October 1st, 2017: the regional Catalan government decides to proceed with a referendum on the region’s independence from Spain, in spite of Spain’s highest court’s declaration of such a vote as unconstitutional. After a series of warnings, the Spanish government decides to respond with force against the procedures of the referendum. The violence employed by the Spanish police causes an international sensation. Even though the turnout of the vote is low (43.03%), the pro-independence “yes” side wins an overwhelming majority, gaining an almost unrealistic 92% of the vote. But could granting independence to one of the wealthiest regions in Spain be this simple?
Evidently, not.The referendum quickly led to a contest for power between the Spanish central government and the regional government in Catalonia. Mariano Rajoy, conservative Prime Minister of Spain, responded to the referendum by releasing a series of ultimatums addressed to the Catalan government. On its part, the government of Catalonia, led by pro-secession President Carles Puigdemont, made a strategic effort to obtain legitimization of the vote through its attempts to initiate negotiations with the Spanish government.
Rajoy’s government declined negotiations. The government also threatened to activate Article 155 of the Constitution, which grants the Spanish government the right to strip the autonomy of the region and govern it directly. Puidgemont’s government seemed unprepared to respond to such a move, expressing inconsistent intentions, such as to repeal a potential activation in the constitutional court.
In the meantime, the Catalan anti-secessionist movement was organizing, with reportedly 350,000 people gathering to protest the decisions of the regional government on October 8th. Claiming to be the quiet majority that did not participate in an illegal referendum, the movement appeared to support Rajoy’s decision to crack down on Puigdemont’s government. The quick growth of the unionist movement was justifiable, as the uncertainty in the region seriously harms its economy. The fact that many companies had already moved outside Catalonia to escape possible adverse economic consequences only days after the referendum was testimony to that.
Today, while the Spanish Senate was discussing the activation of the article, the Catalan parliament voted to unilaterally declare the region independent (55% in favor). In reaction to the vote, the Spanish public prosecutor announced he will be filing charges of rebellion against Puigdemont. Rajoy, granted special powers by the Spanish Senate, dissolved the Catalan parliament minutes later, calling a snap election for December 21st. Until then the Catalan region will be controlled by Madrid.
That control, however, may not be that easy to establish. Madrid expects a degree of resistance from the supporters of independence, who flooded the streets after the parliament’s decision. As expected, Spain’s European partners declared their support for Rajoy’s government innot recognizing the independence of the region. However, it will be interesting to see the European’s reaction to the expected legitimate use of power and, potentially, violence by Rajoy’s government.
In any case, it appears like the game is over for the Catalan government. Not only has it not gotten closer to independence, but it has temporarily lost its autonomy, a status which was granted to it in 1977. The Catalan government’s neglect was evident in its inconsistent decisions and statements, such as appealing to the rule of law despite its track record of ignoring the legal decisions of the Spanish government. Such inconsistency has undermined the legitimacy of Catalonia’s pro-independence position everywhere outside the region. After all, can a region which claims to be independent hide behind the laws of the country it wants to secede from?
Catalonia went for a hard divorce, without calculating the gravity of the implications of a potential secession. A secession of a country’s region never comes easy. A unilateral secession, however, maximizes the complications associated with it, which explains the overwhelming evidence against the success of such movements. When deciding to pursue such an objective, it is only rational that a government should be equipped to deal with all the foreseeable effects. The Catalan government was and remains unprepared.
Additionally, the actions taken by the Catalan government could not be sufficiently justified by the level of popular support for secession. Taking into account factors such as the difficult years of economic adjustment in Spain preceding the referendum, the majority that secessionist parties have in the Catalan parliament (only 55%) could also be circumstantial. Even more, deciding to put such a question to a vote results in deepening divisions within the population, which could imprint on its collective consciousness for years to come. That is the case in Spain’s European partner, Greece, where references to the referendum of 2015 still define the public sphere, not just politically, but socially.
The Catalan government, and Rajoy along with it, could only benefit from such divisions. The polarization of society favors those who hold extreme, populist views. Even if Catalan secession absolutely fails, Puigdemont will have consolidated the support of almost half of the region’s population. However, Rajoy, who chose to assume the position of the other extreme party on the issue, is also gaining popularity for his hard position. This is not only in Catalonia, but more importantly in Spain as a whole. For Spain’s prime minister—who, in previous years, had to support financial austerity policies and lead his party through a series of scandals—the Catalan referendum was a political deus ex machina.
Such short-sighted political objectives, however, will ultimately harm Spain. This much was evidenced by the reluctance of the country’s European partners to immediately condemn the referendum. Images of police using violence against people of all ages, most of whom were just trying to vote, are not going to be easily forgotten. These undermine the reputation of Spain internationally while poisoning the democratic political dialogue within the country.
The Catalan referendum could be viewed within the framework of a broader European rise of populist and nationalist movements. Like many other populist movements, the Catalan push for secession has raised an important question. But the secessionists do not have a precise answer. Even if secession had been conceded by Spain, there was never a plan ready to set it in motion. For example, should Catalonia secede, would it still remain in the European Union? Instead of clarifying, the Catalan government conveniently waged a quixotic war against “the elites of Madrid.”
The same criticism applies to the reaction of the government. Although it may appear that Spain’s government has control over the issue, in fact, it ought to confront the issue at its roots rather than hiding behind claims of the illegality of secession. After all, the fact that secession is illegal is almost definitional: secessionists undermine the very existence of the state.
It is common knowledge among Spanish and Catalan lawmakers that granting a degree of tax autonomy to Catalonia would greatly deflate the demands for independence. Such a policy does not seem unrealistic, considering that Spain has granted it to the other historically wayward region of Spain, the Basque Country. Nonetheless, Spain’s recent financial turmoil makes such a solution impractical in the absence of willingness to compromise. The political benefits of appearing to defend the law from those who think they are above it are too big for Rajoy’s government to take a step back.
Contrary to the binary nature of a referendum, political positions are usually too complex to be summarized in either an affirmation or a negation. The effect of the dilemma is polarization, which is taken advantage of by short-sighted populist politicians who escalate the situation to their benefit. In their brinkmanship, these politicians manipulate institutions they are in control of and undermine their true purposes. The resulting chaos may either be a prelude to authoritarianism or a chance for the re-legitimization of mainstream politics. But for now, Catalonia’s status remains uncertain: without a plan for the future or a source of outside support, it is unlikely that reality will reflect the optimism of the independence movement.