Can Madrid Stop Catalonia From Breaking Free?

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

The controversial conditions surrounding Catalonia's recent independence referendum show that a unilateral declaration of independence does not embody the will of the people, no matter how much Catalan nationalists claim otherwise.

Long-standing tensions between the Spanish government and the Spanish region of Catalonia rose to a climax on October 1 as Catalans went to the polls in an independence referendum deemed illegal by Spain's constitutional court and the European Union.

Rather than a clear mandate for Catalan independence, the referendum revealed a deeply divided society, and the lack of a clear and legal path to secession from Spain.

Voting statistics from the referendum indicate a lack of sweeping support for an independent Catalonia. Although two million Catalans backed independence, a larger majority (58 percent of those eligible to vote) did not participate in the referendum.

The vote was also plagued by irregularities and lacked essential guarantees, such as a neutral administration, equal opportunity process, or statutory legislation, in a clear violation of the rules for such plebiscitary votes set forth by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission.

The pro-independence bloc leading the Catalan government, called Generalitat, currently sits on a wafer-thin majority in the Catalan parliament. The most recent polls, commissioned by the Generalitat, show support for independence at about 41 percent.

At the same time, a number of people were deterred by the Spanish government's heavy-handed police repression. The violence, intended to quell the referendum, left nearly 900 people injured and earned widespread criticism from the international community.

A flag waves in Plaza Universitat during a regional general strike to protest against the violence that marred Sunday's referendum vote on October 3, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. According to the Catalonia's government more than two million people voted on Sunday in the referendum of Catalonia, which the Government in Madrid had declared illegal and undemocratic. Officials said that 90 percent of votes cast were for independence. The Catalan government's spokesman said that an estimated of 770,000 votes were lost as a result of 400 polling stations being raided by Spanish police. Hundreds of citizens were injured during the police crackdown. Dan Kitwood/Getty

The timeline for a declaration of independence remains unclear. Following the vote, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared that the citizens of Catalonia "had earned the right to have an independent state."

He has announced that he will formally declare Catalan independence forty-eight hours after votes are counted, likely at the outset of the week of October 9. Such a declaration would constitute a violation of international self-determination laws and lead Spain into its largest political and constitutional crisis in decades.

Yet, it may happen in a matter of days. Catalans in favor of independence have for years been a manageable minority of about 15 to 20 percent of the population, while most Catalans supported self-autonomy within Spain. A sense of Catalan grievance against the rest of Spain has deepened in the wake of the financial crisis and the rejection by Spain's constitutional court of parts of a new Catalan constitution that would have given Catalonia more autonomy.

Of course, these milestones merely help to explain the rise of the separatist movement, but they are not the root causes of the underlying antagonism. The drive for Catalan independence is fueled by a modern brand of identity nationalism, in appearance cosmopolitan and pro-European Union (EU), but at its core anchored on a fierce sense of uniqueness, classical nationalist themes (such as the need for external enemies), and a solipsist focus on language or perceived historical slights.

Meanwhile, Spain's central government, led by conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, failed to mitigate tensions in advance of the referendum, showing a staunch unwillingness to listen to what separatists had to say. His inflexibility is partly based on the belief that being harsh against Catalonia will result in electoral gains elsewhere in Spain.

Parts of the conservative party are also imbued with a strong sense of Spanish nationalism, believing themselves to be the sole "saviors" of Spain's unity. Alarmed by the realization of the referendum, more pragmatic members of the government have in recent days come out with negotiation offers, particularly for funding reform. However, these measures have proven to be too little, too late.

Despite the political gridlock, the unavoidable clash of nationalist ideals supported by competing narratives need not have turned sour in the way that it has. In fact, Rajoy's inept political reaction has largely contributed to the current face-off and to the violent scenes witnessed on October 1.

Although it was legally within its constitutional rights to repress the vote, Madrid would have been much better served by simply downplaying or ignoring the challenge.

It is worth noting that a similar referendum organized by the Generalitat took place in 2014, with broadly similar voting results. However, the situation never once escalated to this point.

Key differences between the two referendums include the Catalan government's stipulation that the 2017 referendum would be binding, while the 2014 was not. Further, in 2014 Madrid did not actively repress the vote, and ultimately ignored it.

While domestic and international law may very well be on Rajoy's side, his lack of political imagination has emboldened Catalan separatists, weakened unionist support within Spain, and alarmed Spain's international partners, particularly within the EU. In the long run, his decisions have made Catalonia's independence more likely.

Despite their inner divisions, what the referendum has clearly shown is the will of Catalan people to be given a voice to decide their future. They should be offered the legal means to do so, in an orderly process agreed upon by both sides.

This solution should include verifiable requisites which need to be cleared before declaring independence, such as minimum participation thresholds. An impartial administration and a well-defined procedure to declare independence will also be needed to avoid further trauma.

Agreeing on such a voting mechanism is certainly desirable and would add much clarity to the debate. However, it is naïve to believe a referendum would suffice. Constitutional reform is also needed, introducing a more federal design that allows a better fit for Catalonia.

A failure to do so may result in a weakened Spain, a weakened Catalonia, and a weakened EU mired again in internal struggles.

Alvaro Morales is a program assistant in the Atlantic Council's Global Business and Economics Program.

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