Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy receives applause from members of his People's Party after his speech to Parliament in Madrid, October 2017.
Sergio Perez / REUTERS

Only a few weeks ago, it seemed quite likely that Catalonia would declare itself independent from Spain. On October 1, the people of Catalonia voted overwhelmingly for independence (some 90 percent of voters, according to Catalan authorities) in a referendum that took place under the most inauspicious of circumstances. In the days leading to the referendum, the central administration in Madrid confiscated some 10 million ballots, threatened to prosecute any Catalan public official involved with the referendum, and disabled the Internet to prevent people from finding their voting stations. When all that failed, Madrid sent thousands of national police and civil guard officers to block people from entering voting stations. It all backfired.

Images of police dragging people, some of whom had bloody faces, from voting stations and firing rubber bullets into the crowds dominated the headlines. According to Catalan health authorities, 844 people were injured in clashes with the police. The mayhem, condemned by human rights organizations, fed the separatist narrative of a villainous Madrid administration preventing people from expressing their right to self-determination. In particular, Madrid’s resort to violence ceded the higher moral ground to the separatists. Seeking to capitalize on the situation, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared that “with this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.”

Just ten days after the referendum, however, the fortunes of the independence movement had shifted radically. Puigdemont was forced into a delicate balancing act of acknowledging both the right to declare independence and the reality that unilaterally doing so would be extremely unlikely to succeed. In a speech to the Catalan Parliament on October 10, Puigdemont said that he was declaring independence but was suspending the declaration to pursue negotiations with Madrid. The incoherence of the news stunned those who had gathered all over Catalonia to witness the momentous occasion, with some claiming to be “cheated and lied to.”

What will come of negotiations with Madrid is far from clear at the moment. It is not even clear what precisely is on the bargaining table. The initial conflict with Madrid was over Catalonia’s desire to have a bigger say over its finances, but everyone agrees that addressing this alone will not put an end to the crisis. What is clear, however, is that the dream of Catalan independence is, at least for now, indefinitely on pause.

THE MIRAGE OF CATALAN UNITY

At least to the outside world, Catalonia’s search for independence has been defined by images of throngs of people demanding the right of self-determination. The demonstrations, some of them comprising more than a million people, began after 2006. That year, the Catalan people approved the New Statute of Autonomy, a document that provocatively referred to Catalonia as “a nation” and called for greater autonomy, especially on fiscal matters. For decades, Catalans have complained that they send more money to Madrid than they get back in investments. Protests intensified after 2010, when the Constitutional Tribunal, Spain’s highest court, struck down most of the statute’s provisions. This ruling unleashed the current political crisis, the most serious in Spain since the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Images of the Catalan masses demanding independence were somewhat misleading.

In reality, however, the images of the Catalan masses demanding independence were somewhat misleading. Polling data has consistently shown that although a vast majority of the Catalans would like to be consulted on the region’s political future, there is no clear majority of Catalans clamoring for independence. Most polls place the percentage of Catalans who favor independence at around 45 percent, which is roughly the same percentage of the vote that the separatist coalition governing Catalonia received in the 2015 regional elections. Moreover, only 42 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls for the referendum. Understandably, the absence of a clear pro-independence majority has given rise to talk of the existence of a “silent majority” that prefers Catalonia to stay within Spain.

That majority appears to have woken up on October 9, when hundreds of thousands of people (350,000 according to official estimates, and close to one million according to the demonstration’s organizers) took to the streets of Barcelona to demonstrate against independence. The world was treated to a rare display of Spanish nationalism in the heart of the Catalan capital. Since Franco’s death, displays of national symbols such as the Spanish flag have all but disappeared from Catalonia, save for those displayed on public buildings. “Viva España” and “Soy Español, Soy Catalan” (I am Spanish, I am Catalan) were some of the slogans chanted by the marchers, many of them wrapped in the Spanish flag, as they made their way through Barcelona’s graceful avenues and squares. National police and civil guard officers, who only a few days before were vilified for their actions on the day of the referendum, were treated to hugs and hailed as patriots. Among the speakers was Nobel Prize-winning writer and conservative politician Mario Vargas Llosa, who holds Spanish and Peruvian citizenship. He urged the crowd not to let “a separatist conspiracy destroy Spanish democracy.”  

The demonstration impacted the separatist movement’s plans for declaring independence in at least two ways. First, it linked developments in Barcelona to a nationwide movement calling for dialogue between the Catalan government and the conservative administration of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. That movement, which began to grow soon after the violence that accompanied the referendum, became known in social media as Parlem/Hablemos (“Let’s Talk” in Catalan and Spanish). The demonstration also exposed the deep divide within Catalonia on the issue of independence and the challenge this posed for launching a brand-new state. Up until the day of the demonstration, the separatists could still delude themselves into thinking that those opposed to secession would remain quiet and accept independence.

A FRAGILE COALITION

Unfortunately for those favoring secession, the separatist coalition’s ideological heterogeneity means there has never been a cohesive alliance for Catalan independence, much less a coherent plan for an independent Catalonia. The coalition, termed Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”), was formed in response to the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling striking down most of the provisions of the New Statute of Autonomy and in time for the 2015 regional elections. At the center of the coalition is the center-right Catalan European Democratic Party (PDeCAT), the successor of Convergence and Union, the center-right party that built the post-Franco Catalan nationalist movement and dissolved in 2015 after a series of corruption scandals, and its main rival, the Republican Left of Catalonia.

Although it was the victor in the 2015 regional elections, Junts pel Sí did not win enough parliamentary seats to form a government, pushing the coalition into an alliance with the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), a small far-left party. This move has brought mixed results. On one hand, it allowed the passing of a law through the Catalan Parliament authorizing the independence referendum. On the other hand, it radicalized the coalition. CUP leaders considered former Catalan President Artur Mas corrupt, too economically conservative, and not strong enough on independence, so he had to be replaced with Puigdemont, a hardline separatist. Doing so, however, meant sidelining the Catalan politician with the most experience negotiating with Madrid. It was Mas who had convinced Madrid to allow a previous nonbinding independence referendum in 2014. That referendum had results quite similar to the more recent one: 80 percent approved independence, with a turnout of just under 40 percent.

The CUP also brought considerable political baggage to the coalition, especially its well-known opposition to capitalism and globalization. (The party has advocated for Spain’s departure from the EU and the eurozone, for example.) Such stances, which explain the party’s reputation as an anarchist organization, have alienated traditional conservative members of the coalition and members of the Catalan business community sympathetic to independence. The have also fueled the accusation that a radical minority is leading Spain to the precipice of political disaster. One of the most direct and compelling critics of the CUP is Albert Ribera, the head of Ciudadanos, a centrist party from Catalonia that vehemently opposes independence. On the eve of the referendum, Rivera told Politico Europe that Spain is undergoing “a crisis that threatens the rule of law” created by separatists in Catalonia whom he referred to as “pyromaniacs” and “putschists.”

Tensions among the various factions of the separatist coalition flared up in the days following the referendum. PDeCAT leaders, fearful of reprisals from Madrid, urged Puigdemont to proceed with caution. Days after the referendum, Mas, who presides over the party, told The Financial Times that “Catalonia is not yet ready for real independence.” The CUP leadership, by contrast, was pressing for an unambiguous declaration of independence, arguing that only after independence would the international community feel compelled to intervene. Its dissatisfaction with Puigdemont’s decision to “suspend” independence was palpable. The ten-member delegation from CUP sat stone-silent as the Catalan president delivered his speech; they did not even bother to applaud after the speech concluded. CUP leaders are currently endeavoring to force the hand of Puigdemont to declare independence. In a public letter urging Puigdemont to “lift the suspension of independence,” CUP leaders warned that they were ready to walk away and “leave him in the minority.”

OUTMANEUVERED BY MADRID

A more important, albeit less apparent, factor in stopping Catalan independence was Rajoy’s skillful management of the crisis. Initially, the consensus at home and abroad was that Madrid had botched its response to the referendum by needlessly employing force to stop an illegal vote from taking place. In retrospect, however, it appears that Rajoy, a veteran politician who has been a leading force in Spanish politics for almost two decades, was playing a broader and longer game in at least three ways.

First, Rajoy rounded up support against Catalan independence from the major actors in the international community. The objective was to kill off the so-called Kosovo route to Catalan independence; in 2008 Kosovo unilaterally declared independence, claiming oppression from the Serbs, which led the international community to intervene in support of the separatist forces. Prior to the vote, Rajoy traveled to Berlin and Washington, where he received assurances that neither Germany nor the United States would recognize a referendum that the Spanish government had deemed unconstitutional. He also received assurances from Brussels that an independent Catalonia would not be automatically admitted into the EU. It would have to reapply for admission, a convoluted process that could take years to complete. Following the referendum, major European governments such as France reiterated their view that they would not recognize an independent Catalonia, or even play a role of mediator in the conflict.

Second, Rajoy successfully rallied the Spanish political class against a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalans. In so doing, he solidified his position as the keeper of the rule of law and cast the separatist coalition as constitutional outlaws. He received support from both the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), the main opposition party in the national parliament, and Ciudadanos, the center-right party from Catalonia, for the outright withdrawal of Catalonia’s autonomy charter, a provision allowed by Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution in case of a national security emergency. Rajoy also entered into a pact with PSOE head Pedro Sánchez to organize a commission to study amending the Constitution with an eye toward revamping the system of regional autonomies crated after 1978. That, in theory, could open the way for the formal federalization of Spain, something currently prohibited by the Constitution.

Finally, Rajoy deployed one of the Spanish government’s most powerful weapons: the ability to disrupt the Catalan economy. Following the referendum, the Rajoy administration passed a law that did away with the red tape involving a company’s decision to relocate its headquarters. The point was to accelerate the departure of major companies from Catalonia. It worked like a charm. Within hours of the law going into effect, Catalonia experienced a massive corporate exodus that impacted every sector of the region’s economy. According to El País, 540 companies have left Barcelona for other Spanish cities since October 1, with the largest number of departures (212) coming on October 9, the day Piugdemont declared and suspended independence. Among the first to leave were CaixaBank and Sabadell, Catalonia’s two largest banks; Gas Natural Fenosa, an energy company; Planeta, one of Spain’s leading publishers; Dogi International, the textile giant; and Albertis, the global toll company. All of them cited Catalonia’s political uncertainty as the reason for leaving.

In the view of the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia, the corporate exodus amounted to “an authentic offensive against independence.” It dealt a massive psychological blow to the confidence that the separatists had expressed in an independent Catalan economy and a painless transition to independence. It also alarmed economic forecasters, who were already worried about the toll that the crisis could have on Spain’s economic recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown. In the days following the referendum, leading business leaders warned Puigdemont that declaring independence would cause nothing short of financial chaos for the region and the nation as a whole. The International Monetary Fund delivered a similar message.

HARD CHOICES AHEAD

The Spanish media’s reception to Puigdemont’s speech declaring but suspending independence says a lot about the shifting fortunes of Catalonia’s independence project: The liberal El País referred to the speech as “a secessionist coup against democracy” while the conservative El Mundo labeled it “a farce and a shakedown.” The local press was no kinder: La Vanguardia called the speech “disconcerting and confusing.” Puigdemont’s stumble has emboldened Rajoy, who’s using Catalonia as a teaching moment for other Spanish regions aspiring to independence, most notably the Basques. After Puigdemont’s speech, Rajoy wrote to the Catalan leader asking him say definitively whether he had declared independence. He gave him five days to respond and, in the case of an affirmative answer, an additional five to reconsider before invoking Article 155.

Puigdemont’s choices are not enviable. He can make an unambiguous declaration of independence that reportedly would be grounded in the dubious argument that Madrid is trampling upon the human rights of the Catalan people, which will delight his base but trigger Madrid’s takeover of Catalonia and new elections; or he can settle for more autonomy under a yet-to-be-determined reformation of the Spanish Constitution while risking a parliamentary mutiny within his separatist coalition that would likely cause the collapse of his government. It appears that at this juncture, Puigdemont’s greatest concern is not independence for Catalonia but rather his own political survival.

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