Catalonia, the north-eastern region of Spain (population of 7,5 million), declared independence from Spain last Tuesday evening. It was done quite formally, in the regional parliament in Barcelona, with regional president Carles Puigdemont, members of his cabinet and some leaders of other parties signing the independence document.
Independence was “the people’s will”, Puigdemont said, referring to the 90% “yes” vote in the referendum on October 1. He called on all foreign countries and organisations “to recognise the Catalan republic as an independent and sovereign state”. He seemed not the least perturbed by the low rumble of companies moving their headquarters out of Catalonia, nor indeed by the squadrons of pigs flying overhead.
There were only three little things that detracted from the joy of the occasion. The first was the fact that the Catalan president and his friends had no constitutional authority to separate Catalonia from Spain, or even to hold the referendum. It is a unilateral declaration of independence, and it is highly unlikely that either the national government in Madrid or foreign governments will recognise it as legal.
Indeed, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has “affirmed her backing for the unity of Spain” in a phone call to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The French government has said that a Catalan declaration of independence “would not be recognised” and other members of the European Union (EU) from Ireland to Cyprus have said the same.
Many have separatist movements among their own minorities and they do not want to encourage them.
The second problem is that the referendum in Catalonia was a fake. The mere 43% of the population who voted in it almost exactly equalled the 44% of residents who wanted independence according to the latest opinion poll. The same poll put the number of people who wanted to stay in Spain in the majority, at 48%, as have all other polls in the past few years — but very few of the anti-independence people voted in the referendum.
This was no mere oversight. It lay at the very heart of the separatists’ strategy for declaring independence though only a minority of the population want it. They already knew from an “advisory” referendum two years ago that only pro-independence supporters would vote in it, while supporters of staying in Spain would boycott it. The earlier referendum also delivered a huge majority for independence — on the same low turn-out.
So hold another referendum, but this time say it is for keeps. Separatists will vote yes, anti-independence voters will abstain (because Madrid says it is illegal and urges them not to vote in it). Then use your fake 90% victory to claim that you embody the “people’s will”, and whisk Catalonia out of Spain before they know what hit them.
Which brings us to the third problem: if Puigdemont acts on the October 10 declaration and actually takes Catalonia out of Spain, it is going to be very lonely out there. Not only Madrid but other European governments understand the game the Catalan separatists have been playing.
The EU has made it clear that if Catalonia splits from Spain, the region would cease to be part of the EU and would have to re-apply for membership (which Spain could veto even if everybody else said yes). That has huge implications for the Catalan economy, since two-thirds of Catalonia’s exports go to EU countries.
Like the United Kingdom (which did at least hold an inclusive referendum that the “leavers” won with a 51,9% majority), Catalonia’s economy will go over a cliff-edge if the region leaves the EU without a negotiated deal that preserves most of its existing trading relationship. And that negotiation cannot even begin without Spain’s assent.
Spain also bears much blame for the present mess, since its inflexible constitution forbids independence for any of its regions. (That is why the referendum was illegal.) The present Spanish government made matters worse by getting the Supreme Court to cancel concessions that a previous government had made on further autonomy for Catalonia.
So you can understand the frustration felt by Catalan separatists, but the truth is that they did not have majority support for their independence project and have used illegitimate tactics to get around that inconvenient fact. No wonder Puigdemont has declared that he is “suspending the effects of the declaration of independence” for a few weeks, for more talks with the Madrid government.
The Spanish government is not going to negotiate on the basis of those referendum results and Rajoy has now directly asked Puigdemont whether he has declared independence or not. If he says he has, then Madrid will almost certainly activate Article 155 of the constitution, suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and take direct control of the region.
From there to the first violence against the “Spanish occupation” should not take very long. When you live in a country that has had three civil wars in the past 180 years, you should be more careful.