What's Going on in Catalonia?

On 1 October 2017, Catalonia held a referendum on independence from Spain. Catalonia, in the northeastern corner of Spain, has a population of seven and a half million. With Barcelona as its capital, it is a cultural and economic hub. Previously, in early September, the Catalan parliament had approved the self-determination referendum law to regulate the vote. At the behest of the Spanish government, which considered the law unconstitutional, Spain’s constitutional court suspended it and the referendum. But the Catalan government moved ahead anyway. In turn, the Spanish authorities took action to prevent the referendum, including arresting several Catalan government officials. The police action provoked widespread protests in Catalonia.

On the day of the referendum, the Spanish authorities could not thwart large-scale turnout, despite the use of police force. On 6 October, the Catalan government announced that 2.3 million people voted out of the 5 million eligible. Two million voted in favor of independence. According to the suspended referendum law, this result would trigger a declaration of independence.

Against the background of a highly mobilized Catalan independence movement, the possibility of a unilateral declaration of independence rallied diverse sectors of society that had not previously been mobilized. Some demanded dialogue between the Spanish and Catalan governments. Others defended the unity of Spain. Many companies moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia. Even minority voices within the Catalan government sought to postpone a unilateral declaration of independence—which most of the Junts pel Sí (Together for a Yes) government and its parliamentary ally, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), opposed.

Independence or the Suspension of Catalan Autonomy?

On 10 October, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared independence only to immediately suspend it. Because of the president’s ambiguity, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked him to formally clarify if he had declared independence or not. On 16 October, President Puigdemont offered an unclear response that neither confirmed nor denied it. The next day, the Spanish courts ordered the arrest of the leaders of the two main pro-independence civil society organizations on possible charges of sedition. Spain’s constitutional court then definitively ruled that the Catalan referendum law was unconstitutional. On 19 October, the deadline the Spanish government set for the Catalan government to return to legal order, President Puigdemont did not offer a clear enough renunciation for Spain’s government.

The Spanish government moved to apply Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows the central government to temporarily limit the powers of a regional government that has repeatedly ignored its obligations. There was no doubt that the Senate, whose support was required, would swiftly approve it.

On 26 October, with the debate on Article 155 set to begin in Spain’s Senate, the press reported that Catalan President Puigdemont would call elections in Catalonia as part of a deal to preserve Catalonia’s autonomy. But the deal fell apart.

The next day, the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence and the Spanish Senate voted to support the Spanish government’s measures to limit Catalan autonomy. Prior to the vote in Catalonia, several parties abandoned the parliament in opposition, but the declaration passed.

Later in the day, Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy announced the dismissal of the Catalan government, including its president, whose functions the central government would assume, and the dissolution of the Catalan parliament, among other measures. Instead of what many thought would be a long period of suspended autonomy, Rajoy announced elections for the Catalan parliament to be held on 21 December.

What comes next?

A significant proportion of Catalan society wants to redefine its relationship with Spain. Polls indicate that 70 to 80 percent want to vote in a legally binding referendum on the issue, and support for independence has ranged between 35 and 50 percent in recent years. Neither a unilateral declaration of independence nor the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy provide a solution to the underlying problem. Rather they are very likely to exacerbate it.

The declaration of independence rests on a slim parliamentary majority and the (at least) uncertain support of a majority of Catalans. The logistical difficulties of actually carrying it out are also mammoth. It has not obtained international recognition from key countries or the European Union.

While the application of Article 155 obtained the support of a large supermajority of Spain’s Senate, including the governing Popular Party, its parliamentary ally Ciudadanos (Citizens), and the main opposition Socialist Party, Catalans widely opposed its use. The Popular Party government that now directs the Catalan institutions has minimal support in Catalonia, obtaining only 8 percent of the vote in the last Catalan parliament elections. The arrest of former Catalan government officials on possible charges of rebellion has provoked further polarization. Elections alone will not resolve the larger Catalan question.

What are the other possibilities?

Many Catalan nationalists and others favor holding a legal referendum on Catalonia’s relationship with Spain, sanctioned by Spanish authorities. However, the Spanish government, Ciudadanos, and the Socialist Party have thus far opposed this. And they jointly hold nearly three-quarters of the seats in Spain’s parliament. The only national party that supports holding a referendum with legal guarantees is Podemos (We can).

Another option is to reform Spain’s territorial regime. On 11 October, the Popular Party and the Socialist Party agreed to form a parliamentary committee to discuss constitutional reform. But reform will not be easy. It requires large supermajorities to enact.

Nonetheless, a constitutional reform might be able to attract a large portion of the Catalan electorate. Polls indicate that Catalan public opinion is divided about how to resolve the Catalan crisis. Secession is the option that typically obtains the most support. Yet many other Catalans back the status quo or a consensual resolution that improves Catalonia’s position within Spain.

Modest territorial reform will not likely work. Rather it would need to strengthen Catalonia’s political authority, provide symbolic recognition of its distinctiveness, and reduce Catalonia’s fiscal contribution to Spain’s treasury. This may compensate for the damage caused in 2010 when Spain’s constitutional court declared provisions of Catalonia’s statute of autonomy, akin to a regional constitution, unconstitutional.

Such a reform would not end the desire for independence of many Catalans, and it is unlikely to satisfy the Catalan secessionist parties. Nor is it clear that Spain’s major parties could agree on it.

A more far-reaching reform of Spain’s territorial model, one that recognized Catalonia as an equal partner with the ability to veto or opt out of decisions made by Spain, could potentially attract some of those who currently support secession. However, the main Spanish parties have shown no appetite for such a reform.

Little room for optimism

Elections will certainly shape how the Catalan crisis evolves. Polls show that the Catalan electorate remains evenly split between secessionist and non-secessionist parties. It is possible that secessionist parties again win a slim majority of parliamentary seats. The prospects for resolution will also depend on how the Catalan crisis influences the next Spanish elections, which are not legally required until 2020 but could come earlier.

Brinkmanship and a lack of dialogue have thus far characterized the Catalan crisis. Without a significant political change in Barcelona or Madrid, we are not optimistic that Catalan and Spanish politicians will find a political solution to avert further damage. We hope to be proven wrong. Sooner or later, a resolution will require a significant redefinition of Catalonia’s relationship with(in) Spain.

Astrid Barrio is Professor of Political Science at Universitat de València, and has recently published “Reducing the gap between leaders and voters? Elite polarization, outbidding competition, and the rise of secessionism in Catalonia,” in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Bonnie N. Field is Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University, and the author of “Why Minority Governments Work: Multilevel Territorial Politics in Spain.