An Independent Catalonia Is Further Away Than Ever

New leadership in Madrid and Barcelona seemed to offer hope of a resolution to the Catalan secession crisis. But both sides are digging in rather than making compromises.

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez (L) and Catalan regional president Joaquim Torra at the funeral of Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe in Barcelona on Oct. 8, 2018.
Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez (L) and Catalan regional president Joaquim Torra at the funeral of Spanish opera singer Montserrat Caballe in Barcelona on Oct. 8, 2018. (ANDREU DALMAU/AFP/Getty Images)

On Oct. 1, 2017, a chaotic referendum on Catalan independence plunged Spain into political turmoil. The vote occurred despite being declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, and 92 percent of the 2 million people who voted­—representing a turnout of 43 percent—voted for secession, prompting the Catalan government to unilaterally declare independence later that month. Yet the possibility of a Catalan Republic remains no more than a dream; in fact, it is even further from becoming reality today than it was last October, when the Spanish government’s heavy-handed response made news the world over: National police stormed voting stations throughout Catalonia, seizing ballot boxes and, in some cases, using physical force against peaceful voters. As Catalonia’s then-President Carles Puigdemont fled Spain to avoid arrest, the government of Spain’s then-Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took direct control of the region, employing a previously unused clause of the constitution to sack its government.

Legal reprisals followed. In March, 13 Catalan politicians, former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras and Puigdemont among them, were charged with rebellion by Spain’s Supreme Court—a crime that carries a maximum prison sentence of 25 years. The trials of 18 prominent Catalan separatists, including that of Junqueras, will begin early next year and are likely to inflame separatist sentiment even further.

The fact that both Puigdemont and Rajoy are no longer in power has not changed the fundamental equation. This is partly because of the Spanish government’s zero-tolerance policy toward Catalan independence. The current administration in Madrid took power in June, when a no-confidence vote orchestrated by Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez ousted the conservative People’s Party’s Rajoy. Soon after taking Spain’s top political job, Sánchez arranged a meeting with the newly elected Catalan president, Joaquim Torra. It was the first time that a Catalan leader had sat down with a Spanish prime minister for two years, but the meeting only served to highlight both sides’ unwillingness to compromise.

Determined to distance himself from the repressive tactics of his predecessor, Sánchez has made much of his openness to “dialogue” with Catalan secessionists. But behind this friendly facade, Spain’s new prime minister is just as opposed to Catalan independence as Rajoy was, although the latter was unwilling to even sit down with his counterpart in Barcelona. “We will always offer dialogue [with separatists], but with the [1978 Spanish] Constitution in hand,” Sánchez said in August. The constitution, however, allows for just one outcome to this discussion: Spanish unity.

There was also something unmistakably Rajoyesque about Sánchez’s most recent warning to the Catalan Parliament. Criticizing Catalonia’s own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, for not reacting to pro-independence protests with sufficient force, the Socialist leader has now threatened to send in national police to perform that task—a move that seems at odds with his previously stated desire to build a rapport with Catalan secessionists.

Fraught as it may be, any kind of dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona marks an improvement on a relationship that Rajoy’s tactics did so much to damage. Nevertheless, Catalan separatists have done themselves few favors since last October’s referendum and have failed to advance their cause. Torra, who was nominated for the Catalan presidency by Puigdemont and duly elected in May (thus quickly being dubbed “Puigdemont’s puppet” by Spanish media), is even more committed to a Catalan Republic than his predecessor. But the former lawyer’s appointment has been surrounded by controversy, with both anti-secessionists and moderate separatists critical of his apparently visceral hatred of non-Catalonian Spaniards.

In an article he wrote for the Catalan newspaper El Món in 2012, Torra described Spaniards opposed to expressions of Catalan culture as “carrion-feeders,” “hyenas,” and “beasts in human form.” Between 2011 and 2014, he also published several inflammatory tweets lambasting the Spanish: Among them were the claims that “Spaniards know only how to plunder” and that Catalonia had been under “occupation” by the Spanish since 1714 (when King Philip V abolished the region’s autonomous institutions and placed it under centralized control). With such a figure at the helm of Catalonia’s pro-independence movement, the possibility of negotiation with Sánchez’s government seems slim, at best.

Further proof of this came in October, when Torra attempted to blackmail Sánchez into extending greater leniency to Catalan separatists. Unless there was a “guaranteed mechanism” for secession in place by November, he informed Madrid, then pro-independence parties would refuse to support Sánchez’s minority government in parliament, specifically regarding its proposed 2019 budget. (Holding just 84 seats in the 350-seat congress, the Socialists are heavily reliant on other parties.) It was an impetuous, aggressive move, and it failed: The Spanish government, Torra was curtly told, “does not accept ultimatums.”

Torra’s appointment ended a five-month period during which the narrowly pro-independence Catalan Parliament was without a leader. These were, essentially, five lost months for the separatist cause, during which a succession of unsuitable figures were nominated to take over as Catalan president. In January, Puigdemont himself was proposed, his supporters suggesting that he could resume governance of Catalonia via Skype from self-imposed exile in Brussels. The possibility was quickly vetoed by Spain’s Constitutional Court.

Next up, in March, was Jordi Sanchez, a former leader of the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly who was sent to jail a couple of weeks after the referendum on charges of sedition (where he remains, awaiting trial early next year). Described—not without good reason—as a political prisoner by fellow secessionists, Jordi Sanchez nevertheless seemed a somewhat desperate choice for Catalan president: Was there really no one who could lead the cause from outside jail? His ascendancy was thwarted by the Supreme Court, which ruled that he couldn’t be freed from prison to attend an investiture ceremony.

Floundering, Catalan separatists then nominated Jordi Turull. A presidential spokesperson under Puigdemont, Turull lost a first investiture vote in the Catalan Parliament at the end of March; the night before a second vote was scheduled, he was imprisoned on a charge of rebellion and has remained behind bars ever since. Torra’s subsequent appointment as Catalan president—even though he was backed by Puigdemont—has done little to unite the region’s pro-independence factions, many of which are angered and embarrassed by his anti-Spanish rhetoric.

Indeed, Torra’s refusal to accept anything less than full secession from Spain is one reason why the Catalonia situation hasn’t improved. Ahead of the region’s national day in early September, Sánchez suggested that Madrid might, at some point, allow Catalans a referendum on greater autonomy—a concession that Rajoy would never have made.

Torra said that the proposal was “interesting” but reiterated that he sees himself as working on the mandate provided by last year’s referendum and that “only an agreed, binding and internationally recognized referendum on self-determination can renew that mandate.” That declaration seemed to represent a small step toward compromise, too; after all, neither legality nor international recognition were at the top of the list when Torra’s predecessor was planning the 2017 vote.

However willing to compromise they may sometimes appear, both Sánchez and Torra know that greater autonomy won’t be enough to please hard-line secessionists. The 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia augmented the already considerable powers of self-governance handed to the region in 1979. Yet 14 of its demands were vetoed by Spain’s Constitutional Court, and separatists argue that the watered-down statute failed to give the region the level of independence it seeks.

Another way in which Sánchez could extend the olive branch to Torra would be to release or acquit the imprisoned Catalan politicians, which Torra has implied is his condition for considering a more limited referendum on greater autonomy, rather than independence. Four of these separatists recently started a hunger strike, to protest at what they see as the Constitutional Court’s “unjust and arbitrary” behavior. Yet the strike has only highlighted Sánchez’s stance on their imprisonment: “They will have a fair trial because we live in a social and democratic state governed by the rule of law, and the judiciary is independent,” he recently said.

It would be a mistake to think, though, that the prime minister is not intervening out of respect for the judiciary’s sovereignty. After all, he recently announced his intention to challenge the court’s controversial ruling on a mortgage tax, saying that “no power is free from criticism.” His decision not to challenge the judiciary with regard to its handling of Catalan separatists is a deliberate choice. Perhaps he wants to make examples of the imprisoned politicians, or perhaps he’s concerned that a more powerful separatist movement would result from their release.

There are ways out of this impasse for both sides, but neither is prepared to back down. It’s no wonder that in a poll conducted late September, 69 percent of Spaniards described the Catalonia situation as worse than it was this time last year. Only 15 percent thought it had improved since then.

Implacable opposition from Spain’s central government, combined with a separatist leader unwilling to accept compromise, means that the Catalonia crisis is even more intractable than it was last October.

Mark Nayler is a freelance journalist based in Spain. He writes on Spanish politics and culture for southern Spain's English-language newspaper, Sur in English, and for The Spectator.

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