The Spanish Guardia Civil has foiled the referendum, but the plight stands. With the central and the regional governments on a collision course, nobody knows what comes next.
On Wednesday, the Spanish Guardia Civil arrested the organisers of the illegal referendum on whether Catalonia should become an independent state. They stormed several administrative buildings following a court order and seized the instruments of the vote. That night, the Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy declared that the referendum could not materially be held, and called the Catalan leaders to negotiate on the status of Catalonia from the 2nd of October on.
The Catalan response has come on Friday, as the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has announced that the referendum goes on; alledgedly, they already had contingency plans to make the referendum happen under any circumstances. The Home Office has reacted by sending in to Barcelona more members of the statal police, namely the Guardia Civil and the National Police.
The Catalan economy has already been intervened, as the central government has taken on direct responsibility on the execution of the budget approved by the Catalan parliament. As there is no economic provision for the referendum to take place, a strict observance of the dispositions makes the organisational costs -ballot papers, ballot boxes, electoral clerks, etc- impossible to assume.
On Saturday 23 September, the Spanish government has created a single police command for Catalonia, integrating the regional police in this sctructure alongside Spanish police forces under direct command of the Home Office. Under fears of the regional police not upholding the law, this move is de facto circumventing Catalan policing powers, with the presumable purpose of preventing the referendum from happening. As events unfold, it is very uncertain what may come next.
Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution provides for further intervention of the Catalan autonomy yet, giving the central government the right to bypass regional authorities in the observance of the law. It means an effective supression of the regional autonomy, and requires parliamentary support. However, this provision has never ever been used, as it seems as the last resort for the constitutional order to be upheld. Politically, it would be celebrated by the diehard separatists, for the eventual supression of the autonomy is expected to produce an uprising if not a rebellion.
Summarising, the recent events have been nothing but the strict observance of the law and the courts in a democratic country. What the justices have prevented is the first illegal seccessionist referendum in an EU member state; the law gives the central government the upper hand in this institutional clash. However, the political problem remains, as efforts from both parts to negotiate are nowhere to be found.
The story of the referendum, so far.
The aftermath of the election.
How did we come to this?
In short, the Catalan identitary predicament is a fire both the Catalan and the Spanish administrations have been poring fuel onto.
CiU has ruled the region from the seventies until 2003, when PSC, ERC, and a minor leftist-ecologist party formed a coalition government. Back then, ERC had a more moderate approach to independence, though they were still bold on the Catalan identity. The tripartite government agreed with CiU a new statute for the Catalan autonomy, which was opposed only by PP on the basis that it defined Catalonia as a nation; the Spanish conservatives considered this as a project that widened the divide between Catalonia and Spain. Meanwhile, Catalanist parties regarded the statute as a hand extended to Spain; in their opinion, it satisfied many of their demands within the Constitutional framework.
The statute swiftly passed through the Catalan parliament with the sole opposition of PP in 2005. It had to be confirmed by the Spanish congress, where ERC withdrew its support to the project; it had become too little too late. In spite of PP’s and ERC’s opposition, it was confirmed by the congress. A binding referendum was called to ratify the resulting statute, as mandated by the Constitution. After the favourable vote, the PP brought the statute before the Constitutional court to decide whether this already stifled statute matched the Constitution or not. In 2010, the justices ruled the most autonomist parts as unconstitutional, thus having them removed. Within two weeks, this decision was responded by the biggest nationalist rally up to the moment.
Since that year, the numbers of pro-independence demonstrators each 11 September (National Day of Catalonia) have been growing by the day. Three years ago, on 9 November, an informative consultation on independence was organised by the Catalan governmet. This was precisely an informal referendum that had no guarantee, where a third of the electorate turned out to vote in massive proportions for independence. However, this vote was more a festive activity rather than even a massive opinion poll, let alone a creditable referendum.
On a collision course.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government has responded by filing the appropriate lawsuits against the Catalan officials who were in breach of the law. Artur Mas, former President of the Catalan government, was no exception and has been suspended from public office by the Catalan High Court. Rajoy’s sustained attitude as Prime Minister has done nothing but pouring petrol onto the flames of Catalan separatism; however, he is being consistent with his party’s manifesto, where he pledged that the unity on the Spanish autonomous state and the Constitution of rights and freedoms grants the overcoming of break-away separatisms with clear and unequivocal will, and to take the unity of Spain as a matter of principle. While the manifesto is open to reform the Constitution, it made not less clear that they would not even consider negotiationg secession.
On the other hand, the Catalan attempts to negotiate have been bogus on purpose. When Madrid offered negotiation on fiscal and competential matters, Barcelona demanded an independence vote; one of the Mas’s and Puigdemont’s most repeated statements is that they would only enter a negotiation if it led to an independence referendum. When Rajoy invited Mas and Puigdemont to speak before the Congress, both have declined, for they wanted nothing but the referendum. To be fair, the referendum was anything but likely when Mas was invited in April 2014, for PP had a sweeping majority and an inexistent will to compromise on any matters. In contrast, Puigdemont was invited by a more plural Congress where that majority is no more, but he did not accept anyway.
Without any willingness to negotiate, the Catalan society has become more polarised on the sovereignty matter. Those who want independence are feeling outraged by Madrid and celebrate each legal disposition enhancing the Catalan autonomy; those who oppose the referendum are becoming more apathetic by the day, for they do not feel any need to decide on a matter that is clear to them. Many wonder whether these two halves of the Catalan society are already irreconcilable or they will be able to come together in the future, with or without independence.
The uncertain future.
Would Catalonia be part of the EU?
JxSí, the leading pro-independence coalition, is in general pro-European. Indeed, they have reassured the Catalan people that an independent Catalonia would retain EU membership once broken away with Spain. Comparably, the CUP campaigned for independence on an overtly Eurosceptic basis, to break away with Spain and with the European Union they loathe.
Catalonia is a very pro-EU region, in similar numbers to the rest of Spain, and there is little doubt that it would seek immediate membership upon independence. However, it seems unlikely that the European Union uphold the Catalan stance. To begin with, EU membership is not granted to the land, but to states, and breaking away from a member means exit from the EU. Separatist leaders claim that Catalonia would immediately rejoin by reforming the treaties, but it needs the agreement of all the member states, including Spain. This is presumably unlikely.