places great emphasis on societal change, summed up by their 'One foot in the parliament, a thousand on the streets' slogan taken up by their Scottish counterparts, Rise. "What we're doing in parliament is only a small part of our activity. We have 200 social centres open every day in all the neighbourhoods - because we know there is this political opportunity this year.

"We're at the edge. We can provoke the implosion of the Spanish regime here in Catalonia, and contribute to making a new republic - or alternatively, the regime will become stronger for another 40 years."

Many in Scotland will no doubt be watching to see how this attempt at 'UDI' pans out. Depending on the outcome of Spanish elections, they may not have so long to wait.

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Picture courtesy of jordi salvia