- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
Brexit has created chaos before negotiations have even officially begun; the Scottish National Party lost a whopping 21 seats in Thursday’s snap elections; and Alex Salmond, the champion of Scottish independence in the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, lost his perch in Parliament. Given the tumult which independence referendums have caused in the United Kingdom, one might think that their continental counterparts would look with a jaundiced eye on such adventures.
One would be wrong.
On Friday, Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont said Catalans would have their own independence referendum on Oct. 1 of this year. They will be asked to answer the question, “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” Catalan parliamentarians, the majority of whom are in favor of independence, are expecting to set the legislative groundwork this summer.
Independence has long been a cherished dream for many in Catalonia, including its regional president. The region is proudly linguistically different from the Spanish heartland of Castille (not to mention other restive areas like the Basque Country or Galicia) and did not have to chafe under Madrid’s tutelage until the 18th century. And the short-lived Second Republic, just before and during the Spanish Civil War, is fondly remembered in Barcelona.
More to the point, Catalonia is richer than the rest of Spain, and has Barcelona, one of the grand cities in all of Europe. Despite all that, not everybody in Catalonia is on board: Recent polls say a slight majority prefer to remain in Spain. What’s clear is that a majority of Catalans want it put to a vote. (In 2014, the same year Scots narrowly stayed in the United Kingdom, Catalonia held a nonbinding not-really-about-independence-referendum that received little turnout but resounding support for breaking away from Madrid.)
Someone who most emphatically does not feel that way: Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who has vowed to block the referendum, and who, with overwhelming support in parliament, has the power to do so. He could take the issue to the high court, or, a bit more dramatically, take over Catalan’s regional police to block any independence vote.
The future of the northeastern Spanish region has echoes in the U.K. There was plenty of concern in Scotland that Spanish fears of a Pandora’s Box would scupper any chance of a successful “Scotchit” from the United Kingdom.
Spain, however, said that, while it does not support an independent Scotland and believes it should remain a part of the United Kingdom, it would not block Scottish attempts to join the European Union.
No such olive branches for Catalonia, though: Spain has made clear it will do whatever it can to block even the attempt to hold a referendum.
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