Dispatch

Spain Is Flirting With Another Civil War

Will Madrid’s coming standoff with Catalonia be resolved around a negotiating table, or either sides of barricades?

BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 11:  Demonstrators march during a Pro-Independence demonstration as part of the celebrations of the National Day of Catalonia on September 11, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. Thousands of Catalans celebrating the 'Diada de Catalunya', are using it as an opportunity to hold demonstrations to demand the right to hold a self-determination referendum next November.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - SEPTEMBER 11: Demonstrators march during a Pro-Independence demonstration as part of the celebrations of the National Day of Catalonia on September 11, 2014 in Barcelona, Spain. Thousands of Catalans celebrating the 'Diada de Catalunya', are using it as an opportunity to hold demonstrations to demand the right to hold a self-determination referendum next November. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

MADRID — For five years, the national government of Spain and the region of Catalonia have been playing chicken over the latter’s bid for independence. And it increasingly seems that neither side intends on stopping before the moment of impact.

On Oct. 1, the Catalan government plans to put out ballot boxes for a vote on independence it claims will be definitive. The referendum law passed by Catalonia’s parliament says a “yes” vote will trigger a declaration of independence “within two days” — completely ignoring the fact that the legal basis for the ballot has been suspended by Spain’s constitutional court. Fittingly, the Catalan government’s TV ad for the referendum shows a train approaching a fork in the tracks.

Since 2012, Spain has faced down the pro-independence leadership of the Catalonia region with a simple “no” to any dialogue on sovereignty. Now, it seems intent on flexing its muscles. Spain’s legal authorities and police are working to flat-out prevent the referendum from taking place. The raids on Catalan government departments and other premises, leading to 14 arrests, on Sept. 20 marked a sudden escalation in investigative efforts, which had previously been limited to the seizing of posters and polling cards and a search for elusive ballot boxes the Catalan government claims to have purchased.

What’s not yet clear is how committed the national government is to coercing its preferred outcome. The full force of law at Madrid’s disposal is vast. It could, for example, trigger an article in the constitution suspending the autonomy of a region in rebellion, effectively taking over Catalonia’s government.

But enforcing a blockade against the government led by Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont would potentially require boots on the ground. And while Spanish politicians have not been shy about sending greater numbers of police forces to Catalonia in the runup to the referendum, they have traditionally balked at using the military in such circumstances. Doing so would echo the actions of the Franco dictatorship that ruled the country for much of the 20th century, which would further undermine support for the national government — and not only in Catalonia. Many Spaniards across the country believe the obstinacy of Mariano Rajoy, the country’s conservative prime minister, is responsible for the growing political divide. The manner in which tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded Catalan government buildings while central government police officers searched for the referendum’s logistical nerve center last Wednesday shows that passions are running dangerously high.

“If the final solution for the Spanish state is a tank, we will have already won,” Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull has said.

Rajoy insists the referendum will not happen, citing its illegality. But Madrid’s reluctance to use security forces to lock down voting stations suggests that some kind of ballot will take place. There is a precedent in Catalonia’s 2014 “participatory process”, which saw 2.3 million Catalans vote in a ballot previously outlawed by Spain’s judiciary.

Should security forces attempt to frustrate the referendum by blockading polling stations or taking other similar measures, the left-wing Popular Unity Candidacy party, a numerically small but vital element of the pro-independence majority in Catalonia’s parliament, has promised to organize widespread civil disobedience. That amounts to a credible threat to public order, given the massive, often million-strong turnouts at the so-far peaceful demonstrations on Barcelona’s streets in favor of secession over the past half-decade.

Artur Mas, the Catalan premier who went ahead with the technically illegal vote in 2014, has since been barred from public office for disobeying Spain’s courts. In all likelihood, the same will happen to Puigdemont and the rest of his Cabinet, who all ceremoniously signed the decree enabling the new referendum. Officials in Barcelona say they will simply ignore any such ruling because their mandate emanates only from the will of the Catalan people via the region’s parliament.

So where will all this leave Spain on Monday, Oct. 2? It seems probable that the Catalan government will go ahead with a referendum in some form and that the result will favor independence, given the decision by the region’s unionists to boycott the proceedings. Catalan nationalists will probably celebrate, though their enthusiasm may be dampened if turnout is below 50 percent. If the ballot fails to meet that informal threshold of success, Puigdemont may opt to call a snap regional election, the only legal vote available to show the strength, or otherwise, of the separatist cause.

If the outcome is more decisively in favor of Catalan independence, the regional government will have to decide how far to push the issue. On paper, a “yes” result would trigger a bridging law under which Catalonia will have become a “legal, democratic and social Republic” with the power to raise taxes and expropriate what were Spanish assets and institutions while a full constitution is drawn up for the next referendum in a year’s time. Spain’s courts will continue to strike down these measures as illegal in Spanish terms, but Catalonia’s current leaders claim the right, in the event of a referendum victory, to place their own parliament above any instruments of Spain’s central state.

They may nonetheless choose to respond more pragmatically. The Rajoy administration has recently started making behind-the-scenes noises to suggest that it is prepared to review the way Spain’s central government cedes power to its autonomous regions. After the referendum, the Catalan government may choose to reciprocate by participating in that review process, from a position of perceived strength.

But there are many hurdles to there being any negotiated solution.

Five years ago, then-Catalan premier Mas traveled to Madrid to ask for a special deal similar to the one enjoyed by Spain’s Basque Country under which the wealthy region gets the same amount of government spending as the tax revenues it provides. The idea was dismissed out of hand by Rajoy. A new generation of Catalan nationalists are not as interested as their parents were in increased autonomy or a better financial package from central government; they want to decide their future. The optimum moment for a negotiated deal would appear to have passed. Opinion polls consistently show that a large majority of Catalans want an official referendum on independence, even though many would vote against it.

Much will come down to the question of what exactly Puigdemont and those in his government want. Like his party colleague Mas before him, Puigdemont has fanned the flames of genuine expectation that independence is a possibility within Catalonia’s grasp, rather than a notional ambition to be worked toward in moderate steps. Both men seem destined for legal martyrdom as the cogs of the Spanish judiciary slowly shred Catalonia’s pseudo-legal framework for independence.

But such martyrdom may be the point. The relentless nature of what it calls legal persecution is another reason for the independence movement to continue in the hope of eventually convincing international actors to lean on Spain. While no big-hitting global political figures have yet nailed their colors to the Catalan mast, recent editorials in the New York Times and Le Monde calling on Spain to allow a referendum have bolstered such hopes.

The the most likely outcome of the coming referendum is a worrying one: an extension of the current state of dual reality, in which pro-independence forces continue their quixotic quest by renaming existing institutions, while the Spain’s judicial juggernaut rolls slowly along behind, restoring things on paper, if not in the hearts and minds of Catalans. The Catalan government has drawn a road map to independence that allows for the region’s residents to maintain their Spanish status while seeking Catalan nationality if they so wish. It is a tacit recognition that even in victory, independence would remain at best a gray area for the foreseeable future.

At some point, these divergent realities will have to be brought face to face. Spain can only hope it is around a political negotiating table, and not on either side of barricades.

Photo credit: David Ramos/Getty Images

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola