Leaders in Spain have stepped back from the precipice in their battle over Catalonia’s bid for independence. But resentment persists.
Demonstrators supporting Spanish unity wave Spanish and Catalan flags, Barcelona, 8 October 2017 (EPA-EFE/Quique Garcia)
The government of Spain and leaders of the country’s key northeastern region of Catalonia have for the moment stepped back from the precipice in their battle over the region’s bid to declare itself an independent republic.
After a deeply divisive referendum — branded illegal by the Madrid government — in Spain’s most economically powerful region, both sides have put any decisive move on hold, effectively declaring a pause for thought.
But resentment between the two camps remains fierce following the October 1 vote, in which turnout was only about 43 percent but some 90 percent voted for independence.
The depth of antagonism was captured in images of Spanish national police, sent in to block the vote in the Catalan capital Barcelona and other cities, using baton charges and rubber projectiles against citizens trying to cast their ballot.
More than 800 people were injured in the violence, broadcast widely on social media and in the mainstream press, sending shock waves through Spain, around Europe and beyond.
So the constitutional crisis, the worst in Spain’s 48 years of democracy since the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, is far from over.
Sleepless nights in Spain
Spain is the fourth largest economy in the European Union. Its possible break-up, the inevitable economic carnage and the emergence of a new, independent republic of 7.5 million people along the Mediterranean coast are enough to give EU leaders and international business managers sleepless nights.
Some fear Catalonian independence could trigger a euro zone crisis. Spain has high levels of debt, and although its economy is slowly recovering, disaster could strike if it suddenly lost its most profitable region.
In the days after the referendum, a general strike protesting against police violence brought Barcelona and other Catalan cities to a standstill. Tens of thousands rallied in Madrid in support of Spanish unity. And on one day in Barcelona, more than half a million flooded the streets, waving the Catalan and Spanish flags and proclaiming themselves both Catalan and Spanish.
The current Catalan push for secession gathered force in 2010 when Spain’s Constitutional Court threw out key parts of a ground-breaking charter that would have given the region greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.
Opinion polls taken earlier this year indicated that 80 percent of Catalans, who have their own language and culture, thought they should be allowed a referendum. But only about 41 percent favored full independence, with about 48 percent against.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, whose coalition has a slim majority in the region’s parliament thanks to support from a hard-left party, had been widely expected to formally declare independence in a speech on October 10.
Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had repeatedly said that, if independence was declared, he could not rule out taking the drastic option of imposing direct rule in Catalonia from Madrid by invoking the so-far-never-used Article 155 of the state constitution.
As it turned out, Puigdemont vigorously restated Catalonia’s right to independence, but then to the dismay of many supporters, immediately suspended implementation of the declaration to allow for talks with Madrid.
Pressed by hardliners, he later signed a written declaration of independence — but he did not say the magic words.
Catalonia business and EU warnings
So what made him back away from taking the final step? Despite energetic support from his allies, in the lead-up to his speech he came under pressure from pro-unity politicians in Catalonia, Madrid and other parts of Spain.
At least as telling were decisions by more than a dozen major businesses based in Catalonia, including two of the region’s biggest banks, to relocate either to Madrid or to other centers in Spain, fearing the consequences of a rupture.
Puigdemont’s speech had been delayed by an hour by a conversation with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who would have reinforced the view from other European capitals that Catalan independence would mean its exclusion from the EU. It would have to re-apply to join and would need the approval all member states – including Spain.
Juncker later told a student forum in Luxembourg he did not support Catalan independence, fearing others might follow the same path. He warned it could result in a region too complicated for the EU to govern.
Although Puigdemont’s statement must have brought some relief in Madrid, Rajoy wasted no time rejecting it, ratcheting up pressure on the Catalan leader. Rajoy curtly gave the Catalan leader five days to clarify whether he had formally declared independence or not, and if he had, offered him three more days to retract. Puigdemont has yet to respond.
Then late last week Rajoy agreed to set up a commission to study the distribution of powers between the central government and the country’s 17 semi-autonomous regions.
This would mean revision of the country’s constitution to reshape relations between Catalonia, already one of the most devolved regions, and the rest of Spain. Catalonia might be able to keep a bigger share of taxes, addressing complaints from Catalan nationalists that they contribute more than they receive in services from the central government.
But so far Rajoy has been adamant that there will be no negotiations while the Catalans are still talking about independence.
So Spaniards, Catalans and governments around Europe wait on tenterhooks for the next development. Spain’s other most culturally different regions, Galicia and the Basque Country, are watching eagle-eyed.
The United Kingdom’s efforts to make an orderly exit from the EU and its painfully slow “Brexit” negotiations have put many countries on edge.
Scottish nationalists, defeated in a referendum on leaving Britain in 2014, have recently indicated they will try again, but not until the UK is out of the EU. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has expressed her “solidarity” with Catalonia.
In Italy, the wealthy northern regions of Veneto and Lombardy are due to hold referendums on October 22, seeking more autonomy from Rome.
In Belgium, support for greater autonomy for Flanders has been bubbling for decades over cultural and linguistic differences between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, while Bavaria, in the southeastern corner of Germany, has its own dialects and traditions. The wealthy state is home to the pro-independence Bavaria Party.
Europe has its many fingers crossed for a political solution to Spain’s crisis.
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. You can read Hart’s recollections about his assignment to Vietnam in our series on the 1960s.