People hold Catalan separatist flags known as "Esteladas" during a gathering to mark the Catalonia day "Diada" in central Barcelona, September 2016.
People hold Catalan separatist flags known as "Esteladas" during a gathering to mark the Catalonia day "Diada" in central Barcelona, September 2016.
Albert Gea / REUTERS

Barring a last-minute development, on October 1, the separatist government of Catalonia will convene a non-binding referendum on whether the region should declare itself an independent nation from Spain. This follows a victory by Catalan nationalist forces in the 2015 regional elections that for the first time in Catalonia’s history brought to power a coalition of political parties demanding outright independence. Upon declaring victory, Catalan Premier Carles Puigdemont announced that it was his intention to seek the establishment of the “Republic of Catalonia.”

If successful, Catalonia’s drive toward independence would dramatically alter the geography of the Kingdom of Spain, a country that has basically existed in its current configuration since 1492, with the marriage of Queen Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragón (a kingdom which included the Principality of Catalonia), universally known as the “Catholic Monarchs.” It would also massively diminish Spain as a nation state: Catalonia comprises 16 percent of Spain’s population and accounts for 20 percent of its GDP.

Finally, an independent Catalonia would transform the political landscape of Western Europe, with the creation of a new, mid-sized state sandwiched between Spain and France, to say nothing of emboldening other so-called stateless nations in Europe seeking independence, most notably Scotland, whose own bid for independence failed to get off the ground in 2015. Needless to say, Catalan independence would be momentous.


No one should expect Catalan independence anytime soon, however, even if the referendum brings a decisive victory for the independence movement. For one thing, it is not clear that the movement has the support it needs to win the referendum, much less to undertake the protracted negotiations with Madrid that an orderly secession would entail. According to the most recent polling from El País, Spain’s leading newspaper, a clear majority of Catalans favors the region having the right to determine its political future, but fewer support severing ties with Spain than want to stay within it.

Support for independence is weakest in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital city, which is home to hundreds of thousands of non-Catalans, as well as foreign-born Spaniards from Latin America, North Africa, and other parts of Europe. For many of them, the prospect of an independent Catalonia is rather worrisome. Many fear the coming of a wave of xenophobia; at the very least, many expect a clamp down on immigration. Support for independence is also lukewarm among Barcelona’s business leaders, many of whom have serious doubts that the region can survive economically on its own. They are also fearful of the toll the crisis could take on the tourist industry, especially if violence breaks out following the referendum. All of this is ironic, given that proponents cast Barcelona’s emergence as a global city as part of the rationale for Catalan independence.

More importantly, the Catalan referendum is not recognized by the central government in Madrid. In this respect, it differs significantly from similar referenda held in other separatist regions, such as Scotland and Quebec. In fact, the referendum is illegal under the Spanish Constitution. Article Two makes specific reference to the “indivisible” nature of the Spanish state, a point cited by Spain’s Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest court, when it ruled the referendum unconstitutional. The illegality of the referendum makes its outcome highly suspect. An earlier non-binding referendum of November 2014, advertised by proponents of independence as a “trial balloon,” went nowhere. It garnered some 80 percent approval for independence, but few took this outcome seriously, as it was mainly only those who favored independence who bothered to show up to vote. (Less than 40 percent of eligible voters participated.) This new referendum could have a similar fate.


None of this is to say, however, that the Catalan referendum is insignificant—far from it. The stakes are highest for the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, of the conservative Popular Party (PP). Following two recent inconclusive national elections, Rajoy’s grip on power in Madrid is rather tenuous. A favorable vote for independence could potentially bring about the collapse of his government, either by triggering a vote of no confidence from within his own party or, more likely, from a departure from his coalition of Cuidadanos, or Citizens, a Catalan party that vehemently opposes Catalan independence.

At the very least, a vote in favor of independence will weaken Rajoy’s government by intensifying the attacks from the parliamentary opposition led by the Social Democratic Party (PSOE). Although PSOE parliamentarians also oppose the Catalan referendum, they are not especially keen on helping Rajoy find a way out of the crisis, which they hope will allow them to retake control of the government. The PSOE was last in power from 2004-2011. During this time, in 2008, the party dodged a threat for an independence referendum by the Basques. As with the Catalan referendum, the Constitutional Tribunal declared the Basque referendum unconstitutional. The Basques filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that their right to self-determination had been violated, but it was unsuccessful.

The prospects that Rajoy will pay some price for the referendum, regardless of the outcome, are enhanced by his mismanagement of the crisis. His response to the Catalan referendum has gone from ignoring it to desperately trying to force the Catalan government to call it off. He first ignored calls from the moderate factions of the Catalan nationalist movement to negotiate more autonomy for the region, especially on the issue of finances. The Catalans have traditionally complained that they should have a bigger say over the taxes collected by Madrid in Catalonia and that they contribute more to the national budget than what they get back in return from Madrid. These charges were at the heart of the New Statute of Autonomy, a declaration endorsed by the Catalan voters in 2006 that referred to Catalonia as “a nation” and called for greater financial autonomy for the region, among other demands for greater freedom from Madrid.

In 2015, after the Catalan government moved forward with its plans for a referendum, Rajoy went to the Constitutional Tribunal to test the constitutionality of the referendum. He won in court but lost the battle for the street. The Tribunal’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional drew massive protests across Catalonia and allowed Catalan separatists to frame the issue as one about the basic right of all peoples to self-determination. In particular, the ruling allowed Catalan nationalists to argue, falsely, that the will of the people had been ignored and that self-governance could not be increased from within the current system of regional self-governance.

In an attempt to intimidate the Catalan government, the Rajoy administration has threatened with jail terms any public official who facilitates the referendum. Spain’s chief public prosecutor, José Manuel Maza, has not ruled out Puigdemont’s arrest, either before or after the vote, as part of the continued crackdown against the referendum. And Rajoy himself has been coy about whether he is willing to invoke article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows Madrid to suspend the autonomy charter of any region if it poses “a serious threat” to national security.

As might be expected, Catalan separatists have wasted no time in characterizing Rajoy’s overreach as reminiscent of the attempts by the dictatorial regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, in place from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 to Franco’s death from natural causes in 1975, to suppress Spain’s regional distinctions. Under Franco’s policies of cultural homogeneity, the Catalan language, flag, and national holiday, the Diada, were all banned. This ban also applied to other separatist regions in Spain, most notably the Basque Country.

Less apparent is that Rajoy has spectacularly failed to exploit the weakness and cleavages within the Catalan independence movement. There has been very little on his part in the way of a divide-and-conquer strategy. Despite the images of throngs of people in Barcelona’s main square demanding independence from Spain that have circulated in the international media, the Catalan independence movement is far from a strong and cohesive force. In contrast to the situation in the Basque Country, where the search for Basque independence has caused bloodshed that since the late 1950s has claimed the lives of almost 1,000 people, the majority of them killed by the terrorist organization ETA, the Catalan nationalist movement has traditionally been dominated by moderate and pragmatic leaders.

Jordi Pujol, the founder of the contemporary Catalan nationalist movement, went out of his way to stress Catalonia’s aspirations for local rule as opposed to independence. He also championed the idea of “Europe of the Regions,” a movement that promoted regional self-government across the European Union but not secession. Pujol paved the way for other Catalan nationalist leaders, such as Artur Mas, the Catalan premier who tried, with very little success, to force Madrid to accept the stipulations of the New Statute of Autonomy between 2010 and 2015. Rajoy alienated Mas by refusing negotiate a new funding system for the region as well as a long list of demands that included state investments in Catalonia.

Tellingly, even Rajoy’s own allies have criticized him for his unwillingness to negotiate with the Catalans. The stingiest criticism has come from Cuidadanos leader Albert Rivera, who last March accused Rajoy of “abandoning Catalonia because he does not want to talk to the Catalan president.” In keeping with traditional Catalan nationalist views, Rivera believes the Catalan people aspire to greater control over their daily affairs within Spain rather than independence from Spain.

Moreover, the pro-independence coalition, Junts pel si (“together for yes”), is a very fragile coalition of conservatives, left-wing republicans, and anti-capitalists who are united only in their desire to see an independent Catalonia. Its control over the Catalan regional government is even more tenuous than Rajoy’s control over the Madrid administration. Puigdemont, who hails from Girona, the most fiercely pro-independence of Catalonia’s four provinces, was only able to form a Catalan government after he obtained the support from the Popular Unity Candidacy, a tiny far-left party whose radical economic platform shares little with that the main Catalan nationalist party, Convergence and Union, which tends be economically quite conservative. And it was only at the last minute that this coalition came together.


Whatever happens on October 1, one thing is certain: the electoral result will not prompt any substantial response from Madrid. The Rajoy administration will likely attack the legitimacy of the outcome, especially if it is a positive one for the separatist forces, by capitalizing on several controversial aspects of the referendum that go beyond its basic illegality. Unilaterally devised by the Catalan government, the referendum does not call for a minimum level of voter participation to be valid. It also calls for any result above 50 percent of the yes vote to be sufficient to declare independence. 

Whatever happens on October 1, one thing is certain: the electoral result will not prompt any substantial response from Madrid.

But the crisis will persist, which raises the question of how it might be solved in the coming years. Independence is certainly an option, but it is a long shot given that it is unlikely that Madrid will ever agree to it. Moreover, international support for Catalan independence is close to non-existent. Without offending the Catalans, the European Union has made it clear that admission of an independent Catalonia into the EU is not a given. European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker has noted that “if there were to be a yes vote in favor of Catalan independence, then we will respect that opinion, but Catalonia will not be able to be an EU member on the day after such a vote.” U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been more resolute in opposing Catalan independence. At a September 26 joint White House press conference with Rajoy, Trump declared, “I think that Spain is a great country, and it should remain united. We’re dealing with a great, great country, and it should remain united.”

A more likely scenario, especially under a new political administration in Madrid and a less intransigent leadership in Catalonia, is that the major stakeholders go to the bargaining table to negotiate an autonomy arrangement for Catalonia that incorporates a new funding scheme. This solution will not appease staunch secessionists, but it would under-cut the independence coalition’s core assumption that more autonomy for Catalonia is not possible within the current system of regional autonomy. A more radical solution would be for Spain’s political class to muster the political will to move the nation in the direction of full-fledged federalism. This is an uphill struggle, to be sure.

Federalism is something of a Pandora’s box in Spain; past attempts to federalize Spain in the nineteenth century and during the interwar years led to chaos and civil war. Indeed, Catalonia’s push for political autonomy was one of the triggers of the Civil War. Moreover, federalization, which would entail granting the same degree of autonomy to all of Spain's 17 regions, as well as trimming the authority of the central government in Madrid, would require an amendment to the Spanish Constitution, which pointedly bars the partition of the country into federal states.

It is not as if the country has not reformed the Constitution before, however. The last time the major political parties agreed to a constitutional amendment was only in 2011, to introduce a cap on public spending intended to restore economic stability during the global financial crisis. Surely, keeping the nation at peace with itself is as important as keeping it financially stable.

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