Did Madrid Score an Own Goal in the Catalan Referendum?

Spain’s heavy-handed response may have actually shored up support for Catalan independence.


On Sunday, if all goes according to Catalan plans, the rich northeastern region of Catalonia will hold a referendum to decide whether it should declare independence from Spain.

Spain, not surprisingly, does not want things to go according to the Catalan plan. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has taken an increasingly strident line against what he calls “radicalism and disobedience,” and the national government has ominously muttered about invoking its constitutional authority to take over the rebellious region. (The Spanish Constitutional Court has ruled that the vote is unconstitutional.)

Meanwhile, the Spanish Civil Guard has raided Catalan regional political offices and arrested Catalan officials who’ve promoted the independence vote. Madrid is trying to get Catalan police forces to help quash the vote if needed. There’s a battle on for physical control of the very schools where ballots will be cast, and Madrid has sought to crack down on the printing presses that are churning out the ballots in the first place. The runup to the vote even gave rise to some bizarre fake news (the real fake kind) after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tweeted a Sputnik report that Madrid shut down airspace ahead of the vote (it merely limited low-flying vehicles as it does before all major events).

Instead of tamping down Catalonia’s separatist instincts, Catalan leaders say, Madrid’s response has just made the people yearn for independence even more.

“I believe it has changed some attitudes” inside Catalonia, said Raül Romeva, head of foreign affairs for the regional government. Big chunks of Catalan society — from firefighters to civil servants to students — have taken to the streets in recent days, energized by the national government’s response.

“It has been easy to see at that point that there is no will from the Spanish state for entering negotiations,” Romeva said.

He said that 80 percent of Catalans want a referendum — not that 80 percent will necessarily vote yes, but that a huge majority want to have a say, at least. Other Catalan leaders suggest 60 percent will turn out for the referendum. Any “no” vote is likely to be tiny, since, as the BBC notes, those opposed to the vote may stay home out of protest. Pro-independence candidates got 48 percent in the region’s 2015 elections.

Over 80 percent of those who voted in the 2014 nonbinding referendum voted for independence (over 2 million out of roughly 5.4 million eligible voters participated). But opinion polls in July said 41 percent of Catalans supported independence, with 49 percent opposed.

Romeva said that Catalans are open to talks, rather than a black-and-white choice between independence and the status quo, in which Catalonia (and other regions in Spain) enjoy broad autonomy.

But “basically the response provided by the state shows very well that there is very little margin” for such a middle way, he told Foreign Policy by phone. That may be fruit of Spain’s post-Franco lurch into democracy: Under the current constitution, the different regions of Spain were already given plenty of autonomy, and that has been steadily increased over the years, leaving little more for Madrid to yield other than outright independence.

But Romeva rejects the idea that Catalonia is disobeying Spanish law. “There is no [constitutional] article that bans it. We are in the field of interpretations. What we demand is a political dialogue.” And Madrid’s judicial crackdown on politicians and others promoting the vote gets a yellow card, he said: “The penal code does not consider holding a referendum a crime.”

What’s trickier is what would come next if Catalonia does end up holding the vote, and if the independence voices win, and if by some stretch it were able to break away from Spain. Romeva says there is no need to head to the back of the line to rejoin the European Union or NATO (Spain is a member of both.) “There is no automatic being left out or kept in,” Romeva said.

EU officials, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and others, have consistently stressed that Spanish law should be the top consideration in the whole debate.

A NATO official noted that “any newly independent state would have to apply to join international organizations, such as NATO. Decisions in NATO are made by consensus. So all 29 allies would have to agree on whether to accept a new member.”

The Spanish government elides the question of whether it has contributed to pro-separatist feeling but feels confident it is backed by law. The Spanish Embassy in Washington notes Rajoy’s insistence that Spain “has the mechanisms and instruments necessary to prevent those that wish to violate the basic rules of our democracy from doing so. It has the mechanisms to defend legality and also to hold accountable those who are seriously endangering the coexistence of all Spaniards.” U.S. President Donald Trump, during a meeting this week with “President” Rajoy, also said he wanted to see a united Spain.

And that, in all likelihood, is what he will see: This referendum, at least, is not expected to deliver Catalans from what many consider more than three centuries of forced marriage.

But as Britain is learning after Brexit, and Iraqi Kurds are learning after their own referendum this week, neither Spain nor Catalonia can put Humpty Dumpty entirely back together no matter what happens. Heightened political rhetoric and deeper mistrust between Spain’s most economically important region and its political heart will only continue, regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s vote.

Romeva, channeling Bismarck, speaks in ambiguous terms about “reality” and what comes next. For Madrid, reality is an indivisible nation state. For Catalonia, it’s a nationalist awakening. Something has got to give.

“Reality will need to be faced,” Romeva said. “That’s politics. Politics means you have to deal with reality.”

Photo credit: Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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