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The New York Times (Opinion) - The rebels no longer defend self-determination in public so vigorously. The more intelligent ones negotiate. The pandemic took the breath away from Catalan nationalism.

By Diego Fonseca 10 December 2020

He is a regular contributor in Spanish to The New York Times.

Former Generalitat presidents Carles Puigdemont, left, and Quim Torra, 2019Credit…Stephanie Lecocq/EPA via Shutterstock

Catalan independence is dead. What was supposed to happen happened: politics returned to centre stage in Spain and Catalan nationalism’s dreams of nationhood have returned to where they belonged, to the dreamlike space of aspirations from which a generation of leaders incapable of reading the political scene with the necessary mettle to make decisions that were not motivated by a nationalism of blows to the chest.

Brief summary of facts. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the pro-independence left, has been trying for almost two years to negotiate a dignified way out of the self-inflicted defeat in the referendum of 1 October 2017, when the parties in favour of Catalan independence united in a pathetic episode of fleeting split. After that, the Catalan right closed in on a defence of nation or nothing. Now, ERC voted in favour of the budgets of Pedro Sánchez’s government, widening the tensions with its former partners.

Today, the rebels no longer defend the self-determination of the community with such teeth in public. The smartest talk, the most stubborn get angry. Perhaps the pandemic took the breath away from Catalan nationalism or perhaps it only brought enough leaders to their senses. Or perhaps it did so with everyone: Spanish society is somewhat exhausted from the improvisation and childishness of its leadership. All of it.

It was time. A bit of good sense and focus comes in handy when thousands die from a health disaster. There is an undeniably realistic impact on the intrusion of the pandemic as the necessary crisis: it puts things right. To govern is to manage. Everyone would do well to address the damage their decisions do to flesh and blood people rather than the volatility of their desire.

This is what Catalan independence is all about today: pricking the crumbs on the table with the tip of your finger. Quim Torra, the separated former president of the autonomous government, boasts on Twitter – the kingdom of the screamers – that never under his command was a budget for Spain approved. “On the contrary,” he wrote, “we knocked them down” and that is “one of the greatest honours of my political career”. Carles Puigdemont, the former president of the Generalitat who fled to Waterloo, is attempting to turn his defeat into a victory by proclaiming that the Catalan left has betrayed independence by betting on talks with the Sánchez government. He says that ERC’s “magical pactism” will only benefit Spain.

They are wrong. Torra and Puigdemont are the courtiers expelled from the palace, raging their anger from the plain, far from where the cheese is cut. Above the watchtower, they are watched unperturbed by the main plain of the Catalan left, with Oriol Junqueras, the former vice president of Puigdemont, imprisoned for sedition and embezzlement, officiating as a trained Richelieu: ERC has understood that only politics, a delicate exercise in conversation after conversation, will give oxygen to the Catalan faith in its self-determination.

What became of the Procés that nourished the idea of independence? Nothing, it was disjointed. The procés fed the emotional drunkenness of Catalan society, which was overflowing with self-confidence. Many people came to believe that independence was within reach – or within the reach of a referendum – and the political leadership, instead of calling for sanity, took the lead in fervour. But within ten years the Procés was unable to secure an unquestionable majority to force Spain to speak truthfully about the present and future of its community of nations. That time was gone.

Now the former allies against Spain -especially ERC and JxCat, Puigdemont’s party- walk along different paths. The willingness of the left to engage in dialogue is intolerable to the anti-Spanish rage of the Catalan right. ERC has the chance to win in a society that has been profoundly affected by the fiasco of an independence that lasted 30 seconds – the time it took Puigdemont to declare it after the referendum and then immediately to make an embarrassing speech – and by the lethal impact of the coronavirus, which hit Catalonia hard.

Sometime we will have to discuss how much the pandemic helped to forget about the secondary and inconsequential. The sum of the political errors of Catalan nationalism first defused the belligerence – the left continues to call for self-determination but nobody talks about independence any more – and the virus forced the most rational political actors to understand that, sooner or later, events shape expectations.

Now Catalonia must return to the back seat of the national conversation. From there she will have her ears open as long as the socialists are in power; nobody will hear her when the right wing locks her in the boot of the car. Spain – the whole of its communities – needs to focus on the underlying problems, from resolving the lousy management of the pandemic to recovering the economy and confidence in its leadership.

Joan Tardà, one of the most astute leaders of the Catalan left, always understood the independence of Catalonia as part of the give and take of a negotiation. He was not wrong. Tightening the rope is a dead end: there will be no chance for Catalonia – of any kind – without long-term dialogue.

Today, independence that has been shouted at is defeat.

Diego Fonseca is a regular contributor to The New York Times and director of the Institute for Socratic Dialogue in Barcelona. Voyeur is his latest book published in Spain.


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