Friday, February 22, 2013

We are not Scotland, by Vicent Partal

Originally published in VilaWeb, 22 Feb 2013

The first test of the Scottish Referendum was a small disaster. Yesterday, 62% at the University of Glasgow voted against independence in a straw poll that looked to imitate the Catalan straw polls of 2010-2011 and therefore prepare the road towards the official referendum that will take place next year. A referendum that all observers, unfortunately, agree on forecasting as a defeat for Scottish nationalism.

It's sad that that's the case, but, even though we are not very accustomed to taking ourselves seriously, perhaps we might take advantage of the situation to point out some notable differences between their situation and our own. Two of the most noteworthy: the broad base of support and the origin of the proposal. From above in the Scottish case, from the ground in Catalonia.

It's true, and obvious, that the different attitudes of the British and Spanish governments work to our advantage. But that's not the whole story. In Scotland the process is being managed almost exclusively by the Scottish National Party, which faces a ideologically diverse coalition of opposing forces which claim to represent a cross-section of Scottish society. In Catalonia, on the other hand, and this was made quite clear in the last elections, the citizenry want the process to be led not by a single party or single leader, but by a coalition that crosses party and ideological lines. Which is of course more complicated to manage, but also much more robust.

In Catalonia, in contrast with Scotland, the pro-independence movement is first and foremost a grass-roots movement, that has pushed the political parties toward an ever clearer position. It's not anyone's political machinations, but rather a collective need spearheaded by the community, and manifested through various successful initiatives, from the straw polls to the demonstrations, just to name a few.

In Scotland, the independentists have to work hard if they want to win the referendum, and right now it seems like a very difficult mission indeed. Which makes me think two things. First, it'll be better for us to hold our referendum before theirs. And second, it's about time, without any false modesty, that we give ourselves a little credit for the road traveled—so well!—up to this point. And at the same time it would be great if we could shed our fears about winning our future.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Turning the Europe debate on its head, by Vicent Partal

Originally published on February 12, 2013.

Will Catalonia be out of the European Union if it becomes independent? It's all speculation, and impossible to call, as we've seen in the last few months, keeping in mind that everything will be negotiable, and negotiated. But yesterday's report from the British Parliament says things that we'd do well to pay attention to. The report makes it clear that right now no one can seriously affirm either that Scotland will automatically become a Member State, or that it won't. But the report argues that leaving Scotland out would be extraordinarily difficult. And that's where the interesting bit of the story is.

Scotland, and Catalonia, are already part of the European Union. And therefore, all of the citizens and businesses that reside there enjoy the privileges and freedoms established by the Union, for example, the free circulation of goods, people, and merchandise—just to name the most obvious.

The question that the British Parliament is facing is the following one: could the Union deprive rights from the citizens that are already members? The debate, formulated in this way, is quite interesting. Because we're not just talking about the Scots or the Catalans. We're talking about Europeans.

Let's imagine that tonight Catalonia proclaims its independence. At 11:59pm, the Seat factory in Martorell, which belongs to Volkswagen, a German company, functions in a situation in which it can move parts and works and sell vehicles throughout the Union. One minute later, if Catalonia is expelled, it won't be able to do so. Is that conceivable?

No, it's not at all conceivable, keeping in mind that for Catalonia to be expelled there would have to be a unanimous vote from the European Council. That is, Germany would have to vote against the interests of its own company. Or Romania would have to vote that all of the Romanian workers would be instantly categorized as foreigners, with all the problems that would entail.

The British, a serious people not inclined to foolishness, have begun to realize that it would be a lot more costly than it seems to expel a territory from the Union. First, because all of the states, unanimously, would have to make a decree about the expulsion. Which is not very likely.

But, what is more—and this is no small detail—because not even the Council (that is the governments), the Commission, or the Parliament would have the last word. The last word would fall to the Court of Justice of the European Union. It could happen, then, that the European Council decides to expel Scotland and Catalonia, but that the Court of Justice immediately stays the decision. In order to more carefully study if it violates the rights of all European citizens, native or foreign-born, residents of Catalonia or Scotland.

And it's important to point out, that the Court has already ruled against Spain: when Spain opposed the right of the people of Gibraltar to vote as British in the European elections.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Spanish Initiative

If you buy a house in the US, or the UK, or in most countries, and you fail to keep up the mortgage payments, the bank has the right to foreclose on your house, kick you out, and sell the house to someone else. Fair enough. If that happens, the repossession of the house satisfies the buyer's financial responsibility to the bank, and the two parties go their separate ways. It is up to the bank to be careful enough when agreeing to a mortgage so that the value of the house secures its investment. And if not, well, the bank earns interest on the loan because of the risk is it willing to take.

In Spain, if you default on a mortgage, according to the current law, the bank will foreclose on your house, evict you, and, here's the real kicker: make you keep paying the mortgage payments. So, not only do they get whatever equity you put into the house, but they get the house, and they get the rest of the loan. It's barbaric. Meanwhile, the mortgagor is on the street, and if they couldn't pay the payments before, you can help me figure out how they'll pay them with no roof over their head.

Many groups have tried to change the law, to no avail. The most recent attempt is by the PAH (Plataforma d'Afectats per la Hipoteca/Platform for those affected by mortgage) who have submitted a "People's Initiative" (ILP: Iniciativa legislativa popular) to the Spanish Congress. So far, they have collected 1,402,854 signatures in favor of changing the mortgage law with some minimum provisions:

• nonrecourse debt, both retroactive and for the future (if the bank forecloses, the debtor is no longer liable for the balance of the payments)
• lodging for those who have been evicted from their houses in empty apartments that belong to banking institutions
• moratorium on primary residence evictions

On Tuesday, the Spanish Congress is slated to vote whether or not to admit the Non-recourse debt ILP for debate. The ruling PP has said it will vote against it, and since it enjoys majority representation in the Spanish Congress, the Non-recourse debt ILP will be effectively dead at that point.

On that same Tuesday, the Spanish Congress will debate a different ILP: one that designates bull fighting as a "Heritage of Cultural Interest" of Spain. Such a law would protect the celebration of bull fighting throughout the Spanish state, and thus overrule the ban on bull-fighting passed in the Catalan Parliament on July 28, 2010.

If that weren't enough, it turns out that the bull-fighting law will be the first Popular Initiative to ever make it to law. It is quite telling—and depressing—that the Spanish Congress can get a law through to force bull-fighting on Catalans, but not update their draconian mortgage system.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

The gates of hell, by Vicent Partal

Originally published on VilaWeb, 2 February 2013. Translated by Jan Reinhart.

You’ve known me for years, so you know that I have always held that the only sensible course for your country and mine is independence. But you also know that what today appears inarguable was nothing of the sort five years ago.

Just the same, today I have a question. I ask myself if Catalonia set forth on the road to independence because it suddenly saw the light, or if it is that Spain is so clearly and obviously sinking that the Principality, as has happened so often in history, finally saw it five minutes before the others and got a move on.

Everything that we have lived through this week leads me to the second hypothesis. Spain is in free fall, covered in its own mud. They didn’t want to clean up the rot when Franco died, and now they are paying for it. Urdangarín, the royal house, the treasurer of the Partido Popular, the political barons (and how many of them are sons of illustrious Francoists!) passing around black envelopes as if nothing had changed, the businesses connected to the Official Bulletin of the State, the ridiculous infrastructure projects, the unmitigated contempt for the citizenry, the loads of money spent for no discernible purpose… Today Spain is a failed state, lost, wandering in its delirium of grandiosity. And who knows how much money has gone down the drain never to return.

We have corruption, too, of course. The laws are the same and the consequences of the same laws are the same. But the more that we compare, what is clear now is that Madrid is incomparable. Not because we might be better – we’re not – but rather because, in the Spanish State, the power, the real power, the one that makes major enterprises grow upon decree, that enriches itself in the revolving door of politics and economics, this great and enormous power is in Madrid. And it plays for Madrid.

In all this we are a bit irrelevant. And this matter, which seemed like a huge and insurmountable problem just four days ago, has now gone and opened wide the gates of hell. Under Madrid.