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Sep 26, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

7 mins read

Spain Pumps the Brakes on Catalonia's Independence Drive

The Spanish central government is using legal, political and economic means to block an independence referendum in Catalonia.
(LLUIS GENE/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • Madrid's strategy to deal with secessionist moves in Catalonia has so far focused on using legal, economic and political means to disrupt the organization of the Oct. 1 referendum.
  • After Oct. 1, the Spanish government will offer more investment and financing for Catalonia, but Madrid is unlikely to authorize a legal referendum. 
  • Catalonia is unlikely to secede from Spain in the coming months, but independence sentiments will continue to shape the region's relations with the central government.
Tensions remain high between the Spanish government and the regional government in Catalonia. Madrid insists that the referendum on Catalan independence, scheduled for Oct. 1, is illegal and will not take place. The Catalan government has promised that the vote will go on as planned.

Turning Up the Heat

So far, Madrid's strategy for dealing with Catalonia's push for secession has had three parts. The first consists of applying legal and economic pressure on the regional government. Madrid has taken every secessionist decision by the Catalan government to the country's Constitutional Court, which has declared each one illegal. The Spanish judiciary has started investigations to determine whether any crimes have been committed during the organization of the referendum, and many members of the Catalan government and mayors of Catalan cities who offered to help organize the vote have been summoned to testify before provincial prosecutors. Madrid has also increased control over how Catalonia spends its money. According to the Spanish Finance Ministry, the goal is to guarantee that the regional government does not spend public money on organizing the referendum. 
 
The second part of Madrid's strategy is political. The Spanish government has received support from two large opposition parties, the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) and the centrist Ciudadanos. Both have called the referendum illegal and said it should not take place. These parties also support Madrid's decision to avoid suspending Catalonia's autonomy for as long as possible. According to the Spanish Constitution, the parliament has the power to suspend a region's autonomy and take direct control of its institutions in the case of a severe violation of the law. While Madrid has not ruled out doing this, it is aware that suspending Catalonia's autonomy would only exacerbate secessionist sentiments. Therefore, it will try to avoid doing so for as long as possible. The left-wing Podemos is the only large Spanish party that criticizes the government's position on Catalonia and supports negotiations for a legal referendum in the region.
 
The third part of Madrid's strategy is to disrupt the logistics of the referendum. In recent days, Spanish police have entered several Catalan government offices, looking for documents linked to the referendum. Tensions reached a new peak on Sept. 20, when the police arrested 14 members of the Catalan government because of their alleged links to the organization of the vote. The arrests triggered large protests in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Police have also confiscated about 10 million ballots and thousands of envelopes, pro-referendum posters and pamphlets. The Spanish government ordered the national post office not to distribute any material linked to the referendum, and private courier companies were also raided. In addition, Madrid has blocked several websites connected with the referendum.
 
For now, the Spanish government wants to undermine the organization of the referendum as much as possible. In 2014, roughly 2.3 million people participated in an unofficial independence referendum (about 5.4 million people had the right to vote). The Catalan government has said that the Oct. 1 referendum will be valid regardless of voter turnout, but from a symbolic point of view, the secessionists hope for a higher participation than in 2014. Many Catalans, especially those who want independence, will try to vote or at least will take to the streets on Oct. 1. Some polling centers — in some cases, improvised ones — will probably be open in parts of Catalonia. But Madrid wants to make sure that turnout remains as low as possible and that voting conditions are as informal as possible, to delegitimize the referendum. Oct. 1 is likely to be a chaotic day, with people voting in some places but not in others. It will probably be a day of large protests, especially in Barcelona and other Catalan cities. Sporadic acts of violence and vandalism cannot be ruled out.

The Day After

The real challenge for Madrid and Barcelona starts the day after the anticipated referendum. Even if the vote is disrupted, secessionist sentiments in Catalonia will not go away anytime soon. Starting Oct. 2, the regional government will face a few choices. It could unilaterally declare independence, but this would probably force Madrid to suspend Catalonia's autonomy and dissolve the regional government. The Catalan government could also resign and call for early elections, hoping to obtain a stronger popular mandate for independence. This would only continue the conflict and lead to another period of political and legal uncertainty. Finally, the regional government could remain in power and seek a compromise with Madrid about the area's future. This could create severe frictions within the Catalan government, because the most radical secessionist factions would probably refuse to go back to the negotiating table. Regardless, the issue of independence will continue to dominate Catalonia's political environment and shape relations with Madrid for the foreseeable future.
 
For Madrid, the choices are equally difficult. One option would be to authorize a legal referendum and negotiate its terms (such as the voter turnout required to make it valid, or the type of majority required to obtain independence) with Barcelona. Opinion polls suggest that most Catalans, regardless of their position on independence, want the opportunity to vote on their future. But the central government is unlikely to authorize a legal referendum because other regions with strong secessionist sentiments, such as the Basque Country, could demand referendums of their own
A second option would be to reform the Spanish Constitution and adopt a more federal system in which the regions have more autonomy, especially when it comes to managing their taxes. One of the main arguments made by Catalan secessionists is that they pay more taxes than they get in return, saying that Madrid's spending policies are unfair. Last week, the governing Popular Party and the PSOE agreed to create a parliamentary commission to study constitutional reforms. The commission does not have a deadline, and its work is expected to last several months. But its task will be difficult, because reforming the constitution would require cooperation between the largest political parties, something that seems hard to achieve with a fragmented parliament. At the national level, the main political forces have competing views about the content and scope of constitutional reforms.
 
A third option would involve granting Catalonia more control over its taxes. Opinion polls suggest that this alternative would be well-received by large sectors of Catalan society. Moreover, this situation already exists in the Spanish legal order; the Basque Country enjoys a high degree of fiscal autonomy. But the Basque Country represents less than 10 percent of the Spanish economy, while Catalonia represents about 20 percent. Giving Catalonia full fiscal autonomy would deprive the central state of an important source of money. Besides, poorer regions would probably protest, because there would be less money to distribute across the country. 
 
Facing these problems, Madrid's strategy to deal with the Catalan question will involve a combination of concrete actions and vague promises of reform. On the one hand, Madrid will probably offer more public investment and additional financing for Catalonia. These proposals have been on the table for some time, and many of them will probably materialize. On the other, Madrid will consider discussing deeper institutional and fiscal reforms with opposition parties, but progress is likely to be slow and rather modest. Catalonia is unlikely to secede from Spain in the short run, but independence sentiments will not go away soon. So far, Madrid's strategy has focused on trying to disrupt the Oct. 1 vote. But it eventually will be forced to develop a deeper strategy for the rebellious region.
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