Independence-Minded Catalonia Will Tread a More Cautious Path

4 MINS READMay 14, 2018 | 19:15 GMT
Quim Torra, a strong advocate for Catalan succession, delivers remarks to the regional parliament during his investiture as the region's president on May 14.

Quim Torra gives a speech during the second day of the parliamentary session debating on his investiture as the new Catalan president at the regional parliament on May 14, 2018, in Barcelona, Spain.

(DAVID RAMOS/Getty Images)
  • In Catalonia, pro-independence forces are once again in control of the regional government, but they will refrain from making any substantial unilateral decisions.
  • The new Catalan government will focus on more immediate goals, such as the freeing of secessionist leaders who are in prison, or the normalization of Catalan institutions after the conclusion of months of direct control by the central state.
  • Madrid will refrain from making any significant concessions to the separatists, which means that the issue of Catalan independence will not go away.

The Catalan parliament, ending months of uncertainty, on May 14 appointed Quim Torra, a fervent supporter of independence from Spain, as the regional president. Meanwhile, the Spanish central government will soon end its direct control of the Catalan government. Both events will lead to some degree of normalization in the region after months of direct Spanish government control. But they will also open the door for another round of confrontation between the region and the central government.


The Big Picture
In our 2018 Annual Forecast we said that Catalan secessionism would remain a concern for the Spanish government throughout the year. While our view is that Catalonia would not secede from Spain this year, we said questions about the region's future would linger as the issue would remain unsolved. The appointment of another pro-independence government in Catalonia is in line with this outlook.


Catalonia has experienced a turbulent few months. On Oct. 1, the Catalan government defied a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court by holding an independence referendum that had been declared illegal. After the referendum passed, the Catalan parliament declared independence. This prompted the Spanish central government to dismiss the Catalan government, take direct control of many of the region's institutions and organize an early regional election. Meanwhile, Spanish authorities arrested several members of the dismissed Catalan government, while others (including former president Carles Puigdemont) fled the country.

The results of the regional election in December once again highlighted the fact that voters are divided on the issue of independence. The unionist Ciudadanos party attracted the most votes, but secessionist parties won a parliamentary majority. After several unsuccessful attempts to appoint leaders who were either abroad or in prison, the pro-independence forces elected Torra, the leader of a hard-line nongovernmental organization that supports secession. On May 11 Torra promised to start the process of creating the constitution for an independent Catalan republic and to keep the Catalan citizens "mobilized" in support of independence.

Torra's appointment means that frictions between the Catalan and Spanish governments will continue. However, the new Catalan administration probably will not push for immediate independence or declare it unilaterally. Madrid's decision to take direct control of the Catalan government, and the willingness of Spanish courts to imprison Catalan officials accused of breaking the law, have probably convinced pro-independence leaders to change strategy. The fact that the European Union, and especially political heavyweights like Germany and France, sided with the Spanish government was also a disappointment for Catalan leaders, who hoped for stronger external support for their cause. The reaction by hundreds of companies to move their legal bases from Catalonia to other parts of Spain in the wake of the secession attempt showed the depth of business concerns about the prospect of unilateral independence.

This map shows the regions that constitute Spain

Given these factors, the new Catalan government will likely focus on more immediate goals, such as working to free jailed secessionist leaders, facilitating the return of leaders who fled abroad and normalizing Catalan institutions after months of direct control by the central state. The Catalan government will continue to defend the region's right to decide and will probably take symbolic steps to show that the independence process is still alive. There will be political gestures, street demonstrations, speeches and announcements, but the government will likely stop short of inviting serious legal repercussions for the region or its leaders by making any substantial unilateral decisions. It is possible that Torra's government will be short-lived because independence forces could seek another regional election to show their strength.

During his investiture speech May 14, Torra promised additional investment in health care and education, and to raise the minimum wage, signaling that his government could try to focus on social and economic issues in addition to independence. This could help win support from sectors of the electorate worried that an insistence on independence is causing the Catalan government to neglect other issues.

The Spanish central government, in the meantime, will also refrain from making any significant concessions to the separatists. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is under pressure from both the more conservative sectors of his party and from Ciudadanos (which is growing more popular in opinion polls) not to give in to demands by the Catalan government. Rajoy has already said that Madrid stands ready to take direct control of the region again if the new Catalan administration breaks the law. While Madrid may say it is willing to talk with Torra's government, it will probably not authorize a legally binding independence referendum in Catalonia. This means that while in the coming months political tensions in Catalonia will probably not return to the levels seen in late 2017, the issue of Catalan secessionism will not be settled either. A solution to the conflict, which is at an impasse, will remain elusive.

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