In Depth

Catalonia independence: Can anything end the stand-off?

Regional government says it is under ‘state of siege’ as Spanish PM vows to block referendum

Employees of Indugraf Offset, a printing firm on the outskirts of the sleepy Catalonian town of Constanti (population 6,439), had to run a gauntlet of armed police officers to reach their workplace on Wednesday. Officers from the armed Civil Police searched workers’ cars and took down numberplates as they stood guard around the unassuming industrial estate.

The printer’s alleged offence? Printing voter lists for Catalonia’s independence referendum.

On Wednesday, Catalonia’s regional parliament voted to hold a binding referendum on 1 October, which could set the wheels in motion for the region to leave Spain.

The central government in Madrid - vehemently opposed to any such vote - scrambled into action and, on Thursday, secured a court order suspending all activity related to the referendum for the next five months while it rules on its constitutionality.

The spirit among the separatists remains defiant. Catalonian government spokesman Jordi Turull told Catalunya Radio that the Civil Guard officers staking out the printing firm were “wasting their time,” according to Barcelona daily La Vanguardia.

Turull then touched on the wider question which will determine the ultimate fate of the referendum - how far can the central government go to prevent it without further fanning the flames of separatism?

“What does the Civil Guard do? Someone should reflect on its role,” he said, accusing the central government of putting Catalonia as a “covert state of siege”. Turull predicted that heavy-handed use of the apparatus of state will bring “even more people out to vote” on 1 October.

Why now?

After decades of repression of minority cultures under General Franco’s regime, the constitution of 1978 enshrined the right to regional self-government as a cornerstone of the new democratic Spain.

Since then, Spain has operated under a system whereby regional governments can control areas like health, education and transport, while issues like tax and foreign affairs are determined by the central government.

“In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question,” says the New Statesman’s Brendan Simms and Montserrat Guiberneau.

In 2010, Catalan nationalists received a major boost when the Constitutional Court cut back some of the regional government’s powers. The ruling infuriated many Catalans, who saw the decision as a dangerous roll-back of their hard-won rights.

The recession of 2008-2016 exacerbated the tensions. Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous region, with a GDP comparable to that of South Africa, and independence advocates argued that stagnation in the rest of the country was holding the region back.

Catalonia continues to contribute more to central government in tax revenue than it gets back, a galling economic reality that has attracted pragmatists as well as sentimentalists to the secessionist cause.

In 2014, 80% of voters backed an independent Catalan republic in a non-binding referendum, although critics were quick to point out that unionists had been urged to boycott the “illegal” vote.

Like successive administrations before him, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has refused to countenance the possibility of an independent Catalonia, condemning the referendum as an unconscionable attempt to subvert democracy.

“We all decide together about what belongs to all of us, which is our country,” he said.

Will the referendum happen?

Catalonia’s President, Carles Puigdemont - a fervent nationalist who refused the traditional vow of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and king during his swearing-in -  is adamant that nothing can stop the 1 October vote from going ahead.

“No one has the authority nor the power to seize our right to decide,” he said after Wednesday night’s vote.

However, Rajoy’s reaction was no less explicit. “There won’t be a self-determination referendum,” he told reporters after securing the Constitutional Court suspension on Thursday.

The Prime Minister has maintained that his government will use all the judicial, economic and political means at its disposal to prevent the vote from going ahead, an approach which has the broad backing of most mainstream parties.

The Public Prosecutor’s office is already considering criminal charges against Puigdemont and his cabinet, El Nacional reports.

However, the Spanish government know it has to walk a delicate tightrope between upholding the law and being seen to respect the Catalonians’ right to self-determination.

Although opinion polls indicate that voters are split on whether Catalonia should go it alone, the “vast majority” support the right to hold a binding referendum on the subject, ABC News reports.

Any draconian attempts to prevent the vote going ahead - such as sending in the national police to seize ballot boxes - are liable to backfire spectacularly and drive more Catalonians into the independence camp.

The optics of any such intervention would also be problematic, turning the Spanish state into an occupying force in the eyes of Catalonian separatists and their international sympathisers.

In the worst case, a misjudged crackdown from Madrid could spark “a civil disobedience campaign in the streets of Catalonia, mirroring the 2014 Ukrainian revolution”, says Politico.

The answer may lie in a “softer option”. Rajoy’s government could allow the vote to proceed, but refuse to recognise or respond to the result, as it did following the non-binding 2014 referendum.

Such a course of action would only buy the Spanish government time, but this in itself might be enough to let the separatist frenzy fizzle away.

If that sounds an awful lot like wishful thinking, it might still be the best hope for a peaceful solution to the crisis. With stubbornness and prejudices on both sides, there is precious little middle ground in which to scratch out anything like a compromise.

“Catalan exceptionalism and stiff-necked Castilian disregard have created a bitter cocktail,” writes The Spectator’s Matthew Parris. For the time being, Spain’s future hangs in limbo: “like a kind of ghastly flamenco, the two sides posture and pout, and never quite touch”.

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