Independence has been a cherished dream for many people in Catalonia. In fact, the region’s push for autonomy in the 1930’s was one of the reasons behind the Spanish Civil War and the resulting Franco dictatorship.
At the time, Spain was ruled by an authoritarian government, where civil liberties were broken and minorities were suppressed to assimilate into the mainstream Spanish identity. Following the death of Franco in 1975, Spain’s transition to democracy was enshrined in the new constitution and the authority of Madrid was decentralized. The parliament and the autonomy of Catalonia re-emerged and Spain embarked on a path of reconciliation.
Today, the events of the past seemed like ancient history. Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, has flourished since the restoration of democracy, and it is one of the most celebrated cities in Europe. As for the autonomous state ofCatalonia, it is one of the wealthiest regions of Spain. Catalonia has its own police force and exercises its own control of healthcare, welfare, and education programs. There are also many provisions in place to protect the Catalan identity. With a population of roughly 8 million people, Catalonia accounts for not only nearly a fifth of Spain’s population, but also a fifth of Spain’s total Gross-Domestic Product (GDP).
The disproportionate tax input has been one of the primary reasons in favor of independence which emerged in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Many Catalans believe that their economic prosperity would translate into a viable sovereign nation, and this has culminated in the latest popular vote for independence. However, the government in Madrid disagrees. Spanish Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy of the Partido Popular (PP), considers the Catalan referendum to be illegal and has thus far dealt with the situation by applying legal and economic pressure on the regional authorities. As such, nearly every referendum related decision by the Catalan government was taken to the Constitutional Court where they have been dismissed as unlawful acts.
Since holding the referendum was in violation of Section Two of the Spanish Constitution, the Spanish Judiciary System is currently investigating if any crimes have been committed during the vote. In this framework, some Catalan officials have been summoned to testify before preventional prosecutors. Ahead of Sunday’s referendum, the situation heated up in mid-September when Spanish law enforcement agencies raided Catalan government offices in search of documents that were linked to the referendum. Spanish security forces also confiscated large quantities of referendum materials such as posters, envelopes, and ballot papers. Moreover, authorities in Madrid also blocked several websites that were connected to the popular vote.
As the Spanish government was determined to undermine the referendum, an independent Catalonia would threaten the existence of Spain and trigger secessionist movements in the Basque region, Andalusia, and Asturias to demand their own referendums. Yet, as significant as the events seem, this is not the first time Catalonia held a referendum for independence. In 2013, the parliament of Catalonia declared that the region had all the merits of an independent state. Although a large majority of the voters supported independence, the overall turnout was quite low. Nevertheless, secessionist sentiment gratefully influenced the 2015 regional elections in Catalonia. Political factions promised a new referendum on independence and as secessionist sentiment prevailed, a combined pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament scheduled a new referendum for October 2017, and this brings us to the situation we face today.
The aim appeared to be that if Madrid were able to reduce the voter turnout, the central government could hurt the legitimacy of the mandate. Meanwhile, the Regional Catalan Authority needed to do the opposite and attain a higher participation turnout compared to the 2014 vote. Organizers of the referendum claim that 90% of Catalans voted in favor of independence, while opposition members note that those who didn’t support the referendum didn’t vote.
Yet, as determined as the Catalan independence movement is, its supporters are divided into several groups. Some members of the Catalan government believe that the referendum should have complied with the Spanish Constitution, while others argued for a unilateral declaration of independence. The unilateral option is shared by regional political factions who are a part of the independence movement as well. Some of these groups include the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) and the Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP). However, there are also influential voices such as the Mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, who supported the referendum, but rejected a unilateral declaration of independence.
In any case, since members of the independence campaign are not on the same page, Catalan officials will have to be cautious in the aftermath of the referendum. The movement must either maintain a coherent position or risk breaking apart, which could result in the resignation of the regional government and calls for early elections.
Yet, if the Catalan government decides to remain in power and conduct a compromise with Madrid, it could also lead to friction among the Catalan radical factions within the independence movement. In the aftermath if the referendum, Prime Minister Rajoy could exploit the fragile structure of the Catalan movement and discredit the coalition.
However, Rajoy has used a wide range of actions such as counter measures to the referendum preparations. For instance, since secessionist movements are considered illegal according to the Spanish Constitution, civil servants who violate the law could be penalized with fines, banned from holding office, and taken into custody.
Another tactic Madrid could use to dissuade the effects of the referendum is by a means of international isolation. Officials in Brussels who support Rajoy have stated that an independent Catalonia would not become a systematic member of the European Union and the region’s status is an internal matter for Spain to resolve.
Indeed, on Monday, the European Commission said that the referendum was illegal. Since most of Catalonia’s exports go to EU member states, international isolation puts Catalonia in an economically sticky position.
Furthermore, Rajoy has a coalition majority in the Spanish Senate, and according to the Constitution, the Prime Minister has the legal means to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia which would require the Madrid government to take control of the Catalan administration. This measure is extreme, but it is bound to backfire and increase the secessionist movements ability to legitimize protests for Catalan independence.
Suspending Catalan autonomy would also require the use of force, which could create a highly unpredictable environment for negotiations between the Catalans and the central government. Hence, considering the destructive outcome, suspension of autonomy remains an option for Rajoy to consider.
Even though a large number of Spain’s political parties reject Catalan independence, there are those who want to reach a feasible solution. For instance, the Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE) and Ciudadanos have expressed a willingness to reform the constitution that would see a fairer federal system in Spain. The proposal for a federal government is still favorable for many Spaniards.
If Catalonia left Spain, there would be a good chance that Spain would leave the European Union. Even some Catalans want to remain a part of Spain, but under different legal terms. For example, a different government that was more favorable for proportionate taxing could garner support from many Catalans.
Sunday’s vote was met by violent protests in the streets of Barcelona and accusations of policy brutality. By forcing the voting process in Catalonia, Madrid cannot hope to reverse the secessionist sentiment in the region. In the short term, Prime Minister Rajoy will seek to exploit the division within the Catalan movement and use economic and legal means to reach a compromise on the issue.
But in the short term, Rajoy’s measures will be enough to keep Catalonia within Spain. However, this will not resolve the Catalan issue and secessionist sentiment will continue to play a key role in Spanish politics.