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It was a year ago this month that Catalans voted to break away from Spain and create the Republic of Catalonia. Although 90 percent of those who participated in the referendum endorsed independence, only the Catalan government and those who voted in favor of it took the results seriously. Madrid declared the referendum illegal, based on a ruling from the Constitutional Court, while the European Union and the rest of the international community, including the United States, ignored the results. Most important, perhaps, the bulk of those opposed to Catalan independence boycotted the vote, effectively denying the referendum any legitimacy. These setbacks did not deter Catalan separatists from declaring independence a few weeks after the vote, on October 28, prompting Madrid to revoke Catalonia’s autonomy statute, prosecute those who authorized the referendum, and order new elections in the region.
Despite the advent of new political leadership in Barcelona and Madrid, Catalonia has remained politically deadlocked since the aborted attempt at independence. The separatist coalition of parties managed to hang on to power in last December’s regional elections, but received only 47 percent of the vote. Indeed, the party that received the most votes was Ciudadanos, or Citizens, an ardent opponent of Catalan independence. In June, a new Spanish prime minister, the leader of the Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Pedro Sánchez, was sworn in, and he pledged to find a way out of the current stalemate in Catalonia. But he is steadfast in his opposition to independence, as was his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy, of the Popular Party (PP). Sánchez’s only concession to the separatists was to allow for the transfer of 12 Catalan officials being prosecuted for rebellion to prisons in Catalonia.
None of this is to say that nothing of consequence has happened in Catalonia since the referendum. In fact, a lot has. And although much of the ensuing developments points to why Catalan independence remains a quixotic struggle, there are also glimmers of hope for resolving the crisis.
Catalan separatists’ biggest obstacle has been and remains the absence of a viable route to independence.
Catalan separatists’ biggest obstacle has been and remains the absence of a viable route to independence. Nobody wants to see a reprise of last year’s illegal referendum, which saw violence in the streets of Barcelona and other Catalan cities after Rajoy deployed the Guardia Civil to prevent people from voting and triggered a massive flight of Catalan businesses to other regions of Spain. A plan by Catalonia’s new premier, Quim Torra, to persuade the Sánchez administration to authorize a state-sponsored referendum sometime this autumn is going nowhere fast.
Meanwhile, Sánchez’s tenuous hold on power hamstrings his ability to pass legislation. To oust Rajoy, via a no-confidence motion, Sánchez managed to cobble together support from the left-wing-populist Podemos (We Can) party and the separatist-nationalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country with the barest of majorities: 180 of 350 parliamentary seats. Not surprisingly, Sánchez has struggled to get anything through the parliament. To date, his most significant legislative achievement is a vote to exhume and remove the remains of General Francisco Franco from El Valle de Los Caídos, or the Valley of the Fallen, Franco’s one-sided memorial to the Spanish Civil War. But this was a popular vote with the public, and the parliament had already approved the exhumation last year in a nonbinding resolution.
Complicating matters is that the Catalan people remain very divided on the issue of independence. A poll commissioned by the Catalan government from last July showed that 46.7 percent of Catalans wanted independence, versus 44.9 percent that wished to remain within Spain. This split presents a major challenge to the pro-independence coalition. Although some, such as Torra, believe that the Catalan government should continue to press unilaterally for independence, others are decidedly less sure, believing in the need to widen public support for independence. “If a separatist is so naïve or stupid to believe he can impose independence on the 50 percent of Catalans who are not separatists, it’s clear that they are mistaken,” said Joan Tardà, a member of the Spanish parliament from the Republican Left of Catalonia, or ERC, one of the parties in Torra’s separatist government.
The absence of a viable path to independence and the divisions within the separatist coalition were on vivid display on September 11, when the Catalans celebrated La Diada, Catalonia’s national holiday, which marks the fall of Barcelona in the Spanish War of Succession of 1714. In anticipation of the celebration, separatist leaders released public statements that were distinctly at odds. Torra recommitted himself to realizing the unilateral independence declared by Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont last October, arguing, “We have a social majority in favor of independence.” That statement stood in pointed contrast to the cautious statement made by ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, one of the separatist leaders currently in prison. He noted to a Catalan television station, “There is no shortcut to independence; this can only happen via a referendum agreed to by the Spanish state.”
Just as visible were the deep political divisions within Catalonia. Traditionally, the Diada draws all of Catalonia’s major political groups to Barcelona to celebrate Catalan identity. This year, however, only the pro-independence parties, led by Together for Catalonia, showed up, marching for “making the Catalan Republic” down Avenida Diagonal, a thoroughfare that crisscrosses Barcelona. The unionist parties—the Catalan Socialist Party, Ciudadanos, and the PP—all boycotted the march. At their own Diada events, unionist leaders excoriated the separatists for using an event associated with local pride to divide the Catalan people.
Amid the deadlock, however, there are glimmers of hope. Despite all the political posturing of the last 12 months, some semblance of normalcy has returned to Catalonia. Madrid lifted its direct rule of the region after the December elections, tourism bounced back, and the flight of businesses slowed. Much of this is credited to improved relations between Madrid and Barcelona. The relationship between Rajoy and Puigdemont, which I characterized last year as a clash between a Spanish strongman and a Catalan martyr, was downright toxic. For months, both leaders talked past each other, choosing instead to play to their political bases: Spanish nationalists for Rajoy and Catalan separatists for Puigdemont. This allowed what began as a dispute over Catalonia’s desire for more autonomy from Madrid to careen into Spain’s biggest constitutional crisis in the post-Franco era. By contrast, Torra and Sánchez seem to go out of their way to stress the importance of dialogue.
More important, a political solution appears to be in the horizon. Sánchez has proposed a referendum on a new autonomy statute with Madrid that, if approved by the Catalans and the Spanish parliament, would upgrade Catalonia’s capacity to rule itself. “It is a referendum for autonomy, not self-determination,” Sánchez said. Although the details of the new statute are not yet known, it is expected to include more control for Catalonia over its finances. Were Sánchez to succeed in pulling off this referendum, he would certainly set himself up very nicely for the next general elections, expected sometime before 2020. But significant obstacles stand in the way, which is why both sides are approaching the proposal with extreme caution.
For Sánchez, the risks include antagonizing the PP and Cuidadanos, both of which oppose greater autonomy for Catalonia. It could also upset other rebellious communities in Spain, such as the Basques, which would reasonably conclude that the Catalans are being rewarded for misbehaving. Ultimately, this could force a debate over amending the Spanish constitution to allow for a federal system in which all regions would have the same level of autonomy from the central administration. Another hurdle is the 2010 Constitutional Court ruling that a previous referendum on Catalan autonomy, approved in 2006 by 73 percent of Catalan voters, violated the Spanish Constitution by, among other things, making reference to Catalonia as “a nation.” Presumably, the Sánchez administration will ensure that any future referendum on Catalan autonomy passes constitutional muster before putting it to the voters.
Torra faces even higher risks, which is why he has already dismissed the proposal. A new autonomy statute could be the final nail in the coffin for the dream of Catalan independence. Support for independence falls considerably among Catalan voters when polls include the option of getting more autonomy from Madrid. If anything, the prospect of a referendum on autonomy has strengthened Torra’s resolve to secure a referendum on independence. Last week, Torra issued an ultimatum to the Sánchez administration: if the prime minister did not approve a referendum on independence, the Catalan separatists would withdraw their support in the national parliament. This could, in theory, bring down the Sánchez government. But the more moderate wing of the separatist movement, led by the ERC, made it clear that it was not willing to play along with Torra’s heavy-handed tactics. This has left Torra’s coalition teetering on collapse, with each side trying to avoid the blame for the botched independence project.
Whether Sánchez and Torra, two very weak politicians leading highly fractured governing coalitions, can manage to see past the political risks and do something that could end the current impasse in Catalonia is very much in doubt. But one year since the crisis erupted in earnest, it does appear that there is, at least on the part of Madrid, a newfound willingness to make constructive and conciliatory gestures. This alone stands in sharp contrast to the grandstanding we have become accustomed to by both sides and could well pave the way for a breakthrough.
CORRECTION APPENDED (October 9, 2018): An earlier version of this article stated that “90 percent of the Catalan public endorsed independence.” In fact, it was 90 percent of Catalans who voted in the referendum that endorsed independence. We regret the error.