EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

Catalonia’s intentions of broadening its autonomy and to attain independence is not novel. However, it certainly reached a whole new level very quickly after the referendum that took place on the 1st October.

As we know, the Catalonian referendum for independence was prior to its execution proclaimed unconstitutional. The Spanish government warned that such referendum is not going to be accepted and will be met with consequences if realized. However, on the day of the election dawned, the voters were encountered with an arguably disproportionately brutal intervention by the Spain police forces. As pictures of Spanish policemen violently beating up unarmed civilians at the voting stations and raiding venues with voting ballots spread in media, Spain inadverdently validated the Catalonian independence movement´s claims of Spanish oppression, further stoking tensions between Spain and Catalonia.

Catalonia and Catalonia’s yearning for independence has a long history reaching back for centuries. Two milestones are of special interest: firstly, the 19th century was particular for the rise of nationalism in Catalonia, connected with its rich culture and language. However, this was stopped abruptly as Catalonians underwent times of great oppression during Franco dictatorship of almost 40 years after he won the Spanish Civil War in 1939. During those times, political freedom was strongly suppressed, opposition was outlawed, and thousands of Catalan activists were executed, with autonomy of the region eventually abolished. Nowadays, Piudgemont compares Madrid´s actions during referendum to dictator Franco´s kind of operation. Such claims of course contribute to the escalation of the situation. Secondly, the acceleration of Catalonian efforts for independence as we witness it now has come after seven years of attempts of Catalan representatives to negotiate with Madrid over a greater scope of its autonomy and legal arrangement of a referendum. Madrid did not listen.

On the other hand, it is necessary to point out that Catalonian public is divided on this issue. Supporters of the independence organize protests, display Catalonian flags on their balconies (which I encountered during my visit in Barcelona last summer and I definitely was surprised with the vast number of it), create campaigns and videos, sharing it on social media. Opponents of the idea are, however, being heard much less.

To let the numbers speak: the referendum of 2006 which expanded the Catalonian statute of autonomy was notable by its low turnout- less than 49% of eligible voters participated, 73% of which supported it. During an unofficial vote for independence in 2014, only 36% of voters came to the ballot boxes, 80% of which were pro-independence (although here, the low turnout could have been caused by the ban of Spanish Constitutional Court). In fact, various surveys realized during last few years showed that no more than 48% of Catalonians supported the idea of Catalonian independence. The opposing camp claims that pro-unity or neutral Catalans are being overlooked and often even afraid to express their opinion. They want to prevent being called traitors or fascists.

In general, neither individual countries nor the European Union as a whole supported Piudgemont. On the contrary, Donal Tusk, the President of the European Council, said no EU member state will recognize Catalonia as a sovereign state.

The President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, also supported this view in his statement at the European Summit. The European Union also denies to be a part of Spain-Catalonian negotiations about autonomy or independence. This position is fully understandable, as all of the countries recognize Spain as a unified, sovereign entity as well as an important political partner, and therefore do not want to interfere into its internal affairs. While it is true that international law recognizes a right to self-determination, it is a sensitive issue to evaluate in this situation of Spain constitution standing against Catalonian claim for independence.

Some voices started to argument for Catalonian independence based on a comparison of the actual happening, mainly the police actions during the Catalonian referendum, to the case of Kosovo. Such comparisons are fundamentally flawed. The independence of Kosovo was approved by the international community after years of brutal violations of human rights aimed towards the ethnic minority of Kosovar Albanians under the rule of Milosevic, who was trying to expel them from their land. Also, before the independence was accepted, many rounds of negotiations that were supported by external actors took place. Catalans are not suffering by ethnic cleansing by the Spanish authorities, and international community does not support nor recognize their current efforts. They are using economic and cultural arguments to support their cause, but this was not – and cannot – be met with European support; the ramifications would reach far beyond Spain if they were. Furthermore, as the European Union has renewed its push towards greater integration, there is little appetite for disintegration of one of the most populous member states. Borders are not redrawn this easily nowadays, regardless of whether the cause is legitimate or not.

Article 155 is not going to cancel Catalonian autonomy per se, only constrain it until new elections have been conducted. However, no matter how the central government explains the choice of this so-called nuclear option, its logic is paradoxical; simply put, Madrid wants to remove a legally elected government, because it does not cooperate the way it desires and hopes for a more suitable one as its successor.

There is no contingency plan if the successor also wants independence. Moreover, this step could backfire by Catalans giving even greater support for political parties fighting for independence.

However, such scenario seems unlikely, at least for now. According to the latest survey made for El Periodico, if elections were held currently in Catalonia, pro-independence political parties would not gain more support than they already have. Currently, they have a slight majority in the Catalonian parliament, with 72 out of 135 seats. The poll shows that now they would gain between 70 to 73 seats.

The ideal solution to the current crisis in Spain would be for both sides to sit down behind one table and negotiate. If any peaceful resolution is going to be made, it will not be possible without concessions made at the both sides. Madrid is trying to protect its territorial integrity and Catalonia its mandate given by the referendum. The two sides seem irreconcilable, and arguably Madrid has postponed these talks for too long, allowing the situation to escalate to the point where a compromise is unimaginable, and where concessions on either side are seemingly impossible. Although a new Catalonian government might create a tenuous stability for a time, the hitherto latent desire for independence has to be met with a deeper dialogue from Madrid if such tragic events are to be avoided in the future. The growing tensions which are caused by the event of the previous week-end, when Catalonian parliament declared independence on Friday and subsequently, Spain prime minister Rajoy declared application of the Article 155, seem to close this chapter of the crisis and open up to an uncertain epilogue. The coming weeks and months will show just how Spain is committed to solving this crisis.

Miroslava Pěčková


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