Independence movements in Catalonia continue to frustrate Spanish leaders in Madrid. On June 9, the government of Spain's autonomous region of Catalonia announced plans to hold an independence referendum on Oct. 1. The Spanish government said it would not take any concrete action in response to what so far is only a verbal statement, but Madrid also insisted that it would not let the vote take place.
How Did We Get Here?
The Catalan government has been pushing for a referendum on independence for the past five years. In 2013 the Parliament of Catalonia adopted a declaration stating that the people of the region have "the character of a sovereign political and legal entity." The following year, Catalonia held an unofficial referendum in which about 80 percent of voters supported independence. However, turnout was relatively low at about 40 percent of the electorate. In 2015, the region held early elections in which several pro-independence parties campaigned on the promise of a new referendum. While the secessionist forces won a majority of seats in the regional Parliament, combined support for independence parties was at 48 percent.
What Does the Catalan Government Want?
The Catalan government wants the central government in Madrid to authorize a legally binding independence referendum. Its ideal scenario centers on a vote that is recognized both by Spain and by the international community. However, the administration in Madrid — led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party — refuses to authorize such a vote, arguing that it violates the Spanish Constitution.
Some opposition parties, such as the center-left Socialist Party and the centrist Ciudadanos, are also against a Catalan referendum, but they have proposed a reform to the Spanish Constitution that would transform the country into a federal state in which the regions are given additional autonomy. The left-wing Podemos party opposes independence but says the region should be allowed to hold a legal referendum.
What Do the People of Catalonia Want?
Opinion polls show that most Catalans want a referendum, but they also want it to be legal and have the authorization of the Spanish state. According to a Metroscopia survey from late May, in the case of a legal referendum 49 percent would vote to remain in Spain, 42 percent would support independence, and the rest are undecided. If leaving Spain also means leaving the European Union, support for independence drops to 39 percent. More notably, 61 percent of Catalans are against a unilateral declaration of independence. And most support an option that isn't even on the table: remaining in Spain but with additional autonomy. If this option is included, support for independence falls to 29 percent.
Is the Independence Camp Cohesive?
No. The independence movement currently has several players. The conservative Catalan European Democratic Party of regional President Carles Puigdemont is divided. Some members believe the referendum should be held only with Madrid's authorization, and they are willing to delay the vote to keep the negotiations alive. Other members are willing to push for a unilateral referendum.
The left-wing Republican Left and Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) parties are more willing to act unilaterally if a legal referendum is not authorized. Republican Left and CUP members have said Catalonia should declare independence if Madrid continues to block a referendum, and in mid-May, Spanish media published the draft of a bill for such independence. Ada Colau, the influential mayor of Barcelona and the leader of a left-wing party close to Podemos, supports giving Catalans the right to decide their future, but she rejects a unilateral referendum or a declaration of independence.
In addition, there are several nongovernmental organizations that support the independence process and back the Catalan government, but they are split on whether to take the unilateral road to secession.
What Is Madrid's Strategy?
Madrid wants to gradually increase legal, political and economic pressure on Catalonia to exacerbate the divisions within the pro-independence camp. The government has several tools at its disposal with which to do this. The first is the judiciary, because any secessionist moves in Catalonia will be declared illegal by the Constitutional Court. Madrid has been warning Catalan public officials about the legal and criminal repercussions of supporting independence, saying that any civil servants who violate the constitution could be banned from holding office, arrested or forced to pay substantial fines. The second is political. Spain is backed by the European Union, which has said that an independent Catalonia would not automatically become a member of the bloc. This is not a minor issue, because most of Catalonia's exports go to Spain and other EU members.
The central government in Madrid also has the power to suspend Catalonia's autonomy in the case of a serious violation of the constitution.
This would involve taking direct control of multiple areas of the Catalan government, from security forces to the Interior Ministry. To do this, an absolute majority in the Spanish Senate is needed. The Popular Party currently has such a majority. However, Madrid wants to avoid this scenario for as long as possible. Suspending Catalonia's autonomy would only exacerbate anti-Spanish sentiment and create the grounds for more virulent pro-independence sentiment. Moreover, Madrid is worried about the perception of using force against Catalonia.
What Are Catalonia's Options?
The Catalan government will spend the next three months trying to reach an agreement with the Spanish government. A unilateral declaration of independence before October is improbable. In the likely case that Madrid continues to reject a legal referendum, the Catalan government has the following options:
- Abandon or postpone the referendum. This would avoid a direct clash with Madrid. It would also lead to the fall of the Catalan government, because the alliance between the Catalan European Democratic Party and the Republican Left would probably collapse. This would not end the region's independence movements, however, because in the next election more radical parties are likely to abandon the referendum and directly campaign for unilateral secession.
- Hold another unofficial referendum. This would involve a nonbinding referendum, similar to the one held in 2014. Such a vote would allow the regional government to honor its promise of giving Catalans an avenue to express themselves. It would also test the health of the independence movement. If voter turnout is higher than it was in 2014, the independence camp would be strengthened. But it would do little to ease friction within the Catalan government, because more radical factions would feel betrayed. If the coalition government collapses, it would lead to early elections.
- Officially approve a binding referendum. The June 9 announcement was only verbal; no official document calling for the referendum was approved. The Constitutional Court would declare any official referendum illegal, and the regional government would have to decide whether to ignore the decision. If Catalonia insists on holding the vote, Madrid would have to send police to the polls to halt it. This could lead to street protests and sporadic violence in Barcelona and other large Catalan cities. Catalan leaders would also face the possibility of being banned from holding office. But pro-independence forces would use images of police at the polls to validate their message.
- Unilaterally declare independence. This is the most radical (and least likely) option because the central government would suspend the region's autonomy. Civil servants, including the police, would be caught in a tug of war as Madrid and Barcelona demand their loyalty. Administrative chaos and political confusion would follow. Pro- and anti-independence demonstrators would probably take to the streets, and the international community would call for negotiations. The deployment of the Spanish military is a very remote possibility, but it cannot be ruled out.
In the end, a unilateral declaration of independence is unlikely under the current circumstances. But as the other possible outcomes suggest, Catalonia's push for independence will not fade away in the near future, and friction between Madrid and Barcelona will persist.