Catalan man waits on Passeig Lluis Companys in Barcelona for Carles Puigdemont's independence speech

How do you solve a problem like Catalonia? As we head into 2018, the recurrent thorn in the side of Spain’s central government is showing no signs of disappearing.

For many, the dominant memory may still be that of the independence referendum that was so blighted by police violence, way back on October 1, 2017. Whilst Catalonia may have slipped from the radar, it nonetheless presents a fascinating political can of worms.

To jog the memory, here follows a brief recap of recent developments in what is still, at the time of writing, the north-eastern-most region of Spain.

Initial stages

The October 1 referendum, viewed by Madrid as a violation of the Spanish constitution, recorded a win for independence, with 90 percent in favour of secession. However, turnout was a paltry 42% – not exactly solid foundations for a unilateral declaration of sovereignty. That didn’t stop secessionist leader Carles Puigdemont though. After a lengthy period of ‘will they won’t they’, Catalonia declared independence on October 27 2017. Cue pandemonium.

Mere hours later, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which triggered the dissolution of Catalan parliament and the imposition of direct rule by Madrid. Puigdemont fled to Brussels, evading charges over his role in orchestrating the referendum and independence declaration.

His second-in-command, Oriol Junqueras, was jailed near Madrid on the same charges. New elections to parlament were announced for the 21st December.

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The “Catalan Question” has continued to torment the Spanish establishment in 2018. Photo credit: John Bartlett/Jericho

A polemic election

Then came one of the more single-issue electoral battles of democratic history, with pro and anti-independence parties tussling for a majority in the new parliament. Puigdemont, still exiled in Brussels, campaigned for re-election via looming video appearances on massive projector screens. Junqueras, forlorn, tweeted from a prison cell.

One of the main stories of the election was the surge in support for unionist party Ciutadans (the Catalan branch of the Spanish Ciudadanos, or Citizens, Party) and their regional leader Ines Arrimadas. Born in the southern Spanish region of Andalucía but educated in Catalonia, Arrimadas was a figurehead for what she called the ‘silenced majority’ – those who favour continued union with Spain but felt unable to speak their mind freely.

After a couple of months of ardent campaigning, the results were in. Ciutadans are currently the largest party in parliament with 37 seats, having received 25.77% of the vote. However, they still fall well short of the 68 needed for a majority, showing just how splintered Catalan politics is. The three separatist parties that constituted the governing bloc in the last parliament have retained their majority with 70 seats between them.

This bloc is comprised of Puigdemont’s outfit – Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia); Junqueras’ party – the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan Republican Left, or ERC) and the much smaller, hard-left, Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (Popular Unity Candidacy).

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Independence campaigners festooned with flags in Plaça Catalunya, Barcelona. October 2017. Photo credit: John Bartlett/Jericho

What Now?

The first unknown is whether eight members of parliament currently facing charges will be able to cast their vote in the first parliamentary session.

Puigdemont and Junqueras are not the only pro-independence politicians in Brussels or in jail – there are four other secessionist members of parliament exiled with Puigdemont in Belgium, and two in jail with Junqueras.

It is unclear whether these members will be allowed to vote in the first business of the new parliament: deciding the new ‘president of the chamber’, a role similar to the speaker in the British House of Commons.

If these eight representatives can vote, then the secessionist bloc will have their full majority with 70 seats. If they can’t, the anti-independence parties will hold the majority with their 65 combined seats.

That said, these unionist parties have been unable to find enough common ground to form a cohesive bloc, and so have not decided on a rival candidate for the role of speaker.

Once a speaker is decided, the situation gets no simpler. There is an impasse surrounding Puigdemont’s potential presidency, largely due to his physical whereabouts. The independence parties fully support his reinstatement as president of Catalonia.

However, he is in Brussels, well aware that a return to Spanish soil would prompt his arrest and trial on the same charges that put Junqueras behind bars.

His party insists that he can do his duties from a distance, effectively via Skype. Anti-independence parties, the central government and parliamentary lawyers vehemently oppose this, with one Ciutadans spokesperson describing Puigdemont as a fantasist living in a ‘matrix republic’.

Even his coalition partners, the ERC, have reservations about this plan of action. For his part, Rajoy has said that if Puigdemont seeks to be invested via video-link, he would carry on imposing centralised rule. The humour of such an intractable situation has not been entirely lost, with one satirical article alleging that Puigdemont would demand that all Catalans move to Brussels.

Potential Outcomes?

  1. Puigdemont is invested as president by video-link.

This would cause uproar. If Rajoy follows through on his threat, there would be a sharp backlash and the parliament would presumably be dissolved once more, prompting the whole election cycle to start again. Surely nobody wants that…

  1. Puigdemont manages to negotiate a return to Catalonia and legally becomes president.

This seems unlikely, given Rajoy’s intransigence. Nevertheless there is always the chance that the Spanish Prime Minister may cave in to pressure. Few European leaders are happy to be derided as ‘undemocratic’ or ‘anti-the-will-of-the-people’. After all, Puigdemont did emerge from the legal election as the leading presidential candidate, and is now presenting himself as an entirely reasonable martyr figure by calling for dialogue in order to make progress.

  1. Pro-independence parties find an alternative leader

This is probably the most viable scenario if any serious progress is to be made. Elsa Artadi, Puigdemont’s campaign manager, is one name that has been floated as a potential alternative leader. Some worry, however, that she would effectively act as a puppet leader, with Puigdemont making all the decisions from abroad.

  1. The independence bloc collapses and unionists manage to… form a union.

If pro-independence parties cannot get their act together in time, unionist parties may be able to put aside differences and form an alliance. Inés Arrimadas and Ciutadans were the winners of the election, and it is only their inability to come to an arrangement with other unionist parties that stops them from being able to govern the new parliament.

Long term

With pro-independence parties seemingly in the driving seat again, it is likely that the only plausible way of bringing an end to the Catalan independence question will be a fully legal referendum on the matter, like that which was offered to Scotland in 2014. The consequences of a ‘yes’ result would be serious and wide ranging, and could even have more impact on the EU than Britain’s departure from the bloc.

Around 80% of Catalans support a legal referendum, irrespective of which way they would vote. Sooner or later, this mass clamouring for democracy will presumably force a change in the Spanish constitution, and a legal referendum may, finally, settle the issue.

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