Catalonian Secession: Madrid Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The Spanish government’s bungling of the Catalan referendum only made the situation worse.

There is a saying in Catalonia:  “once they send in the tanks, they may have missed the battle.” Spanish authorities didn’t send the Spanish military to intervene against the independence referendum. However, they did ship in the police, which, in turn, lead to clashes that reportedly left over eight-hundred individuals injured.

The events of the referendum haven’t only exacerbated Spain’s worst political crisis since democracy was re-established four decades ago, they’ve given the independence movement serious momentum, which Madrid will fight to stop.

Madrid Paid a High Price for a Nominal Victory

At the weeks leading up to the vote, the Spanish administration’s strategy was to delegitimize the referendum by interrupting its organization. It was a partial success. Polling centers were closed, and the ballot boxes were confiscated, forcing individuals to vote under abnormal circumstances, without a legal electoral list and without any control to prevent them from voting several times. Consequently, the referendum results, by which 90 percent of voters favored liberty, with a participation rate of roughly 40%, per the Catalan authorities, can’t be considered reliable.

If the Spanish state has even obtained a partial legal victory, it arrived at a high price. Though a judge allowed the police crackdown on voters, it was met with shock by Catalans and international public opinion. The resulting peaceful disobedience of thousands of Catalans gave the liberty process an appearance of validity it didn’t have before.

Therefore, even though a lot of the Catalan government’s arguments for liberty are dubious, Madrid’s actions have given the additional pretext for Barcelona to declare independence unilaterally. From the start, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s approach to coping with the Catalan situation was controversial.

Spain’s mountainous geography has led to the emergence of strong regional identities which are distrustful of the central government.

For the past five hundreds of years, successive governments have chosen for a carrot-or-stick approach to ensure the integrity of Spain. The twentieth century offers clear samples of both: While Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939-1975 attempted to suppress Spain’s regional identities by denying them cultural and political rights, the constitution of 1978 generated probably the most decentralized political systems in Europe, providing Spanish regions high levels of autonomy. This was intended to curb Spain’s natural tendency towards fragmentation. However, it did not eliminate it, and Spain today remains divided.

The present conservative government in Madrid is not likely to authorize a referendum in Catalonia, as it’d open the door for other regions, most notably the Basque Country and, to a lesser extent, Galicia, to need the same. Even a progressive administration will be skeptical of any decision which can lead to the dissolution of the nation.

Then there’s the dilemma the emotional connection between Catalonia and Spain, that has deteriorated over the last decade. An economic crisis, increasing anti-establishment sentiments, recurrent corruption scandals and controversial political events, like the Spanish Constitutional Court’s decision to block portions autonomy status of Catalonia in 2010, have all ruined the image of the Spanish state in the opinion of many Catalans.

The Catalan government has made a conscious effort to deepen nationalist and anti-Spanish sentiments in the region. A strong narrative has taken root in the area, presenting the Spanish state as something alien, remote and hostile to Catalonia. Consequently, support for Catalonia’s freedom climbed from approximately 20% to about 50% between 2007 and 2017.

Opinion polls before October 1 indicated that a substantial part of Catalan society would welcome institutional reforms to give Catalonia greater control over its taxes while maintaining the region within Spain. Catalonia represents approximately 20% of the Spanish gross domestic product and Madrid will be hesitant to give up substantial quantities of cash it uses to conduct the state and also to invest in other regions.

The Catalan issue will persist for some time.

But these reforms might prevent the nation from breaking, even though they aren’t on the desk. That is since Madrid and Barcelona have presented their dispute as a zero-sum game where one of the two parties has to be defeated.

The events during and after the referendum only made things worse. The Catalan government is one step closer to declaring independence, which might induce Madrid to react by suspending the autonomy of Catalonia or calling for early regional elections. While either of those options would remove the present Catalan leadership, which Madrid does not consider legal, from the equation, they’d only lead to further social unrest and potentially new episodes of violence.

Furthermore, suspending autonomy or holding ancient regional elections without first introducing real institutional reforms at the national level would do little to solve the crisis. Pro-independence sentiments are not likely to go away anytime soon. In this context, the minority government of Rajoy would become fragile domestically as well as internationally. To date, two of the three opposition parties in Spain have affirmed Madrid’s decision to obstruct the Catalan referendum.

However, the pictures of the police cracking down on voters are making it hard for unionist parties to side with the government of Rajoy. The same holds for the European Union, which affirmed Rajoy before the referendum but chose to remain quiet as events unfolded on October. In the event social unrest in Catalonia rise, the bloc will likely change its perspective of the catastrophe as an internal issue and pressure Madrid to negotiate a compromise.

In the end, Brussels and a lot of the bloc’s authorities are not likely to tolerate prolonged instability at the 4th largest economy in the eurozone. In fact, on October 2, the EU Commission urged all relevant actors at the referendum to move very quickly from confrontation to dialogue. Things in Catalonia are likely to get worse before it gets better. And when the Spanish government manages to keep the nation together, the catastrophe will leave long-lasting scars, that will form politics for many years to come.

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