Have Spain and Catalonia Reached a Point of No Return?

Have Spain and Catalonia Reached a Point of No Return?

Have Spain and Catalonia Reached a Point of No Return?

The bitter struggle over an independence referendum has pushed the country into a grave constitutional crisis.


On Sunday, September 17, Juan Ignacio Zoido, Spain’s Twitter-happy minister of the interior, posted a strange video on his feed. The 24-second clip showed scores of boxes the authorities had seized, most still in their original packaging, located in a nondescript warehouse. Had they found drugs? No. Money? Also no. As the camera approached, it showed a poster with “” in bold, block letters. The Spanish police, it turned out, had confiscated 1.3 million posters, fliers, and pamphlets calling for a “Yes” vote in the upcoming Catalan referendum on independence, which is scheduled to take place across the region on October 1. Hours later, Interior Ministry officials posted a DEA-style picture on Twitter of their entire loot.

The police confiscations indicate the degree to which tensions between the central government in Madrid and Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona, known as the Generalitat, have escalated in recent weeks. As it turned out, they were only the first salvo in a series of draconian measures that have left many Catalans and Spaniards reeling, pushing the country to the edge of its most serious constitutional crisis since the end of the Franco dictatorship.

Once Catalonia announced the referendum in early September, Madrid immediately launched an appeal with the country’s Constitutional Court, which then proceeded to suspend the measures while it considered their legality—a process that can take many months. Spain’s 1978 Constitution grants the region limited autonomy, including the right to its own parliament, language, and police force, but also declares Spain “indivisible.” As such, there are no provisions for regional secession, and referenda of any kind can only be issued by the central state, for the entire state.

President of the Generalitat Carles Puigdemont and other Catalan leaders have declared their intention to proceed with the October 1 referendum anyway. According to leaders in Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s administration, the Catalan president and his cabinet’s brazen acts of disobedience may be punished with stiff fines and prison sentences, including years of disbarment from active politics. (Some of them have been prosecuted for conducting a similar referendum in 2014.)

“We will apply the law in its full force,” Rajoy, the conservative leader of Spain’s Popular Party (PP), announced in early September. The key word, it turns out, was “force.” On September 13 and again on September 16, the national police shuttered Catalonia’s official referendum website. On September 14, the Supreme Court of Catalonia ordered the national police to compile a list of media organizations that were running referendum ads, marking them as possible targets for criminal proceedings. On September 19, the Spanish Finance Ministry took over the Catalan treasury; it even ordered that banks block the credit cards of the Generalitat in compliance with the national court’s suspension of the referendum. On September 20, Madrid announced that it was sending some 4,000 riot police to Catalonia to help “maintain order” in the run-up to the referendum. (Given the lack of housing, they are being lodged in several chartered cruise ships anchored in Catalan harbors; the fact that one of them features gigantic images of Looney Tunes characters has provided some comic relief.)

Also on September 20, the national police raided several offices of the Generalitat and arrested 14 officials, including the second-in-command of Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who were charged with disobedience, misuse of funds, and sedition. The Constitutional Court then proceeded to impose individual fines of between $7,000 and $14,000 for every day they continued to work on the referendum. To shelter the officials from this liability, the Catalan government had no choice but to relieve them of their duties—in effect dissolving the governing body responsible for safeguarding the referendum’s integrity. On September 23, Zoido’s Interior Ministry announced it was taking over command of Catalonia’s autonomous police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, although the measure was presented as a mere issue of “coordination.”

According to article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, the central government may revoke a region’s autonomy if it poses a “serious threat” to the country’s interest. Despite not formally invoking the article, which would require a previous parliamentary procedure, Rajoy’s summary decision to take control of Catalonia’s finances and security apparatus has effectively revoked any autonomy the region had. To many, his bypassing of Parliament and reliance on a politicized judiciary point to an erosion of Spanish democracy.

Throughout the entire process, Rajoy has insisted that his government is simply “enforcing the law” and not “entering into the provocation” that the Catalan government is angling for. But many would argue that it is Rajoy who is the provocateur. His administration’s disproportionate measures have not only showcased its tone-deafness, but have, for many, also conjured the specter of Spain’s dictatorial past. Speaking at a meeting of left-wing parties looking to negotiate a state-sponsored referendum, Alberto Garzón, the leader of United Left, a left-wing coalition that includes the Spanish Communist Party, called the central government’s measures “characteristic of the Francoist dictatorship.” Rajoy, he said, was “a coward” for “hiding behind the law instead of taking a political position.”

Indeed, were Rajoy to pronounce his political position on Catalan independence, he’d have to confess to his deep-seated attachment to a unified Spain. His brand of Spanish nationalism is eerily close to that of erstwhile dictator Francisco Franco, a diehard centralist for whom the unity and cultural homogeneity of Spain was sacred. “Without doing so formally, Rajoy has decreed a state of exception,” Benet Salellas, a member of the Catalan parliament for the left-wing, assembly-based Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), told us, referencing the concept developed by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt in Weimar Germany. In his indignant reaction to the arrests on September 20, Catalan President Puigdemont used the same phrase.

Given the battery of confiscations, prohibitions, and arrests, will the Catalans get to vote at all on self-determination on October 1? “It’s anybody’s guess,” Guillem Martínez, a journalist in Barcelona who writes for the weekly CTXT, told us the day after a million Catalans took to the streets on September 11, Catalonia’s National Day, to defend their right to vote. “Literally no one knows what will happen.”

While the repressive measures taken so far have certainly made a region-wide vote more difficult, the Catalans refuse to give up. In a nationally televised interview aired on September 24, Catalan President Puigdemont vowed to go ahead with the referendum. Meanwhile, the arrests of September 20 have prompted massive, ongoing demonstrations in Barcelona and elsewhere. More remarkable even is the fact that Rajoy’s heavy-handed response has sparked acts of solidarity across the country. Bilbao and San Sebastián, in the Basque Country, have seen protests over the past fortnight in support of the Catalan referendum. The Basque group Gure Esku Dago (“In Our Hands”), which organized the protests in Bilbao, has called for a major demonstration on September 30, the day before the scheduled vote in Catalonia. (Elsewhere, in Zaragoza, radical-right Spanish nationalists took to the streets to demand that the Catalan “traitors” be executed.)

“I predict there will be votes, although I don’t know how many, or on which side they’ll fall,” Antonio Maestre, a journalist for the newspaper La Marea and a frequent television commentator, told us last week. “But what has been announced so far cannot be called a referendum. It simply fails to fulfill the minimum requirements of security and juridical clarity,” he said. While the right-wing media has invoked the “rule of law,” “juridical clarity” has been the keyword for critics of the referendum on the left, who fear that too many corners are being cut.

On September 6, the Catalan Parliament rush-processed a law calling for a referendum, subsequently adopting an additional law, on September 7, allowing for unilateral secession should a majority vote for independence. Both measures passed with a narrow majority and under a cloud of protest from both the right- and left-wing opposition—part of which boycotted the vote altogether, leaving their empty seats covered with Spanish and Catalan flags. If there is a referendum, it should be done right, Antonio Santamaría, the author of a recent book on right-wing politics in Catalonia, has argued: “Like the one that took place in Scotland, it should be the product of a pact between the [Spanish] state and Catalan political parties, with democratic guarantees and a thorough debate over the pros and cons of secession, similar to the conditions stipulated in the Venice Commission or Clarity Act in Canada.” Unlike the recent referendum in Scotland, in the lead-up to Catalonia’s there has not been a “No” campaign.

Supporters of the October vote, however, have pointed to the logical contradiction involved in the idea that a binding referendum on self-determination should be approved by the Spanish state. “Clearly, those who want to become independent cannot depend on the political will of the state from which they want to become independent,” explains Benet Salellas, whose party, the CUP, strongly supports the October 1 vote. “After all, that would grant the state veto power over the exercise of collective rights.” He cites the most often used examples—Quebec in 1995 and Scotland in 2014—as evidence: In both cases, the referendums were originally announced without any prior state agreement. “Our friends on the left” who are critical of the October vote, Salellas says, have to make up their minds: “Do they think a referendum for self-determination can only happen via an agreement with the State, or may the vote be held without permission in the case of the State’s refusal? ”

While four out of five Catalans believe they are entitled to self-determination, they are divided over the wisdom of voting without approval from Madrid. Recent polls indicate that some 41 percent of Catalans currently favor independence, down from almost 48 percent in the summer of last year. (Uncertainty about whether an independent Catalan state would automatically become a member of the European Union has no doubt tempered the enthusiasm for secession.)

Against the long view of history, these numbers are high; the desire for independence long hovered around 30 percent. For more than three decades following Franco’s death, most Catalans seemed to prefer limited autonomy and a carefully negotiated series of fiscal pacts with the Spanish state rather than outright independence. But public opinion began to shift around 2010. That year, Spain’s Constitutional Court categorically rejected a new autonomy statute that the Catalan parliament had adopted four years earlier and that the Spanish Parliament had also approved. Among other things, the new statute defined Catalonia as a nation, while Spain’s current Constitution calls it a mere “nationality.” For many Catalans, the court’s 2010 decision was a slap in the face, confirming Spain’s refusal to fully respect their language, culture, and history.

Raphael Minder, the New York Times correspondent in the Iberian Peninsula, tells the story of this recent shift in his new book, The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain, which will be released on October 1, the day of the referendum. In a balanced and sympathetic account, he concludes that, beyond the political gamesmanship, the growing Catalan desire for independence runs deep among surprisingly diverse segments of the population, including many young people who have never identified with Spain. For Minder, Catalan identity has, in fact, long been marked by solidarity and class struggle against a repressive central state, dating back to the Spanish Civil War and beyond: “It’s striking,” he writes, “that modern Catalan society continues to pivot around cooperative and associative projects, often born out of necessity.” It was this same spirit that revived in the wake of the Great Recession, for example in the Platform for those Affected by the Mortgage Crisis (PAH), the grassroots organization that launched the political career of Barcelona’s mayor, Ada Colau.

Spain has 17 autonomous communities; with a population of 7.5 million, Catalonia represents some 16 percent of the country’s population and produces one fifth of Spain’s GDP. The 2008 crisis made Catalans more aware than ever of the fact that their region, Spain’s wealthiest, was contributing more than it received from the rest of Spain. The ruling Convergència party, meanwhile, imposed austerity measures even more stringent than those of the national government in Madrid. Artur Mas, who as Catalan president from 2010 to 2015 was responsible for the cutbacks, had never been in favor of secession. But he realized that the growing popular support for independence could be a life raft for his embattled party. In a counterintuitive move, he managed to turn the Republican Left party (ERC) and the CUP into buoys to keep the sinking Catalan conservatives afloat.

“For many political observers,” Minder writes, “Mas is…the politician who took his party from almost neutral to fifth gear on the road towards independence.” After the CUP forced Mas to stand down last year, his successor, Carles Puigdemont, also from Convergència, has continued the same tactic, promising a long series of steps meant to bring Catalonia ever closer to independence in an increasingly tense standoff with the central government. And like Mas, he’s managed to convert Madrid’s intransigence into local political capital.

Spain’s territorial question will not be solved, Minder predicts, until the country and its leadership come to terms with “the plurality of their nation”—something that’s not likely to occur any time soon. And it’s not just a problem for Madrid; Brussels should worry, too. The “Catalan challenge,” he writes, “raises wider questions about the future of the European Union.” After all, a successful Catalan bid for independence may inspire other European regions—not just Scotland or Spain’s Basque Country but Brittany, Flanders, and Lombardy—to give it a shot.

With each day that passes, it appears that more and more Catalans who would have otherwise abstained will now cast a vote to express their frustration with the repressive and humiliating measures Madrid has taken to stymie the referendum. The firm-hand approach “won’t stop the independence movement,” journalist Francesc-Marc Álvaro wrote in La Vanguardia on September 21—to the contrary. “A large majority [of Catalans] have stopped being afraid,” he said. “Rajoy should know that the concept of Spain that he wishes to maintain by dint of prohibitions, suspensions, disbarments, fines, raids, and pressure is damaged goods in Catalonia.”

Meanwhile, in the rest of Spain, the Catalan question is proving a politically difficult nut to crack, particularly for the left. Spain’s Socialist Party (PSOE) criticizes the central government’s intransigence at the same time that it has not yet challenged its policy on Catalonia. On Friday, the PSOE, in fact, reached a deal with the PP and Ciudadanos, a new right-wing, anti-independence party, to maintain a unified front against the referendum. Podemos, which was founded three years ago on an anti-austerity platform, is struggling to manage deep internal disagreements over the Catalan question. Its Catalan branch has broken with the leadership in Madrid over the party’s official line: support for Catalonia’s right to self-determination, but only through a legally approved, binding referendum.

Barcelona mayor Ada Colau, whose governing coalition includes Podemos, has been performing a political high-wire act over the question of independence since her first day in office. As someone who supports the referendum though not independence, she has said that she intends to cast a ballot but that she sees the referendum more as an as act of civic mobilization than as an official vote. “We’ve entered into a politics of testosterone, where everything is accelerated and people speak of victories and defeats, and whoever loses appears weak,” Colau said in an interview alongside Madrid Mayor Manuela Carmena. Colau supports, above all, a dialogue to “update the relationship” between Catalonia and the central government, which many involved have treated, in sexist terms, as a form of surrender.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the polarization has allowed right-wing parties to stabilize their support at a time when the left across Spain has been gaining strength. For the PP, which is governing without a parliamentary majority, the mounting conflict with Catalonia provides a welcome distraction from an unrelenting spate of corruption scandals. In July, Rajoy became the first sitting Spanish prime minister to testify in a criminal trial, this one involving the so-called Gürtel Case, which has implicated a significant number of high-ranking PP members. The October 1 referendum also helps distract from the fact that Spain’s macroeconomic resurgence, touted by the government as a great success, has failed to improve the lives of most Spaniards.

In Catalonia, the pro-independence right, too, has benefited from the region’s push toward independence, also known as the Procés (“Process”). Convergència, rebranding itself as the Democratic Party of Catalonia (PDeCat), has managed to hold on to power with the begrudging support of ERC and the CUP. Members of both ERC and the CUP, which respectively hold 20 and 10 seats in Catalonia’s 135-seat parliament, have explained their collaboration with the conservatives in terms of expediency: Independence takes priority, and the alliance will dissolve once the new Catalan state is in place.

For Guillem Martínez, who has written a book on the pro-independence movement titled The Great Illusion (the word for “illusion” in Spanish means both “fantasy” and “hope”), the entire Procés amounts to an elaborate, opportunistic sham. It consists, he argues, of a series of improvised, semi-legal constructions that serve to infinitely postpone actual independence while keeping the Catalan right alive long past its expiration date. In fact, he adds, the processistes hope to be saved by the bell: They are betting that, at some point, Madrid will buckle under pressure and open negotiations for a new fiscal pact. But Rajoy, so far, has called their bluff.

According to journalist Antonio Maestre, the result is that Spain is rushing toward the edge of an abyss. The situation, he wrote in La Marea in early September, reminds him of Croatia and Serbia in 1990: “Emotionally and socially something has snapped among an immense majority of the population.” The two trains are racing full speed toward a head-on collision, his colleague Martínez says, yet there are no political incentives for either to slow down or change course. “The Spanish and Catalan right are precisely where they want to be,” he notes. “One is engaged in a non-stop crusade against Catalonia; the other is wallowing in martyrdom.”

Those at the helm of the Procés point to the opportunity independence would create to remake democracy itself. “It’s a question of democracy,” Lluc Salellas, brother of Benet and a councilman for the pro-independence CUP in Girona, says. “The people will be able to vote and decide.” One thing is clear: The Spanish state “offers few guarantees to Catalans.” Many inside and outside the CUP believe an independent Catalan Republic is the only hope for progressive change. “I believe in and defend the self-determination of peoples,” filmmaker Eulàlia Comas posted on social media,

and I want to decide the model of society in which I live.… I believe this process may be one more step toward another type of society: less hierarchical, less authoritarian, more humane, just, and egalitarian.

What happens once the smoke has cleared, on October 2, is anyone’s guess. Lluc Salellas sees four options. “If there’s high turnout and the ‘Yes’ vote wins, independence will be declared and implemented in a short period of time. If there’s low turnout and the ‘Yes’ vote wins, the Procés will advance but at a slower pace. If the ‘No’ vote wins, there will be regional elections. And if the [Spanish] state manages to forcibly suppress the referendum, it’s hard to tell what might occur—but, in any case, it will mean that the state will have definitely lost all legitimacy in Catalonia,” he tells us.

In the most recent regional elections, pro-independence parties fell just short of a majority of the popular vote, although they won a majority of seats in Parliament. According to the journalist Enric Juliana, one effect of the current escalation may well be an electoral surge that, in the next elections, will push pro-independence support over the 50 percent line—a “qualitative jump.” The beginnings of such a jump were visible in the demonstrations on September 20, he explained in his column for La Vanguardia. If the government in Madrid continues to affirm its authority with the goal of “humiliating the Catalan institutions,” he wrote, “the consequences for the Spanish state may be catastrophic.”

 A violent confrontation is not likely—at least not yet, Maestre, the journalist and television commentator, says. But even without it, the damage done may well be irreparable. “Until now, the demands by the Catalan government and civil society have been peaceful. But a large part of Catalan civil society has already broken with Spain. Emotionally they have reached a point of no return: An important number of Catalans no longer feel they belong in Spain.”

Martínez predicts a further wave of punitive measures in the wake of October 1. “The Spanish government seems to follow the same repressive model they applied to the Basque Country,” he says. “This means we’ll see more arrests, disbarments, and fines. The state may well outlaw some political parties and even shut down certain media.” “Whatever the Catalan government says,” Martínez wrote on September 23, “there will be no referendum. There will be simulacra, protests—and an unusual level of state violence.”

For Benet Salellas, the CUP MP, one of the biggest misconceptions about the entire independence process is that it has anything to do with nationalism at all. “I’m worried that in Spain, outside of Catalonia, people talk about nationalism…as if it were a debate over identity, over a flag. I think that is a complete misunderstanding. I’m pro-independence but I am not a nationalist.” In fact, he insists, “Catalonia as a society has overcome [the] debate” over nationalism: ”The independence process is, above all, a process for people to improve their standards of living. It originated in the people—although later certain political parties signed on, eager for votes and seats at the institutional table. But I’m convinced that the people of Catalonia rise far above its political class.”

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