panoramic view of Barcelona

The Next Few Days Will Be Pivotal in Catalonia’s Bid for Independence

by Tony Wyman

Catalonia’s bid for independence

Following days of protests, riots and violent scuffles with police trying to disrupt the vote, Catalonians overwhelmingly said “yes” to a referendum demanding independence for the region found in the eastern portion of the Iberian Peninsula.

Casting nearly 2.2 million votes, 91.96% supported the move to independence.  But with fewer than 43% of registered voters casting a ballot, Spaniards opposed to Catalonian independence cried foul.  They claimed the vote was illegal and backed the government’s attempt to shut it down.

King Felipe VI, Spain’s head of state and commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, whose roles include being guardian of the Spanish constitution, went as far as stating the vote was unconstitutional and undemocratic.

Map of Catalonia
Catalonia is in the eastern portion of the Iberian Peninsula, just west of France.

“This serious situation requires compromise, it is the responsibility of the legitimate powers of this country to follow the constitutional law and to maintain the law. To the people of Catalonia, we all live in a democratic state and we must respect the law and the constitution. If there is no respect for the law, there is no democratic cohabitation,” he said, condemning Catalonia’s officials of trying to end the fragile state of unity between the region and the rest of Spain.  “We must do everything we can to defend the liberty of Spain,” he added.

Article 155

But that liberty or, more accurately, unity of Spain appears to be in jeopardy.  The Catalan government threatened to declare independence within 48 hours of the referendum, but as of this writing, they had yet to do so.

Reuters released a story earlier today claiming the Catalonian government will declare independence following a session of the region’s parliament on Monday, October 9th.  If that happens, the Spanish government is likely to respond aggressively.  “We know that there may be disbarments, arrests … But we are prepared, and in no case will it be stopped,” said pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy party member and legislator Mireia Boya.

Possible arrests ordered by Madrid national government

While more arrests are likely, should Catalan authorities declare independence, a move the Madrid government and a Spanish court have already called illegal, it is more likely Spain will invoke Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to take control of the region and possibly end its autonomy.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hinted at the move in a rambling speech he gave on the Friday before the referendum when he said to pro-independence forces, “You are making a mistake and you are going to force us to go where we don’t want to go”.

Where he doesn’t want to go, presumably, is invoking Article 155, which spells out how the central government can legally suspend home rule for any of the country’s 17 self-governing regions.  Never used in Spain’s history, Article 155 contains only two points. The first outlines the circumstances under which the Madrid government can revoke the autonomy of a specific region, which include “act(ing) in a manner that gravely attacked the general interest of Spain, the government,” and the second list the means by which the revocation takes place procedurally.

If the Catalonians declare a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), as they are threatening to do, the Spanish government’s hand might be forced to invoke the provision and reclaim governmental control of Catalonia.

European Union

It is also likely the European Union, as well as nations around the globe friendly with Spain, will refuse to recognize an independent Catalonia. They’ve already declared the referendum illegal, calling it an “internal matter for Spain.”  But that indifference could change if matters escalate.

The EU has a vested interest in seeing the independence move by Catalonia fail since its success could spark similar moves by other regions in countries in Europe.  The EU, in an attempt to defuse the situation, might attempt to step in to mediate a settlement between the two governments, in the hopes of returning the breakaway region to the Spanish fold.

This scenario might actually be the goal of the Catalan government in the first place, hoping to draw attention to their complaint that Madrid is failing to uphold the democratic and civil rights of the Catalonian people and gaining EU support to force Madrid to make changes.

Catalonians marching in support of independence.
Catalonians poured out into the streets in support of the independence referendum, which some crowds exceeding 900,000 people.

With EU support, Catalonia would have a better chance of success negotiating than they would on their own.  But the Madrid government appears to be taking a hard line against any concessions to the Catalonians.

The King’s speech made it clear the Spaniards were in no mood to negotiate.  Described as “unexpectedly hard line” by CNN, the king’s speech accused pro-independence forces of “unacceptable disloyalty” to Spain and laying blame for the injuries and destruction caused during days of protests squarely on the shoulders of the Catalonians, hardly an indication that Spain was willing to compromise.

To add salt to the wounds his words inflicted, King Felipe portrayed the region’s leaders as having an “irresponsible attitude,” accusing them of “put(ting) the economic and social stability of Catalonia and Spain at risk.”

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, responded to Madrid’s tough talk by warning that invoking Article 155 was “an error which changes everything.” He also warned the EU that failing to get involved in the dispute could sour his government’s already strained relationship with the European body.  “What I find harder to understand is this indifference, or absolute lack of interest, in understanding what is happening here,” said Mr. Puigdemont. “They [the EU] have never wanted to listen to us.”

The EU might not be interested in listening, as Mr. Puigdemont alleges, but European Commission Vice-President is urging both sides to talk. “All lines of communication must stay open. It’s time to talk to find a way out of the impasse,” he warned during a speech in the European Parliament today.  We will see over the next several days if anyone heeds his advice.

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