In Catalonia, the Independence Process Begins

3 MINS READNov 9, 2015 | 16:45 GMT
(DAVID RAMOS/AFP/Getty Images)
People wave pro-independence flags outside the parliament of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, during a session to pass the start of the independence process on Nov. 9.

Catalonia's secessionist parties moved forward with their push for independence on Nov. 9, when the regional parliament approved a "solemn proclamation" of the beginning of the independence process. While the document is not a formal declaration of independence, it is a statement of intent to begin the process that would allow the Catalan government to create institutions for a new republic and draft a constitution.

As expected, the central government's immediate reaction was to announce that it would take the issue to Spain's Constitutional Court. During a press conference, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said his government would ask the Constitutional Court to suspend Catalonia's proclamation and its "possible effects." The Catalan government has said it will ignore any of the Constitutional Court's rulings. However, because the proclamation is largely symbolic and does not carry any concrete consequences, Catalonia's defiance will probably open a period of legal ambiguity for the autonomous region.

Problems will only arise when the Catalan government starts taking specific steps toward constructing republican institutions, such as its own social security system and independent ministries. According to the Nov. 9 proclamation, this process should begin within a month. When it does, Madrid will take a progressive approach to weaken the Catalan government.

Madrid's first recourse would be to once again take Catalonia's actions to the Constitutional Court. In the likely case that Catalonia ignores the court, Madrid will resort to financial and legal tools. Catalonia runs a deficit and needs financial assistance from the Spanish state. Leaders in Madrid believe that if Catalonia no longer receives external help, it would struggle to make payments to its suppliers of goods such as pharmaceuticals and even to pay salaries in the public sector. In addition, Madrid could put legal pressure on Catalonia by imposing fines on or removing from office Catalan officials linked to the independence process, including the Catalan president and the president of the regional parliament.

Should all these measures fail in forcing Catalonia to relent, Madrid has another, more radical option: suspending Catalonia's autonomy and taking control of the regional government. While the Spanish Constitution allows this move, it would create an unprecedented political crisis in Spain, exacerbating secessionist feelings in Catalonia and potentially forcing Madrid to mobilize local or national police to arrest the members of the rebel Catalan government and crack down on protesters. In September, the Spanish parliament approved a law giving Madrid power to take direct control of regional resources (including regional police) in cases of emergency. And while Madrid believes most members of the regional police corps would respect the constitutional order and follow the central government's commands, the loyalties of Catalonia's regional police would be tested.

More recently, the central government has also sought to secure political support on the issue of Catalan independence. Rajoy has met with the leaders of the main political parties and presidents of several autonomous regions, and he will meet again with the leader of the Socialist Party (the second-largest political force in parliament) on Nov. 10 to discuss the situation in Catalonia.

At this point, however, Catalonia and the central government likely will not make any radical moves. The Catalan government will not unilaterally declare independence, and it will try to work within the legal ambiguity created by its proclamation as much as possible. The Spanish government, in turn, will increasingly put legal and economic pressure on Catalonia, hoping that it will create enough internal political divisions to bring about the collapse of the rebel government.

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