A voter casts his ballot in regional elections in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, 21 December 2017. (EPA-EFE/Enric Fontcuberta)

By Robert Hart

As a new year starts, Spain’s increasingly bitter constitutional crisis over a bid for independence by the separatist-led government of the northeastern region of Catalonia seems no closer to a solution and threatens to deepen divisions in Catalan society and beyond.

Catalan regional elections last month, ordered by the national government in Madrid, produced a record turnout of 80 percent and a wafer-thin majority of seats in the regional parliament for pro-independence groups. But a staunchly pro-unionist party made significant gains to emerge as the strongest single party.

Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous autonomous region, with its own language and culture. It has 16 percent of Spain’s population, produces  one quarter of the country’s exports, 19 percent of its economic output and 21 percent of foreign investment.’

Its capital, Barcelona, is one of Europe’s major ports and a top tourist destination, and it has one of the world’s most famous soccer teams, FC Barcelona.

A breakaway by Catalonia would be devastating for Spain, politically, diplomatically and economically. It would send shock waves through the country — notably in regions like the Basque Country and Galicia, which also have distinct culture and languages and a history of independent mindedness.

It would also rock the European Union, already disturbed by the saga of the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” and rising nationalism in some member states.

A bizarre situation

The photo-finish election outcome is complicated by the fact that the leader of the separatist wing is now in self-imposed exile in Belgium with four of his colleagues, and his deputy is in prison in Madrid. All are facing charges of rebellion against the state and sedition.

This bizarre situation was triggered last October 1 when Catalan president Carles Puigdemont staged a regional referendum seeking support for a break with Spain, a step branded illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. About 90 percent of those who voted backed independence, but turnout was only 43 percent.

The referendum hit world headlines in large part because of the Spanish government’s heavy-handed attempts to disrupt it, with thousands of national police and paramilitary civil guards pictured smashing up voting booths and baton-charging people trying to vote.

After weeks of demonstrations both for and against, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on October 27 formally declared Catalonia an independent republic after a secret ballot in which 70 of the 135 members voted in favor. Opposition lawmakers boycotted the session.

The Spanish government of conservative Popular Party (PP) Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded immediately. For the first time in Spain’s 70 years of democracy, it used the Constitution to override Catalonia’s considerable autonomy and seize direct control of the government and institutions of the region.

Rajoy sacked Puigdemont and all regional government officials, and called new regional elections for December 21.

Several leading separatist politicians, including Puigdemont’s deputy Oriol Junqueras, were arrested. Accompanied by four others, Puigdemont escaped to Brussels, from where he continued to broadcast his separatist message and campaign remotely for the new election. All five were re-elected in the December poll but could face arrest if they return to Spain.

The separatists seem to have a chance to form a government.

On the day after the election, Rajoy announced that the new Catalan Parliament would hold its first session on January 17 and the new government should be constituted by January 31.

He had earlier rejected calls by Puigdemont to hold talks in Belgium. Without naming Puigdemont, Rajoy said he would negotiate with “whoever is president of the Catalan government,” but insisted they would have to take up their post in Catalonia.

So who is going to form this government?

The separatists appear to have the best chance with their potential total of 70 seats, two more than required for a majority. But that includes Puigdemont and the other four exiles. And even then they would also need the four votes of the unpredictable, anti-EU Popular Unity party to get that result.

The separatists themselves are in effect a coalition. Puigdemont’s party depends on support from the Catalan Republican Left, led by Junqueras.

Although firmly pro-independence, Junqueras has made statements from prison indicating that he is ready to pursue his goals through dialogue rather than by unilateral declaration, which could set him at odds with Puigdemont.

Underlining the split in Catalan society, the anti-independence Citizens party made substantial gains to win 37 seats, up from 25 in 2015, and become the biggest single party.

Plenty of losers

While there seems to be no clear winner in this political mess, there are plenty of losers, not least Prime Minister Rajoy. Although stoical about the election result, he must have been shocked that his gamble to take a hard line against the secessionists had not won over the Catalan people, who have a history of not appreciating heavy handedness from Madrid.

The harsh police action against the October referendum sparked huge protest demonstrations. And Catalans of all political persuasions were distressed to see pro-independence politicians arrested, imprisoned and facing charges that could carry long sentences.

Rajoy’s Popular Party felt the weight of this unhappiness in the December election, slumping from 10 seats to just three in the new Catalan parliament — a result that could have consequences at the national level.

Rajoy heads a weak government that is able to function only with the support of anti-independence Citizens (Cs) party, which holds a solid block of seats in the Madrid parliament.

The economy, both at the regional and national levels, is another loser. It has barely recovered from the world economic crisis of 2008, and now it has taken another punch in the stomach.

Nerves before and after the referendum caused hundreds of businesses, including two major banks, to transfer their headquarters out of Catalonia into other parts of Spain or abroad. In the lead-up to the December election, the number of businesses that had moved out was reported to have reached 3,000.

Economy Minister Luis de Guindos put the cost of the Catalan crisis at around 1 billion euros. He told Spanish radio it was due to a slowdown in the Catalan economy after the October referendum.

“Catalonia used to have growth above that of Spain. It was one of the drivers of the Spanish economy,” De Guindos said. “However, in the fourth quarter, it’s become a burden.”

And then, of course, there are the Catalan people, who face maybe months of heightened tension over how and when all this is going to end.

How would an independent Catalonia get on?

Catalonia already has a wide range of autonomy. It has its own parliament and its own police force. It runs its own health care, schools and some other public services, and even has a few overseas missions that promote trade and investment in Catalonia.

The region’s main complaint is that it pays more in taxes to Madrid than the central government gives back in services. But as an independent republic, it would be responsible for its own border controls, customs and defense, and would have to set up a central bank, tax authorities and air traffic control. All these are currently run by Madrid.

An independent Catalonia would immediately find itself out of the European Union. Many separatists believe they would be welcomed back almost immediately, but the EU has offered them no reassurance on this.

Throughout this drama, EU officials have insisted it is Spain’s internal problem. The official line is that independent Catalonia would have to formally apply for membership, and the application would have to be processed and approved by all member states — including Spain.

That could be a long and difficult process.

(For more stories on Catalonia’s independence movement, click here.)

Robert Hart was a correspondent and regional editor for Reuters for more than 35 years, reporting on the Vietnam war, West Germany during Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik and as bureau chief in Spain for five years in the 1990s. In between he was Asian News Editor based in Singapore and Latin America Editor, based in Buenos Aires during the military “dirty war” of the late 1970s.

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