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Catalonia lurches into the unknown after high court suspends referendum

If at the beginning of this year, I had marked out the predictable events in Catalonia’s bid for independence, the suspension of the independence referendum by the constitutional court on Monday, September 29th, would’ve been the final one. It wasn’t surprising that gigantic crowds would protest for independence on the 11th of September. It wasn’t surprising that the Scottish referendum would be wielded by Catalans to make their case that the right to self-determination can be applied peacefully and democratically. Lastly, it wasn’t surprising that the Spanish government would move at the highest speed to suspend the efforts by the Catalan government to hold a vote on independence. The exact dates would’ve been hard to pin down but the order unmistakable. It was a plot you could read out chapters ahead, but then with total abruptness, the climax is totally out of sight.

Now one must ask an unanswerable question: What happens when hundreds of thousands of people who are deeply committed to seeing Catalonia’s independence aren’t even allowed a non-binding vote? To get an idea, it’s worth remembering that Catalonia has been intensely debating its relationship with Spain for a decade now, going back to the autonomy statute in 2006 that was scaled down by this same constitutional court in 2010. This disappointment is a crucial part in the rise of independence sentiment over the last few years, a rise overly attributed to the economic crisis by the international media. Catalan aspirations for self-rule can only suffer so many setbacks before the rupture between Catalonia and the Spanish state becomes complete. The ruling Spanish conservative party seems indifferent to this risk.

There’s another crucial aspect to what’s happening in Catalonia. The pro-referendum forces are a majority in the regional parliament, but it’s the most awkward arrangement (they’re not formally in government together) between center-right Catalan nationalists and three left parties that consist of the republic left, eco-socialists, and the gloriously far-left party CUP which explicitly calls for the independence of not just Catalonia but of all the “Catalan Countries” on either side of the French and Spanish border, as well as supporting open borders and the liberation of migrants held captive by Spanish immigrant detention facilities. The only thing holding this Catalan parliament together is the prospect of a referendum; take the referendum away and you in all likelihood have snap elections that will measure the extent of the rupture I just mentioned. If the past nine months went according to script, the next nine months are a leap into the unknown.

Europe’s Complacency Shattered by Fascist Violence and Continued Austerity

It’s as if Europe has passed the summer with its eyes shut and ears plugged, trying to wish away its profound social and economic crisis. It may seem like ages ago but it was just within the past year we’ve witnessed the bank runs in Cyprus, the pan-European strike that brought pitched street battles to Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona & several Italian cities, and the determined effort by Catalans to achieve independence from Spain, threatening the dismantlement of one of Europe’s largest nation states. This was all meant to be forgotten; Europe’s crisis has come to end, we were told by policymakers. Greek & Portuguese prime ministers have spoken of recovery & German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has assured us that Europe is being fixed. However, on Tuesday night, the fascist paramilitaries of Greek Golden Dawn reminded us that Europe is not just far from fixed, it is deeply broken.

On Tuesday night, those fascist paramilitaries attacked and pursued anti-fascist Pavlos Fyssas into an ambush where he would be fatally stabbed, living just long enough to identify his killer. Something is very broken here; broken so badly that Golden Dawn has been able to fatally assault migrants, carry out a homophobic siege on a performance of Corpus Christi, & just last week hospitalizing 9 communist party supporters with an assortment of crude weapons. Despite all of this, securing the dismissal of thousands of civil servants is still Europe’s most pressing concern when it comes to Greece, not dismantling this murderous neo-Nazi militia and its support network within the Greek police force.

Amid this fascist violence, record unemployment, decimated public services, and mass emigration from crisis hit countries, they still argue to us that Europe is being fixed. While they haven’t fixed Europe, they have manage to normalize a level of misery that would’ve been politically untenable just years ago. The mass mobilizations by indignant Europeans of the past three summer have largely melted away in 2013. Maybe Europe’s indignados have been broken by the many defeats of their movements to a European austerity policy that has gone unchanged despite the policy’s failure to reduce public debt & its rejection by the streets & ballot boxes. But this complacency isn’t sustainable. While the panic of Euro Zone collapse may have passed, the fascism and deprivation remain, and it won’t be leaving like the last dark clouds of an exhausted storm.

The political parties of the center-left and center-right will have nothing to offer voters for the foreseeable future. These parties only compete to prove that they will apply austerity at a slower rate than their rivals. The relevance of democratic elections is increasingly lost for more and more voters. It is in this political waste land where abominations like Golden Dawn and the National Front lurk. Europe can’t hunker down and attempt to wait out either the violent fascism on the streets or the endless austerity imposed by the Troika. Europe can’t avoid the inevitable task and responsibility of expelling these political actors from its political life. Waiting only leaves more victims behind, whether those victims are Spaniards who commit suicide at news of their home’s foreclosure, or migrants & leftists on the streets of Athens hunted down by fascist assassins. This is the broken Europe given to Europeans. Are they willing to keep it?

An Autumn of Discontent is the Result of Europe’s Endless Pursuit of Austerity

September was advertised as a turning point in the Euro Zone crisis, but after a week of mass anti-austerity protests in Spain, Portugal and Greece, the only thing I can take out of this month is that politicians are still unable to stop the continent’s unrelenting decline into social turmoil. Despite the efforts of the European Central Bank to stabilize the banking and monetary aspects of crisis, the recession deepened by austerity measures threaten any stability earned by central bank action.

Heading into October, Europe faces three trouble spots on its southern “periphery”. Like in previous years, Greece is nearing a confrontation both inside and outside parliament whenever the latest austerity measures are brought forward for a vote. The Greek state is in collapse with police turning residents to the fascist militia of Golden Dawn in crime disputes involving migrants. Social services are in free fall with the former ranks of the Greek middle class turning to charity services for food and medicine. This level of dysfunction being deepened by another round of painful budget cuts is too much for the Greek public to tolerate.

When the IMF recently pushed Greece’s finance minister to pursue more wage and pension cuts, the finance minister pointed to a bullet hole in the window and asked the IMF representative: “Do you want to overthrow the government?” Europe, again pushing for more counter productive austerity, risks sending Greece into a full nervous breakdown with unpredictable consequences. It’s not only EU and Euro Zone membership at stake, but the viability of Greece’s post military junta democracy and even the wider stability of the Balkans if extreme nationalists like Golden Dawn continue to advance into Greek mainstream politics.

While Greece is further along in a painful austerity program, Portugal is quickly catching up in terms of political dysfunction, public opposition to austerity, and an entrenching economic depression with no obvious exit. Any semblance of political stability in Portugal was lost in one speech by prime minister Passos Coelho when he announced a 7%  increase on the contributions of workers to social security. If that wasn’t politically explosive enough, he added that there would be a tax cut on the social security contributions of employers. The measures were justified by the prime minister in the name of economic competitiveness. A week later, around 660,000 protesters filled the streets in outrage over the government’s plans. A day after the protest, the crucial coalition partner in the government came out against the tax measure. The measure would formally die at a summit of Portuguese statesmen on the 21st of September. All of this still leaves the Portuguese government scrambling to find the billions of euros in budget cuts and tax increases needed to comply with the country’s IMF and European Union adjustment program. In a tactic borrowed from Greece, Portugal’s creditors have threatened to withhold loans if the austerity drive doesn’t continue.

While smaller countries like Portugal and Greece have been of sufficient concern to European policymakers since the crisis erupted, the deterioration of a country the size of Spain threatens to bring the whole European project crashing down on itself. Austerity has intensified long standing regional tensions in Spain with Catalans in the northeast desiring more political autonomy while the ruling Popular Party in Madrid and European Union seeks more centralization to eliminate regional budget deficits. The regional authorities in Catalonia threaten Madrid with a referendum on independence, while Madrid insists it has the constitution and national authority on its side in preventing a referendum. In October and November, Galicia, the Basque Country, and Catalonia all have regional elections, all three regions having longstanding and relevant nationalist movements. With a “bailed-out” Spain only promising additional rounds of austerity, the political center of Spain risks losing more voters to regionalist parties who promise a better future with stronger autonomy or even outright independence.

This retreat of the political center is happening across Southern Europe. It’s most obvious in Greece with once dominant parties like center-left PASOK polling 8% as opposed to the 43% it won in the 2009 general election. Following the latest austerity announcements in Portugal, the ruling social democrats lost 12% in just a few weeks with the Portuguese Communist Party and Left Bloc (ally of Greek Syriza) rising to 24% of public support. In Italy and Spain, voters are similarly shunning the parties that have governed for decades. Europe’s plan to keep the monetary union together depends on national politicians complying with austerity in exchange for loans. As we are seeing this autumn, the streets of Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon and Athens are increasingly restive and ready to sweep those politicians aside.

A Pitched Battle in Madrid Over Approaching IMF/EU Intervention:

Tuesday’s protest kicked off with thousands of protesters concentrated in Plaza de las Cortes. Ahead of the protest, a fortress had been set up by Spanish riot police to prevent crowds from even approaching the Spanish Congress. On streets approaching parliament, a series of barricades were set up with lines of riot police on guard:

video showing protesters stopped at police barricades on small side streets near congress:

Later on in the protest, the barricade to congress was breached by a group of protesters, followed by a violent and generalized  police charge directed at the huge crowds around Plaza de las Cortes:

aerial footage of the skirmish:

By nightfall, the crowds in Madrid had swelled in Plaza de las Cortes:

After several hours of protests, tensions exploded in a very violent episode between police and the many thousands gathered near Congress:

Attention was quickly turned to the individuals who provoked the violent clash shown above. The following video shows similarly dressed individuals helping riot police make an arrest:

Whether the violence was orchestrated or not, the result was indiscriminate violence by police in Madrid. The sound of rubber bullets pierced the night. There were possibly dozens of individual baton charges directed at overwhelmingly peaceful protesters:

With the bulk of the protesters dispersed from around congress, police continued to pursue people, firing volleys of rubber bullets and swinging their batons at anyone in reach:

The attack even continued at a train station:

Across social media platforms, calls have gone out for protesters to return tomorrow at 7pm local time to continue this protest so forcefully put down.

Update:

Additional clips have surfaced, this of an undercover officer being arrested by police. He pleads that he is a colleague before the police eventually confirm he is indeed a police officer:

This clip gives you the chronology of the violence that unfolded through the night:

Finally, clip showing two police officers dragging an elderly man down the sidewalk before arresting him:

Catalonia Marches by the Hundreds of Thousands for Independence:

One and half million people marched in Barcelona for independence according to police. Organizers put the crowd at two million. Broad avenues were filled end to end with people, Catalan flags were everywhere and of each kind, the more liberal one with the white star, the left-wing one with the red star. It was an historic day. Previously, such masses had been mobilized but for sovereigntist claims rather than a demand by organizers for outright succession from Spain. At one point, protesters hung a “Spanish Embassy” sign on the delegation of the national government of Spain.

Even the traffic lights were yellow on this day:

The streets of Barcelona singing the Catalan national anthem “Els Segadors” and chanting for independence:

The protests for independence even went on while people were waiting for the metro:

After this mass protest, there’s a certain inevitability about Catalonia’s pursuit for independence. But with Spain in a deep crisis and needing wealthy Catalonia’s tax revenue, I fear that a show down with Spanish Nationalism is unavoidable.

Screw the Troika, We Want Our Lives Back!

This is a call to protest made in the last few days by Portuguese activists for a new day of protest against what is known as the Troika (the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank). You can find the protest and the original call in Portuguese here:

Que se Lixe a Troika! Queremos as nossas Vidas – Screw the Troika,  We Want Our Lives!

It is necessary to do something extraordinary. It is necessary to take to the streets and squares in both our cities and our countryside. To join voices and hands. This silence is killing us. The noise of the mainstream media fills the silence, reproduces the silence, spreads the network of lies that puts us to sleep and annihilates our desire. It is necessary to do something to reverse the submission and resignation, to do something against the filtering of ideas and against the death of the collective will. It is necessary to once again call upon our voices, arms and legs, of everyone who knows it is in the streets that the present and the future is decided. It is necessary to overcome the fear that is constantly spread and, once and for all, see that we no longer have much to lose, and that the day will come when everything has been lost because of our silence and our surrender.

The robbery (loan, help, bailout, names given to it according to the lie they wish to tell) came and with it the application of devastating policy measures that involve the exponential rise in unemployment, insecurity, poverty and social inequality; the sale of most state services, compulsive cuts in social security, education, healthcare, culture, and in all public services, cuts so that all the money can be transferred to pay and enrich those who speculated on the national debt. After more than a year of austerity under outside intervention, our outlook, and the outlook of the majority of people who live in Portugal, are increasingly worse.

The austerity imposed on us, and that destroys our dignity and lives, has failed and ruined our democracy. Those who resigned themselves to rule under the memorandum of the Troika give up the key instruments governing the country to the hands of speculators and technocrats applying a economic model that is based on the law of the jungle, law of the strongest, and neglects our society’s interests, our standard of living, and our dignity.

Greece, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Portugal, countries held captive by the Troika and financial speculation, are impoverished and without sovereignty, as happens to all countries subject to this austerity regime.

Against the inevitability of this imposed death, it is necessary to do something extraordinary.

It is necessary to form alternatives, step by step, which starts with the mobilization of the public in these countries, and that Greek, Spanish, Italian, Irish and Portuguese citizens all come together in joint action, fighting for their lives and uniting their voices.

If they want to force us to accept unemployment, insecurity, and inequality as the new way of life, we will respond with the strength of democracy, freedom, mobilization, and struggle. We want to have in our hands the relevant decisions to construct a future.

This is a call to groups of citizens, and citizens from various areas of policy and political preference. We address ourselves to all people, collectives, movements, associations, non-government organizations, unions, political organizations and parties who agree with the basis of this appeal to come together on the street on September 15th.

They divide us to oppress us. Let’s join together to free ourselves!

With Eyes on Greece, Portugal is Slipping Further into the Abyss

Greece is approaching yet another episode of high social & political tension. The country’s foreign creditors are demanding full compliance with the austerity program after two elections in which anti-austerity forces shattered the ruling political consensus. Greece’s membership in the Euro Zone is again at stake with fears over the consequences an exit would have on Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Ireland.

But news within Portugal increasingly suggest the next domino in the Euro Zone is already falling. The latest official numbers show a program off track, with extensive austerity measures failing to offset falling tax revenue from a Portuguese economy deep in recession. The scenario is not that different from Greece. Portugal is set to miss the deficit target set out in the ‘bailout’  from the IMF and European Union. When Greece faced this scenario, it provoked accusations of Greece breaking commitments and furious demands for Greece to pass through additional austerity.

Now, Portugal, with all attention on Greece’s escalating crisis, faces its own judgment from foreign creditors. How those creditors address Portugal will indicate if there’s been any change of course in European leadership. According to the Diário Económico, the Troika (IMF, EU, ECB) will be updated on the worsening budget numbers and can mandate further austerity this year. Since the right-wing Social Democrats came to power last year, Portugal has been portrayed as an example to Greece. The question is now whether Portugal will receive preferential treatment for the sake of clinging to this myth. My guess, given the hardline taken with far larger Spain, Portugal should expect little lenience from its European creditors.