How Spain Will Respond to the Next Step Toward Catalan Independence

4 MINS READNov 7, 2015 | 14:02 GMT
Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators protest in front of Barcelona City Hall.
(Alex Caparros/Getty Images)

On Nov. 9, Catalonia's regional parliament will vote on a "solemn proclamation" to begin the independence process. The document is not a formal declaration of independence but a statement of intent to start something that, according to secessionist forces, will lead to the creation of an independent republic within 18 months. The measure will probably be approved; secessionist forces control a majority of seats in the regional parliament. However, the central government in Madrid will take the issue to the Constitutional Court, which will almost certainly declare it illegal.

Pro-independence forces won a majority of seats, but not a majority of the popular vote, in the regional elections held in Catalonia on Sept. 27. The parties ran on a platform based on promises to secede from Spain within a year and a half. To do so, they said they would follow a roadmap that begins with a solemn proclamation and includes the creation of independent government institutions and the drafting of a constitution.

However, the central government in Madrid has promised to challenge any such proclamation in the Constitutional Court. In turn, the Catalan government has warned it will not recognize any rulings from the court on the matter. As a result, the Nov. 11 vote will create renewed conflict between Madrid and Barcelona.

Madrid's Options

Madrid has several options to stop the independence process. It could sever funds to Catalonia, impose punitive measures on the region or even suspend the region's autonomy and take direct control of the government. But Madrid's strategy will probably be to punish the region gradually. The Spanish government knows that suspending Catalonia's autonomy would only aggravate the conflict and radicalize secessionist sentiments in the region. So its first choice will be to turn to the Constitutional Court to stop the independence process. If that does not work, Madrid will progressively add pressure on the Catalan government to force its collapse in the absence of compliance.

If the Catalan government decides to ignore the court's ruling, Madrid will likely suspend financing for Catalonia. The Catalan government runs a deficit and has requested a 2.3 billion euro ($2.5 billion) loan from a regional fund controlled by the Spanish state. According to the Spanish Economy Ministry, the central state has lent Catalonia some 37 billion euros since 2012 to help the region meet debt maturities and payments to suppliers. For example, pharmacies in Catalonia recently announced that the regional government owes them some 334 million euros for medicines.

At this point, it is still unlikely that Madrid would use article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to suspend Catalonia's autonomy. However, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently met with the leaders of Spain's main political parties, as well as with unions and social organizations, to secure support for a united Spain. Should the central government be forced to suspend Catalonia's autonomy, it will need the most political support possible.

As long as Catalonia does not make any moves that visibly change its relationship with Spain, Madrid will not broaden the dispute out of the legal and financial realm.

The Limits of Proclamation

The "solemn proclamation" has very strong symbolic implications but dubious actual consequences. Even if the Catalan government ignores the ruling by the Constitutional Court, the solemn proclamation will not have any tangible implications. As a result, the proclamation will probably be followed by a period of legal and institutional ambiguity. And as long as Catalonia does not make any moves that visibly change its relationship with Spain, Madrid will not broaden the dispute out of the legal and financial realm.

Rajoy's government is betting that legal and financial pressure will be enough to make the Catalan government fall — and pro-independence forces are already feeling that pressure. The largest party at the regional parliament, Together for Yes, depends on support from a small left-wing party, the Popular Unity Candidacy (known as the CUP), to reappoint Artur Mas as regional president. But the CUP has said it will not support another term by Mas, and both parties are currently negotiating alternative candidates for the regional presidency. Spanish media have also reported that Together for Yes, which is an alliance of conservative and progressive forces, is divided internally over the Nov. 11 vote.

Spain's political situation will get even more tempestuous as the end of the year approaches because general elections are scheduled for Dec. 20. According to opinion polls, no single party will be able to govern alone; they will have to form coalitions. The four most popular parties oppose independence but have different strategies to deal with the Catalan question. (The left wing Podemos party, for example, said it would consider authorizing a legal referendum on Catalan independence.) So, even if Catalonia does not actually claim independence, the issue will not subside and will be a priority for whatever coalition emerges from the general elections.

Correction: A previous version of this analysis misstated the constitutional article that could be used to suspend Catalonia's autonomy.

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