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Catalonia is still in the grip of turmoil. Here’s what you need to know

- October 9, 2017

A week ago, Spanish police were sent in to stop a vote in Catalonia by force, resulting in a considerable number of people getting hurt. The vote had been ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court and the central government has, in the meantime, issued an apology of sorts. However, Spanish and Catalan politics are still in turmoil. Here is what you need to know.

Spanish government action did not stop the vote

Only a few hours after the chaotic scenes, the Catalan regional government, headed by the nationalist premier Carles Puigdemont, announced that the vote had been successful. The police had entered only a few polling stations. With an overall turnout of just under 43 percent, according to the regional authorities, just over 90 percent had voted in favor of independence.

These results should be treated with some care. Nonetheless, they were similar to those of the 2014 vote (also declared illegal but held nonetheless under the guise of a popular consultation). They suggest that 35 percent of those deemed eligible to vote by Puigdemont’s government turned out to support independence.

Politicians are now maneuvering over what happens next

Puigdemont has announced that he will comply with a law passed by the regional parliament that requires his government to declare independence within 48 hours of a yes vote (most of the opposition walked out when the vote was taken). At the same time, he has asked for international mediation. The 48-hour deadline has been stretched out to this week. Yet Puigdemont’s allies in the regional coalition, the nationalist Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and the more radical, anti-capitalist CUP, are insisting on the unilateral declaration.

The new interpretation seems to be that the clock will start ticking once the regional parliament has been formally informed of the result. A session of the Parliament was first called for Monday but suspended thanks to a challenge by members of the Catalan Socialist Party — which had opposed the referendum. A new session has now been scheduled for Tuesday.

In the meantime, the Spanish government seems to have made it clear, through a speech delivered by the head of state (King Felipe VI) that it is not willing to negotiate under the threat of the unilateral declaration. The king’s speech signaled that the government stood ready to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows it to take over the functions of a regional government if that government violates the Constitution.

The delay is the product of divisions among the pro-independence coalition

It is widely believed that Puigdemont decided to delay the declaration because of internal divisions within the Catalan pro-independence coalition, which holds a majority of seats in the regional parliament but did not get a majority of the vote in the last regional elections. Some Catalans also worry that the declaration would reveal that the independence movement is playing a weak hand. The day after the vote, Andreu Mas-Colell, who oversaw Catalonia’s budget office under Puigdemont’s predecessor, published an op-ed in the nationalist daily Ara. He said that Catalonia had now “earned” itself the right to an independent state: apparently because of the Spanish government’s reaction to the Sunday vote. However, he also suggested that the unilateral declaration might undermine international sympathy for the cause of Catalan nationalism. “We always knew,” Mas-Colell wrote, “that the Popular Party [which currently governs in Spain] would reveal its nature to international opinion” when it tried to stop the vote. But even though an aggressive response — of moving quickly to a unilateral declaration of independence — was justified, it might also reveal the weakness of the nationalist movement. “If we have not had the strength to obtain the type of referendum we wanted, we will hardly have it to proclaim and secure a new state.” A unilateral declaration, he continued, might lead to a fizzling out of the cause, which could be left “twisting in the wind,” as it became clear that the regional authorities cannot “count on the full obedience of judges, police or business” (when it comes, for instance, to collecting taxes). It would lead to the “day by day loss of the international support that has been won.”

Catalan nationalism depends on foreign support

The nationalists need international (and in particular European) recognition, because they have encouraged voters to believe that an independent Catalonia would remain part of the European Union, allowing economic and political stability. There is little to suggest, however, that Europe would readily allow Catalonia to remain.

Rumors of large shifts in bank deposits out of Catalan banks became widespread last week and the stock values of major businesses headquartered or exposed to Catalonia suffered significant losses. Some very big firms have since announced that they are moving their domicile to other cities in Spain to ensure legal stability. This includes the region’s two main banks, Banco Sabadell and Caixabank, which announced they would move their domiciles to Alicante and Valencia respectively. The banks needed to assure their depositors that they will remain covered by the Spanish deposit insurance scheme and have liquidity support from the European Central Bank. The utility company Gas Natural has also announced a move, blaming it on politics.

The Spanish government may dissolve the Catalan parliament

Constitutional experts have begun to talk openly about what might happen if the national government invokes Article 155.  This might not necessarily mean a takeover of all the regional government’s functions (which include education, health care and the regional police). However, it probably would imply the dissolution of the current parliament in Catalonia and the announcement of a date for new regional elections. This still involves political risk, as large numbers of Catalans are now willing to fill the streets on both sides of the issue.

The national government’s reliance on judges to enforce the rulings of Spain’s constitutional court has been much criticized by those calling for more proactive political engagement. It may also have given the nationalists the initiative and helped provoke the chaos last week. There is now a lot of pressure on the government to engage directly with the defiant regional government. But the prime minster, Mariano Rajoy, made it clear this past weekend that he would engage in dialogue only if the threat of the unilateral declaration was set aside.

The Catalan nationalist strategy however, challenges the European Union as well as Spain. The European Union is based on a multilevel legal order that includes European laws, national laws and substate government. It operates on the assumption that its member states retain control of their national territories. Now, however, this assumption is being called into question, in ways that might set a precedent for other restive regions in the European Union. This is why other European leaders want to have the matter settled through the channels afforded by Spain’s constitution, rather than becoming internationalized.

Spain’s constitution is also more flexible than Catalan nationalists allow. It can be amended with the support of three-fifths of the Spanish parliament (a smaller supermajority than the two-thirds found in other European countries). It is not impossible that good faith negotiations might lead to serious changes. A parliamentary committee was established last month to study Catalan regional demands. It was sponsored by the Spanish socialist party and backed by almost all others (including the more radical left Podemos, the conservative Popular Party, and even Puigdemont’s own PDeCAT. However, it has not received backing from the members of Puigdemont’s coalition partner the ERC or (so far) from Ciudadanos, whose leader has criticized the government for delaying the application of Article 155. The standoff between Catalan nationalists and the Spanish government might yet be resolved.

Sofia Perez is an associate professor of political science at Boston University.