It was in unfortunate circumstances this summer that the authorities of Catalonia rose to the challenge and demonstrated an impressively coherent and efficient response; a response which was at once applauded by the outside world, even being referred to as state-like and simultaneously attacked the central government, lest Catalonia be mistaken for a country in its own right.
Such is the controversy and fierceness of feeling on both sides of the Catalan independence debate, that nothing, not even a vicious terrorist attack in the region’s beautiful capital, is free from being dragged into it.
The Catalan regional parliament, having last week passed a law to hold a referendum , is making preparations to vote on 1st October on independence amidst logistical obstacles and urgent legal challenges brought by the central government. As Diego Torres explains, in his recent article for the European edition of Politico, “The Constitutional Court has powers to urge officials to comply with its judicial decisions and suspend them from office if they refuse to do so.”
This is no bluff: the ex-President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Artur Mas, is an example of such actions, having himself been suspended from public service for 2 years by the court, following his role in organising the 2014 consulta or poll for independence. There has also been speculation about harsher measures: seizure of ballot boxes, deployment of Spanish troops to obstruct the vote and even the arrest of officials involved, including the current President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont.
Today is Catalonia’s national day, el Diada, and although it marks the loss of Catalonia’s independence against Spain in 1714, it has in recent years been transformed into a vehicle for asserting national pride, identity and, for the most part, desires for independence from Spain once more. It is likely that the turnout in towns and cities across the region will be especially high this year in a display of defiance against the mounting threats from the Spanish government to thwart the upcoming referendum.
As we know too well, putting a cross beside a simple ‘Yes/No’ on the ballot paper belies a sea of surrounding complexities and emotions, all being exacerbated by Madrid’s refusal to permit a binding poll. Instead of an open, undistracted debate on the benefits of remaining Spanish or seceding, most energy is focused on the largely oblique question of the legality of holding the referendum in the first place, which can only result in a perpetual stalemate.
This was illustrated by the interviews on BBC News Hour last week with the governing PP’s José Ramón García Hernández, who insisted there is a legal avenue within the constitution to hold a referendum, which the government would fully support; the only glitch for the Catalans is that it would require the participation of the whole of Spain. Ex-president of Catalonia, Mr Mas, speaking on the same programme referred instead to international legal standards governing rights to self-determination.
When Catalans went to the polls in November 2014 in a less official vote to gauge support for independence there was one pervading problem: those who were opposed simply abstained from voting. The result was therefore unsurprisingly 80% for independence but less than half of those eligible to vote turned out. This scenario is likely to be replicated this October to the great detriment of Puigdemont and his allies, and posing difficulties for any sort of international recognition.
And so the Catch-22 continues, but something has got to give, and it looks unlikely that it will be the Catalans. Look at it is way: when David Cameron promised and called the UK referendum on EU membership it was not because of a sustained mass movement, often filling capital’s streets, was calling for it, over and over again. That was not even the case in Scotland. However, if you look at images of Barcelona and other cities in the region today, you will see the manifest thirst for self-determination in their streets which will host many hundreds of thousands of marchers, if previous years are anything to go by. This movement will not simply vanish.
To reasonable outsiders this display of obstinacy from the Spanish government in denying the Catalans their voice on self-determination will surely appear unjust – they are, after all, unrelenting in their warnings of punishment of political leaders who orchestrate this referendum. To be thrown in jail for facilitating democracy has no place anywhere, least of all in a country which claims to be one.
Maybe no-one has told Señor Rajoy, but internationally this does not look good and it unveils dictatorial tendencies which Spain clearly has not fully shed. But worse still, the central government’s position reveals a shocking failure to realise that it is not the Catalan independistas who most threaten Spain’s unity; it is Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy himself and his Partido Popular government, along with their staunch unionist allies which includes the central opposition party, the socialists (PSOE), and their leader Pedro Sánchez.
Ironically, it is highly likely that had the referendum been allowed to go ahead with recognition of legitimacy back in 2014, the issue might have been settled in Spain’s favour, just as happened with Scotland that same autumn. As it stands however, every ‘no you can’t’ from Madrid inspires a new ‘Yes’ for independence in Catalonia.