Catalonia's Bid For Independence & Madrid's Response By Nathan Richmond
On October 1, 2017 a referendum on Catalonian independence was held. More than 90 percent of those who voted supported independence, but with the Spanish government declaring the referendum illegal and using violence to intimidate and suppress votCers, only 43 percent participated.
A tense couple of weeks passed as the Catalonian government implored the Spanish authorities to negotiate a path toward Catalonian independence. The Spanish government rebuffed all attempts to engage in discussions with Catalonia's leaders.
On October 27, after failing to persuade Madrid to engage in dialogue, the Catalonian Parliament, by a vote of 70-2, with 10 abstentions and 53 opposition members leaving before the vote, declared Catalonia's independence. Hours later, the Spanish Senate voted 214-47 with 1 abstention to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, revoking Catalonian autonomy and placing the region under the direct control of the Spanish government in Madrid. Deputy Prime Minister Ms. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría was tasked with Catalonia's governance.
By invoking Article 155 and imposing direct rule, the Spanish government dissolved the Catalonian regional government and its parliament. Then the Spanish authorities arrested some of Catalonia's leaders and charged them with sedition and rebellion. Some are still jailed awaiting trial. Others, including the deposed Catalonian President, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium. Thus far, Belgian authorities have refused to extradite Puigdemont to Spain to stand trial. Adding to the drama was the sudden, unexpected death of Spain's chief prosecutor, attorney general José Manuel Maza in November. He was leading the prosecution of the Catalan separatists and died at age 66 while attending an international law conference in Argentina.
Madrid's Failed Gamble
In a bold attempt to stop the secessionist drive, Spain's Prime Minister Rajoy scheduled new elections for the Catalonian Parliament on December 21st. Rajoy was banking on a victory by the anti-secessionist parties. The secessionist parties retained their majority in the Catalan Parliament, however, although their majority margin was decreased from four to two.
The Catalan Parliament has 135 seats; thus 68 are needed for a majority. The result of the December 21 election, which saw an 82 percent turnout, was:
What Happens Next?
Spanish PM Rajoy has called for the new session of Catalonia's Parliament to begin on January 17, 2018. Then by law, members must choose a new Catalan president within 10 days. Article 155, the imposition of direct rule from Madrid, ends when a new Catalan President is elected.
Although the three separatist parties control a majority, 8 of their members are currently in jail awaiting trial and former President Puigdemont is in self-imposed exile in Belgium. Those unable to take their seats in the new Parliament could yield to their seconds who would take their places thus allowing the formation of coalition government committed to secession. But there is no indication thus far that they plan to yield. And PM Rajoy has declared his willingness to again invoke Article 155.
Mistakes Made Leaving No Path Forward?
Both the Catalan separatists and the Spanish government, in my view, made significant errors that now leave almost no constructive path forward. First, the Catalan separatists staked their claim to independence on a fiscal argument claiming that Catalonia contributes more to Madrid than it receives, thus subsidizing other regions of Spain. Had they instead based their claim on Catalonia's cultural, linguistic, and historical bases, including illustrating the repression Catalans suffered under various Spanish regimes throughout history, they would likely have had much more sympathy and support for their cause, both within and outside of Catalonia.
Second, the Spanish government overreacted, in my view, by responding to the October 1 referendum with force and violence. Had they instead let the vote occur peacefully, the most likely result would have been a victory for the anti-secession forces. Now Catalonia appears to be more divided than ever with no resolution of the secession issue occurring anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Catalan economy is deteriorating with some 3100 firms already relocating their headquarters out of the region. Spain's Economy Minister, Luis de Guindos, has put the cost of the Catalan independence crisis at around €1bn ($1.2bn) and continued economic deterioration is expected.
For now, although there is no resolution in sight, events in Catalonia are being followed closely by European governments and separatist movements throughout Europe. The wider significance of Catalonai’s independence has been an an important topic (examples here and here) and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.
Nathan Richmond is Professor of Government at Utica College