We can only be certain that this is an extremely complex issue—which could have disastrous political and economical consequences for Catalonia, the rest of Spain and the EUby J. A. Garrido Ardila / October 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
Catalonia’s struggle for independence has a long and fraught history. In 1922, Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset argued that the sudden development of the Catalan separatist movement was a consequence of Spain’s traumatic loss of the last overseas colonies in 1898. So strongly did separatist feelings grow that in 1934, during Spain’s II Republic, the President of Catalonia declared independence. The central government responded swiftly, and the Catalonian premier was tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison. During the Civil War, he escaped to France, but was deported, tried, sentenced to death and executed in 1940.
Over 70 years later, the origins of this year’s Catalonian referendum can be traced to 2006, when the new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia (known as Estatut) was passed providing a revised jurisprudential framework for the self-government of Catalonia as one of the seventeen self-governed regions in Spain. Some sections of the Estatut were appealed to the Constitutional Court by, among others, the conservative Partido Popular, on the grounds that they contravened the Constitution in matters such as the used of the term ‘nation’ and the limits of self-government. In 2010 the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of some of those appeals, causing a sense of disillusionment among Catalan separatists. The global economic crisis soon changed the political landscape in Spain, and the Catalonian independence movement throve.
Since then, each election has brought new battles. Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (Catalonian’s Democratic Convergence) won the 2010 Catalan elections in a renewed coalition with Unió (Union). Whilst friction with the central government grew due to disagreements over the Catalan budget, news broke that Convergència’s former leader Jordi Pujol, who was Catalan president from 1980 to 2003, might have undeclared bank accounts abroad with a substantial amount of money. Two of his sons were prosecuted for money laundering and influence peddling. Such scandals only accentuated the tensions between Madrid and Barcelona and in 2014 a non-binding self-determination referendum was held with a result favouring independence.
In the 2015 Catalonian elections, a group of separatist parties ran as a coalition called Junts pel Sí (Together for “Yes”). Convergència (now renamed Partit Demòcrata Europeu Català) joined forces with Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) and other separatist groups. Their manifesto included their unwavering desire for Catalonian self-determination. They won the election, but were short of an overall parliamentary majority—which they soon secured with the support of the far-left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (or CUP, Party for Popular Union).
In March 2017 Catalan president Puigdemont revealed that steps would be taken to hold a binding referendum. On 6 September, the Catalan Parliament, with the votes of Junts pel Sí and CUP, passed a bill regulating the referendum. The Constitutional Court in Madrid immediately ruled that the bill breached the Constitution and was unlawful. Accordingly, Spain’s Director of Public Prosecutions and Catalonia’s High Court ordered the police to take the necessary measures to preclude the referendum. Offices in the Catalonian government were searched by the police, Catalan government officials who were organising the referendum were arrested, and subpoenas were served on some 700 mayors who had expressed they would allow polling stations to open in their towns. All the while, Puigdemont and his cabinet continued to proclaim insistently that the referendum would be held.
Catalonian separatists argue that Catalonia is a ‘nation’ with its own language and distinctive culture, believing that Spain took control of its institutions in 1714 and has since repressed them. Historians counter this, saying that it was instead a group of medieval counties unified gradually by the counts of Barcelona and later incorporated into the Kingdom of Aragon in the twelfth century. Even if Catalonia was regarded as a “nation,” they argue, it would be a one that five centuries ago became part of Spain alongside other nations such as the Kingdoms of Castile and Leon, of Aragon, and of Navarre. Many have accused the Catalan governments of imposing their distorted version of Spanish history in Catalan schools since the 1990s, indoctrinating youths in order to grow the separatist movement.
The modern independence narrative is also disputed. Pro-independence politicians have coined two aphorisms summing up their arguments: “Spain steals from us,” meaning that Catalonian taxpayers pay more into Spain than what Spain gives them back; and “right to decide,” referring to the fact they believe Catalonians deserve the chance to become an independent republic within the EU.
With regards to the first, several economists—including former Spanish cabinet minister and President of the EU Parliament Josep Borrell—have argued that Catalonia’s fiscal contributions to Spain are lower than those of Madrid, and that the economic figures given by the Catalan government are consistently wrong and misleading.
Meanwhile, the Constitution states that “National sovereignty belongs to the Spanish people.” Therefore, Madrid argues, no regional government can call a referendum on an issue pertaining to the whole of the Spanish nation, including the separation of a part of Spain from the whole. Under the Constitution, such a referendum would need to be agreed in the Spanish parliament, called by the King, and put to all Spanish citizens.
Moreover the EU Commission has repeatedly declared that any new states would axiomatically place themselves outside the EU.
These debates came to a head on October 1, the day of the referendum. The Catalan regional police (the Mossos d’Esquadra) had orders from the Catalan High Court to ensure that by 6am all polling stations were empty and closed for the day. For reasons still unknown, these orders were not carried out, and riot police from Spanish Policía Nacional and Guardia Civil were deployed. In some polling stations and streets the crowds offered resistance and the riot police acted. According to the Catalan government, 893 civilians were injured. According to the Spanish Home Office, only 4 civilians needed to be hospitalised (one because of a heart attack), and 431 police officers were injured, 30 of whom required medical attention.
The Catalan government claims that civilians were violently repressed by the police, whereas the Spanish government maintains the police acted proportionately on the orders from the Catalan High Court and against mobs offering resistance. The conservatives highlighted that many pictures published on twitter of civilians covered in blood were actually from other demonstrations in previous years, used spuriously to influence public opinion in Spain and abroad. Catalan city halls have sued the police for their violent actions; the Spanish police have launched law suits against Catalonian authorities who encouraged crowds; and the Spanish High Court is prosecuting the Mossos’ commanding officer for sedition.
According to Catalan officials, 2,262,424 ballots were cast (a 42 per cent turnout), with 90.09 per cent for independence—which under the 6 September bill means a declaration of independence will follow. However, the Spanish authorities—including the government and all courts of justice involved—insist that the referendum was unlawful and, furthermore, voting took place in conditions that breached international electoral regulations.
All in all, the referendum has been, in the words of former Spanish premier Felipe González, the most worrying episode in the last 40 years of Spanish history. Many suggest that Madrid and Barcelona should enter into a constructive political dialogue. Yet, Puigdemont is adamant that the Catalan people ‘deserve’ independence and has told the BBC he will declare independence shortly; the Spanish government is adamant referenda for self-determination are unlawful and against the Constitution; so is Ciudadanos, who call for regional elections; the Socialist party demands some sort of negotiation between the two governments; and the communist Podemos and the Basque separatists demand a new referendum with the blessings of the central government. It is expected that the courts of justice will successfully prosecute Puigdemont and other separatist leaders for wilful neglect of duty and embezzlement.
In these circumstances, a declaration of independence will prompt a swift response from the Spanish government, probably invoking the Constitution to suspend temporarily Catalonia’s self-government. Regional elections in Catalonia seem the most probable way forward. Whichever the result in those elections, Catalan politics has become so radicalised that might only be appeased by an amendment to the Constitution allowing self-determination referenda to take place. However, such an amendment would be opposed by some mainstream parties because it goes against the most basic principles of the Constitution—and because it would trigger other referenda, at least one in the Basque Country. We can only be certain that this is an extremely complex issue that will take time to be resolved effectively—one that otherwise may bring disastrous political and economical consequences for Catalonia, the rest of Spain and the EU.