If you want a modern example of how not to handle a secession movement while inflaming tensions between your countrymen, Catalonia is a perfect storm. When the Catalonian parliament declared that it wanted to hold an independence referendum, they probably hoped it would be as peaceful and civil as Scotland’s example in 2014. Very few people saw this coming and fewer wanted what is happening now to occur.
Ever since Catalonian citizens geared up for its independence vote on October 1st, the region has been engaged in a battle of wills with Madrid’s government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The violence accompanying the referendum vote was just the beginning of what has now become a make-or-break situation for Rajoy and a defining moment in Spain’s long and often turbulent history.
Faced with Madrid’s move to take away its devolved government and be ruled directly from Madrid, the Catalonian parliament declared itself an independent republic just as the Spanish Senate met to discuss its next move. The parliament, consisting of a majority of separatists, voted to transfer legal power from Spain and declared that they no longer recognize the Spanish constitution. In response, Madrid sacked Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his entire cabinet, dissolved the regional parliament and called for a regional election in late December.
As Rajoy moves his loyal deputy Prime Minister to take control temporarily and Catalonia police force begins taking orders from Madrid, it is clear that the time for compromise is over. If there is, or was, a situation for both parties to come away happy, that time is now gone.
Of course, there are a few issues. Article 155, giving Madrid the power to directly rule Catalonia, has never been used before and the logistics involved are going to be slow and complex. Carles Puigdemont said that Catalonia will democratically resist Madrid’s direct rule which will see strikes, rallies, boycotts, and protests. By making Catalonia ungovernable and unruly, Madrid will have to loosen its grip. More likely, it will convince Madrid to continue its heavy-handed response, allowing tensions to flare up further and introduce more violent methods. From that point on, things will get deadly.
Madrid holds most of the cards though. Despite its strong economy, Madrid holds most of the economic levers to power and the unrest generated has forced businesses to flee Catalonia and move elsewhere in Spain. More than 1,600 companies, including several prominent banks and utility companies, have been forced to leave due to the uncertainty, giving Madrid the upper hand. Rajoy also has the power to charge high-ranking Catalonian politicians for the crime of rebellion which carries a 30-year sentence in prison. It will be a risk to do so as it will be the point of no return for both sides.
However, Rajoy is taking a big risk. Many in Rajoy’s conservative government want a quick end to the protracted problem in Catalonia, but Rajoy needs to keep many undecided Catalonians on his side. Passions are running high on both sides which means a simple misunderstanding can spiral into a real firestorm. Many in the Basque region and Galicia, who are themselves autonomous, will be watching Rajoy’s actions, and the actions of the Catalonians, closely. If there is a feeling of a coup, then Rajoy faces national unrest and may see Spain constitution unravel.
Europe will also be watching closely. Wary of secessionist movements, the EU has taken the stance that Catalonia is Spain’s problem, not theirs and they aren’t taking sides. For now, they’re right and they can afford to. But if things get out of hand, the non-interventionist stance adopted by EU states, including Britain, might prove untenable for self-serving countries. From Cyprus and the Crimea to Scotland and Northern Scandinavia, right down to the other independence movements in Spain, many will be watching to see whether Madrid will bring peace or start a new civil war.
The worst case scenario will be violence on the streets of Barcelona, broadcast on the global news. If that happens, and other movements in Europe take heart, all bets are off. If that happens, Rajoy will have no one to blame but himself.
The biggest problem is that Madrid has done nothing to calm tensions. Granted, a secessionist movement is hugely disruptive and no one wants to see their own country break apart. However, nothing Madrid has done so far has or can fix the Catalonian issue. Rather than pour water on the flames, Rajoy is spilling oil everywhere. From the moment the government tried to shut down the independence referendum vote and the police started laying into ordinary voters back in early October, things have gotten so much worse.
Rajoy and his party are staking their political careers on trying to resolve Catalonia’s streak of independence, but their actions have turned it into Spain’s biggest political and constitutional crisis in decades.
Only time will tell if the fires of Catalonia spread across Europe or get beaten out by Madrid.