Catalonia, an autonomous region in north-east Spain, has been known to the world not only for its distinct culture but also for its superlative performance in soccer, thanks to Barcelona Football Club and Messi.
Carles Puigdemont, who assumed the office of president of Catalonia region in January 2016, has however, managed to create not only a political dispute with the central government in Madrid but also a critical evolving political dynamic in Spain. The current dispute has been Spain’s worst political crisis since democracy was restored there in the 1970s.
At first there was the October 1 referendum, whereby the Catalan leader Puigdemont signed a declaration of independence, but delayed implementation to allow talks with the Spanish government. He ignored warnings by the Madrid government to cancel the move, prompting Prime Minister Rajoy to eventually remove Catalan leaders and impose direct rule.
Since then, an arrest warrant issued by the Spanish government, with European Union validity, has led to Puigdemont surrendering himself to Belgian police authorities in Brussels. Media has reported that necessary measures are now being undertaken by the Spanish government to extradite him to Spain.
Spain has been gripped by a constitutional crisis since the independence referendum, organised by Puigdemont’s separatist government, was held in early October in defiance of a ruling by the constitutional court, which had declared it illegal.
October 27 saw the regional parliament declare independence with a 70-10 vote with Madrid responding by declaring the move illegal. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy then announced the dissolution of the regional parliament, and the removal of Puigdemont as Catalan leader.
He also ordered that fresh regional elections be held in the third week of December. Puigdemont, on the other hand, has urged “democratic opposition” to direct rule from Madrid. He has also condemned the suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy, and promised to continue to “work to build a free country.”
Catalonia, one of Spain’s richest, most distinctive regions with a high degree of autonomy, now finds itself in a status of uncertainty. With 16% of Spain’s population, Catalonia, according to Spain’s Ministry of Economy, Industry, and Competitiveness, has been responsible for 25.6% of Spain’s exports, 19% of its GDP, and 20.7% of all foreign investment.
This, in turn, has created a feeling among a section of the Catalans that their region was contributing more to the Spanish central authority than they were receiving.
October 28 saw the government in Madrid remove Catalonia’s autonomy and take over government functions in the region. An official state bulletin has handed control of Catalonia to Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. Spain’s Interior Ministry has taken over charge of Catalonia’s police after firing senior Catalan police officials.
A hard task awaits the Spanish government if it wants to prove to the world that it is not attacking the autonomy of the Catalan people
In the meantime, a poll carried out by Spanish national newspaper El Pais after the central government’s actions on October 28 has suggested that more Catalans (52% to 43%) are now in favour of the dissolution of the regional parliament and the holding of elections. 55% of Catalan respondents have also opposed the declaration of independence, with 41% in favour.
The response to this evolving drama from within the EU as well as other major countries has followed the expected path. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has observed that the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence had changed nothing, adding that the EU would only deal with the central government in Madrid.
Madrid’s allies in the EU and the US have rallied behind Rajoy, voicing alarm over the latest constitutional crisis, and expressing support for a united Spain. Germany and the UK have also said that they back Spanish unity and do not recognise Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence.
The US has backed Madrid’s efforts to keep the country united and its State Department has commented: “Catalonia is an integral part of Spain, and the US supports the Spanish government’s constitutional measures to keep Spain strong and united.” The Bangladesh government has also come out in support of the Spanish government.
The Scottish government, led by the pro-independence Scottish National Party has, however, been critical of Spain for refusing dialogue, and has mentioned that imposition of direct rule by Madrid “cannot be the solution.”
This evolving drama is being followed very carefully by the European economic institutions. Spain’s Ministry of Economy has already increased its control over regional finances and started paying directly for essential services.
Under the new proposal, Madrid is slowly taking full financial control. This is apparently being done not only to reassure those who have invested in Catalonia, but also to avoid any instability that might be unleashed by the declaration of independence and the consequent deterioration in economic governance.
Nevertheless, nearly 1,700 companies have recently moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia, a region accounting for one-fifth of Spain’s economic output. Shares in Spanish companies, particularly Catalan banks have also dropped sharply in the last two weeks. Tourism, one of the main sources of income for Catalonia, has also been affected because of the uncertain conditions. This is having its impact on the Services sector and also on the hotel industry.
Catalonia’s secessionist groups have, meanwhile, called for widespread civil disobedience. Leaders of the dissolved Catalan National Assembly have also asked civil servants not to follow orders from the Spanish government and urged them to follow “peaceful resistance.” It is however unclear whether such calls will be followed as not all Catalans support breaking away from Spain.
This is the first time the Spanish central government has curtailed regional autonomy since Francisco Franco’s repressive 1939-75 rule. Catalan independence supporters have warned that they will resist the temporary measure, implemented under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution meant to rein in rebel prone regions. The far-left CUP party, an ally of Puigdemont, has already tweeted: “We will neither cave in to Rajoy’s authoritarianism nor to 155”.
This response has led some observers to state that the resistance to what is happening in Catalonia might come in the form of more severe street protests and strikes -- all of which have already left a mark on the economy since October 1 when the outlawed independence referendum was marred by police violence as central authorities tried to stop people from voting.
A hard task awaits the Spanish government if it wants to prove to the world and the people of Catalonia that it is not attacking the autonomy and the dignity of the Catalan people.
The rest of Europe will now watch very carefully how Spain handles the narrative. They will do so because several other regions and sub-regions in several European countries have also been also toying around with the idea of greater autonomy and possible separation. This includes the Faroe Islands in Denmark, Lombardy, Veneto, and Sicily regions in Italy, the Basque region in Spain, Corsica in France, Bavaria in Germany, and Scotland in the United Kingdom.
The standoff between Madrid and Barcelona has plunged Spain into its most serious political crisis in four decades, since the country transitioned to democracy. The next two months might see the situation get worse.
Hopefully better sense and reason will prevail among all the stake-holders. This will then enable all parties to find least common denominators so that violence can be avoided and stability restored.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador and Chief Information Commissioner of the Information Commission, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]