Walking through the town hall of Barcelona last night, the scene was one of collective liberation. As if the perennial struggle for autonomy running since 1922 with the creation of the Estat Català had definitively been resolved. Catalonia has long been a region with its own proud history and distinct culture and language and as such they wish to possess total control over their own destiny. Yet, simmering beneath the surface of empty cans of Estrella, the innumerable Estelada’s that embellished shops windows and the celebratory anthems of collective regional pride resided a sense of trepidation, as we wait to behold the nature of the impending backlash from Rajoy and the central government.
The proliferation of Catalan agitation has been palpable since I arrived here in July, which in turn has induced anxiety amongst Spanish government officials. Dissatisfaction across the region was precipitated by the disturbing and violent scenes during referendum held earlier this month, in which Spain’s national leaders harked back to fascist precedents in an attempt to re-affirm their preeminence over Catalonia. Since then, the Catalonian Parliament, spearheaded by the unflinching Carles Puigdemont, has been somewhat measured in postponing the declaration of independence, seeking constructive dialogue and recognition from those in Madrid. Yet Spain has time and time again responded with threats, which in effect has served only to further isolated Madrid from Catalonia. It is impossible to accurately decipher the balance of Independistas versus those who wish remain a part of Spain, given the the democratic process on October 5th was not given a fair chance to operate. Notwithstanding, the ambience amongst an increasing group of separatists is one of disenchanment with the unwelcome imposition of a national Spanish identity.
The actions of Rajoy, with his habitual strategy of intimidation and lying low and presumptuously waiting on Puigdemont to back down has merely fanned the flames and increased the desire for separation. Had Rajoy from the start been more flexible in his approach, demonstrating both a willingness and desire to reach a compromise by negotiating some kind of financial deal that would better reflect Catalonia’s contribution to the Spanish economy (20% of the country’s GPD), this level of hostility and tension could so easily have been avoided. Perhaps he could have offered a tax regime akin to that granted to the Basque country. But no such deal or dialogue has emerged. All they got was police violence enforced upon innocent people seeking to exercise their right to a democratic vote.
It was therefore no surprise that Friday’s announcement engendered such a degree of optimism and enthusiasm amongst the Catalan populace. However If they wish to remain an independent state, they are going to have to somehow resist the legal constitutions thrown their way from a beleaguered Madrid, beginning with the impending enactment of Article 155 which in principle will restore the constitutional order in Catalonia. In other words, Catalonia’s autonomy will be reduced to something intangible, as the regional parliament will lose the authority to pass any legislation without the central government’s strict approval. It feels like a question of time before the pendulum swings back in favour of Rajoy.
In the meantime, following yesterday’s events, Catalonia will have to convincingly demonstrate their ability to operate independently against the wishes of the rest of Spain and seek legitimacy for their cause. The interplay between the two sides has been one of shared negligence. Rajoy deserves criticism for seeking to impose himself by means of intimidation. The Catalan Parliament too however has been discernibly poor in its planning and temperamental. On the face of it, holding a referendum for independence with only a 42% turnout rate, whilst ultimately lacking sufficient mandate and any EU support is a zero-sum game and the consequences of this and the events that have proceeded it could certainly culminate in Catalonia losing all its existing autonomy.
Additionally, as mentioned in The Times yesterday, Spanish prosecutor’s office will formalise charges of rebellion against Mr Puigdemont next week, which make him him the first person to face such action since soldiers mounted a failed coup in 1981. On this occasion roughly 200 soldiers and members of La Guardia Civil gatecrashed the Spanish parliament during a debate over a new government in light of Franco’s death and fired shots as they took around 350 MP’s hostage. Puigdemont, who could be faced with the same charges and with up to 30 years in jail. As they lack legitimate approval, the Catalan quest of independence has been since discredited and this weekend’s celebrations will surely morph into tears.
The potential for this project to miscarry was made clear from the a Downing Street spokesman in the aftermath of Friday’s events, “The UK does not and will not recognise the unilateral declaration of independence made by the Catalan parliament.” The only rational solution I consider is for Rajoy to grant Catalonia a free vote, akin to that in Scotlandd, as what we witnessed on the 5th of October in the form of police oppression, voting stations being closed and boxes of votes confiscated was simply a mess. Rather than dissolving the lawfully elected government of Catalonia and incarcerating their political leaders, Spain should be giving them a real opportunity to vote. The only conceivable alternative is armed conflict.