The governments of Catalonia and Spain have set themselves on a collision course over the issue of independence.
Almost every corner of Europe has its own independence movement. Some are obviously hopeless causes, lacking population, economic heft and clearly defined territory. Others, however, have the people, the money and the land, and require only political impetus to see them succeed – or secede.
With a population of nine million, an economy the size of Austria’s, and a land mass greater than Belgium’s, Catalonia is clearly in the latter camp, and political impetus might be on its side too: its rulers have just declared an independence referendum, to be held this autumn.
The region’s own secessionist cause, though, is about more than just the raw numbers and politics. Centred on the city of north eastern city of Barcelona and immortalised for Anglophone readers in George Orwell’s novel about the Spanish civil war, Homage to Catalonia, the region claims a culture, a history and a language distinct from that of Spain as a whole.
That distinct history stretches back into the 11th century, at least, when the County of Barcelona came to pre-eminence. In the 12th century, it was brought under the same royal rule as neighbouring Aragon, and has been part of Spain since its genesis in the 15th century. Initially retaining its own institutions, it was increasingly integrated into the Spanish state, but – as elsewhere in Europe – the 19th century saw the flowering of a renewed sense of national identity, perhaps most marked in efforts to revive Catalan as a language of literature.
When Spain became a republic in 1931, Catalonia was soon given broad autonomy, and in the Civil War that destroyed that system, Barcelona was a key Republican stronghold, its fall in 1939 marking the beginning of the end of the conflict. Under Franco, autonomy was revoked, Catalan nationalism repressed and use of the Catalan language restricted.
The transition to democracy following the death of Franco brought a revival of that national spirit. But politically, the focus was on autonomy, rather than independence. Indeed, the modern movement for independence is a relatively young one.
A significant moment came in 2006 with the Statute of Autonomy, which had been agreed with the Spanish government and passed by a referendum in Catalonia. It was challenged in the Spanish High Court of Justice, which ruled that a large number of articles were unconstitutional, or were to be interpreted restrictively. Popular protest against the decision quickly turned into demands for independence. What followed has helped to fuel them.
The 2008 economic crisis hit Spain particularly badly and led to a period of harsh austerity. The relatively wealthy Catalonia – it accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economic output – has been angered by suffering swingeing cuts to services, including hospital closures, and – as Catalans see it – having to foot the bill for national reconstruction.
Such anger has helped intensify those independence demands and led, in 2014, to referendum on the issue in which 80% of voters backed separation. The result was non-binding, however, and held in defiance of Madrid.
The pressure has been kept up, though – and the latest plebiscite is very much part of that tactic of intensification. In January, Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, said: ‘The alternative to independence is decline, because the relationship with the Spanish state is not good, everyone knows that.’
For him, ‘it is time for Catalans to decide their future’ and the question on the ballot paper will ask voters to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to only one simple question: ‘Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?’
The move to hold a referendum – once again in defiance of Madrid – is framed as a last resort, forced on Catalonia by an intractable central government. Announcing the vote earlier this month, Puigdemont said: ‘We have always made very diverse offers and all of them have been rejected without any exception.’
The referendum, he calculate, will force Spain’s central government to act – one way or the other.
For its part, Madrid has long insisted that independence would lead to ruin for Catalonia, with up to 30% of its GDP disappearing overnight and any newly founded republic finding itself outside the EU. It has promised to block the poll altogether.
Central government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said the ‘radical’ strategy of the Catalan government was borne of desperation and ‘there is not going to be any illegal referendum that goes against the constitution’. Spain’s deputy prime minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria also dismissed the proposed poll.
‘They can announce that referendum as many times as they want and delay it for weeks or hold as many events as they want, but the referendum will not be held,’ he said.
Indeed, under Article 155 of the Spanish constitution Madrid can force the regional government in Barcelona to drop the vote, but Catalan officials have said they will not do so under any circumstances.
Assuming the Catalans do get to the ballot box, the result is far from certain and the polls are tight. The 80% vote in 2014 gives a misleading impression: turnout of less than 40%, following a boycott by critics, severely undermined even the ballot’s rhetorical legitimacy.
Indeed, there are signs that enthusiasm for independence is waning. The most recent survey showed signs of flagging support, with 44.3% backing breaking from Spain and 48.5% in favour of the current system of devolution.
According to some readings of the polls, the tumult of recent years – Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, austerity and growing fears about Islamist terrorism in Europe – have all played a role in dampening enthusiasm for change in Catalonia, as elsewhere in Europe where separatism is an issue. Similar points are made about Scotland, where there are indications that the initiative is slipping from the nationalists.
But equally, such events have made things hard to predict – one intriguing, if under-reported aspect of the recent French parliamentary election was the election of three nationalists to represent the Mediterranean island of Corsica, while in Scotland in 2014, the polls narrowed dramatically shortly before a vote which had long seemed to be a comfortable win for the Better Together campaign. As in that vote, public figures are also starting to engage in the debate. Earlier this month, Pep Guardiola, the former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager, appeared at a rally pressing the case for the referendum. ‘We have tried on 18 occasions to reach an agreement on a referendum and the answer has always been no,’ he told the crowd. ‘We have no other option but to vote.’
For both Madrid and Barcelona, then, the stakes could not be higher. For Catalan nationalists, a defeat in their own poll would be an incalculable setback. Such constant sabre-rattling can backfire – the public are not always so dogmatic on issues of independence as politicians, and if voters think their leaders are too distracted by such subjects to deliver on ‘bread and butter’ ones then they can be unforgiving at the ballot box.
For Madrid, widespread, democratically-expressed support for independence will be hard to ignore. Meanwhile, using the courts and the machinations of Madrid-based politics to try to thwart it may only increase support for separation. The Madrid reaction to the 2014 vote was furious, with prime minister Mariano Rajoy even hinting that the country would use force to stop any secession.
‘The state may use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain,’ he said. ‘Those who want to divide and split Catalonia from Spain must know that they will not succeed.’
His reaction has been little different this time, describing the plan as ‘political, juridical and social nonsense’ and declaring it ‘an unacceptable attempt to blackmail the state’. His defence minister María Dolores de Cospedal declared the proposed October referendum a ‘coup d’état’.
Desire among the armed forces to put an end to the independence movement has been rumoured for years, but remains an unlikely prospect. Despite this, even with Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, the problem of the ‘two Spains’ created by the Civil War remains, and the conservative side in particular has attempted to block regional independence movements, including by going to absurd lengths.
In 2004, jihadist terrorists linked to Al-Qaeda bombed Madrid train station killing 192. The government, however, immediately leapt to declare Basque separatists Eta to be the culprits, even after the evidence of Islamist responsibility was irrefutable. The result was that the conservative People’s Party, which had been expecting an election victory, was summarily kicked out of power by furious public who viewed the government’s claims as absurd politicking.
The centre-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, which is more willing to negotiate with the various independence movements, was elected but today the People’s Party is back in power, led by prime minister Rajoy, and is no less opposed to independence movements than before.
Madrid, of course, has not just Catalonia to worry about, but other secessionist movements, especially in the Basque region and Galicia, who are watching events closely. Elsewhere in Europe too, other nationalist movements would derive an immense fillip should Catalonia somehow emerge as a newly-independent republic. The idea of breaking out of an existing state to form an independent country is not a common occurrence in western Europe. It was last achieved – bloodily – in the Balkans, and no one wants a repeat of that.
The role of the EU is a crucial factor in the Catalan debate – as it is for other separatist causes around the continent – with the prospect of membership making independence all the more enticing for putative countries. For nationalists from Glasgow to Galicia, the union offers protection from isolation and is an ideal sphere in which smaller states can thrive. The problem for them, of course, is the power the EU allows nation states to wield. During the 2014 Scottish referendum, Madrid insisted it would veto an independent Scotland automatically inheriting the UK’s membership of the EU, mindful of the great encouragement it would have given its own separatists.
Should Catalonia vote for secession and the region follow that up with a unilateral move towards secession, it would certainly put the EU on the spot and provide a new, potentially, destabilising challenge for Europe. What is certain is that it would plunge Spain into a Brexit-style period of crisis, introspection and uncertainty.
The stage is set, then, for a collision between a determined Catalonia and an intractable Madrid which would reverberate across the entire continent. And yet there are some signs that such a clash might yet be averted.
Álvaro Nieto, deputy editor of Spain’s Tiempo magazine says that Rajoy and his government bear a great deal of responsibility for the bolstering of Catalan independence moves in recent years, but that signs of flexibility are starting to show.
The independence movement has grown, he said, ‘because of the mistakes made by the Rajoy government, which has not addressed the problem during the last five years. Rajoy has been too static, but now he is starting to move.
‘The Catalan Government needs to continue pressing the Rajoy government to go to the negotiation table,’ Nieto said. Despite the bellicosity, back channels remain open and, according to Nieto, the likeliest result will be greater regional autonomy – and not just for Catalonia.
‘The Rajoy government has already decided to move; they will do it in the coming months. These days there is more dialogue with the government of Catalonia than you officially can see. We will see results soon and a reform of the Spanish constitution within two years probably, in order to give a special status to Catalonia, Basque Country and maybe Galicia.’
Whatever happens next, then, events will be closely scrutinised not just in Vitoria-Gasteiz and Santiago de Compostela (the Basque and Galician capitals), but Brussels and in every other European country home to its own separatist movement.