The standoff over Catalan independence has entered a new phase of political fragility, economic uncertainty and social unrest. On Oct. 27, the Catalan parliament approved to unilaterally declare independence from Spain. Shortly after, the Spanish Senate authorized a series of measures against the rebellious region, dismissing members of the Catalan government and seizing several Catalan institutions, including the treasury, the interior ministry and the regional police. The central Spanish government in Madrid has no intention of permanently controlling Catalonia. It wants instead to hold regional elections Dec. 21 to elect a new Catalan government, though it will struggle in the meantime to actually enforce its punitive actions.
Up to this point, the Catalan conflict has been characterized by delay tactics, threats and ambiguity from both sides. Catalonia's Oct. 27 declaration of independence makes the conflict more concrete, but no less convoluted. This is the first time since the end of the Spanish Civil War that a region has openly challenged Madrid; it is the first time since Spain's return to democracy in the late 1970s that Madrid has decided to take direct control of an autonomous region's institutions. Whatever happens next, it will be unprecedented.
The Spanish state has plenty of tools to manage Catalan secession. Madrid has full access to Catalonia's money supply and could legally seize full control of its security forces. But quashing Catalan independence, in a territory containing 7.5 million people and spanning 20,000 square miles, still won't be easy. This was evident during the Oct. 1 independence referendum, when hundreds of polling centers operated unmolested in most Catalan cities, despite Madrid's demands to cancel the vote.
Pro-independence organizations have called on Catalans to prevent Spanish authorities from accessing public buildings. And arrests, including of prominent members of the Catalan government, cannot be ruled out. Faced with such a contentious situation, Spanish authorities may have to make the difficult choice to respond violently to protests, but whether or not the Catalan regional police will support such a response is unclear. It is certain, however, that Madrid will need the support of Catalan security forces to succeed.
Even if violence does not break out, strikes in both the private and public sector could. Bringing public sector workers under the Spanish helm will be a challenge. Roughly 200,000 people work for Catalonia's regional government, and another 90,000 work for municipal administrations. By contrast, fewer than 30,000 civil servants in Catalonia work directly for the Spanish central administration. This creates a problem for Madrid: It cannot dismiss or sanction every civil servant who refuses to follow orders, mainly because it would struggle to replace a large number of disobedient civil servants with loyal ones.
Naturally, not every civil servant in Catalonia will rebel against the Spanish state; large sectors of the Catalan population oppose independence. Furthermore, the Spanish state, rather than the Catalan administration, will be paying salaries, which will discourage many public workers from disobeying orders. But even a partial rebellion against the Spanish government and sporadic acts of passive disobedience could disrupt the normal functioning of the Catalan government, which would undermine Madrid's justification for intervening to restore "institutional normality" to Catalonia.
A Temporary Fix
Political uncertainty will continue to damage the Catalan economy. Since the independence referendum, more than 1,500 companies have moved their legal seats outside of Catalonia, fearing the political, financial and economic consequences of secession. For the most part, the move has been a bureaucratic one, and the companies have continued to operate in the region. Continued uncertainty could change that. Prolonged uncertainty could also cause businesses to delay investment decisions and have a negative effect on Catalonia's dynamic tourism sector. Barcelona's Chamber of Commerce recently revised down its growth projection for the Catalan economy to 2.5 percent in 2018 from 2.7 percent. Slower economic growth in Catalonia would probably affect the Spanish economy as well, since the entire country would grow less than expected should the Catalan crisis linger indefinitely.
Since the independence referendum, more than 1,500 companies have moved their legal seats outside of Catalonia, fearing the political, financial and economic consequences of secession.
Madrid is undoubtedly aware of its institutional and logistical constraints, as well as of the consequences prolonged political uncertainty would have on the economy. This explains why the government is considering only a brief intervention in Catalonia, followed by early regional elections to appoint a new government. The problem with this plan, however, is that the outcome of regional elections is impossible to predict. The economic and political uncertainty that resulted from the independence referendum may have changed the mind of some pro-independence voters. But then again, Madrid's response may have solidified the resolve of the pro-independence movement and swayed many previously undecided voters.
According to a recent opinion poll, voter sentiment has not changed much since the last regional election in 2015, when pro-independence parties won 48 percent of the vote and controlled a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament. What has changed is the unity of pro-independence parties. Events since the referendum have strained the positions of pro-independence parties and created tension among and between them, which will make it harder — but not impossible — for them to form any effective government in the future. The possibility of pro-secession forces once again controlling the Catalan parliament after the elections cannot be excluded. But if loyalist parties gain the upper hand, they would have a similarly difficult time forming an effective government, given how little they have in common with one another other than their opposition to independence.
Early Catalan elections may buy the Spanish government some time, but they won't solve its problems, especially if they aren't preceded by institutional reforms. The Spanish government has said it is willing to increase its funding of Catalonia and to reform the Spanish constitution to address the needs of the Spanish autonomous regions, but it is unlikely to be able to push through meaningful reform before Catalans return to the polls. Unless Madrid regains the support of at least some of the Catalans pushing for independence, elections alone will not end the conflict in the region. In short, the Catalan conflict will not end with Madrid's intervention, it will only enter a new stage.