Should Catalonia be independent?

Photo by Ivan McClellan. Licensed CC Attribution 2.0

In short, no.

Now there are a lot of valid reasons on both sides of the argument, and I am not going to try and discredit them all, for any attempt to do so would be futile. Instead, I have chosen to concentrate on the main reason given by the Generalitat (the Catalan government) as to why they have the mandate to declare independence: it is the will of the people. The Generalitat argues that independence represents the wishes of the Catalan people and by preventing Catalonia from being an independent state, the Spanish government is acting undemocratically. They are wrong.

Catalan independence has never had the support of a majority of Catalans. This is even according to the Centre of Opinion Studies for the Generalitat itself — its latest report has the Yes vote at 41%. Of the two Catalonian referendums on Independence — a non-binding consultation in 2014, and the one a few weeks ago — both had a majority in favour, but crucially, neither had a turnout even remotely near 50%. Furthermore, the October vote was carried out under dubious circumstances, as the Spanish police tried to prevent it from going ahead. As a result, electoral fraud was widespread, and the pro-unity majority, for the most part, stayed at home as instructed and did not vote.

The Bullfight

Carles Puigdemont, President of the Generalitat, is fully aware of this, and yet he pressed ahead with the referendum regardless. Why? Because he knows that the only way he can achieve his aim is to make continued union with Spain untenable. He chose to provoke the Spanish government, and its Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, into a confrontation, manipulating the strong sense of resentment felt in Spain towards Catalonia. He hoped to spur a draconian crackdown, so that he could swing public opinion — both in Catalonia and abroad — in his favour, and win the support he needed to be able to get independence. In a simplistic yet somewhat apt metaphor, Puigdemont is the torero, and Rajoy is the raging bull.

Being a torero is a dangerous job, however, and even the best can sometimes misjudge the situation and end up gored on the bull’s horns. The scenes of violent confrontations a fortnight ago, with belligerent riot police dragging protestors out of polling stations by their hair, made sure that the Referendum dominated news across the Continent, but the international condemnation that Puigdemont had hoped for was rather lacking. The EU expressed its dismay at what it had witnessed and called for dialogue, but stressed that it was a purely domestic matter and that it would not interfere. This sentiment was soon echoed by individual European countries, keen to prevent their own separatist movements from getting any ideas.

More damning for Puigdemont, however, was the mass demonstration opposed to independence the weekend before he was due to talk to the Catalonian parliament — while the exact numbers were disputed, it sent a strong message nevertheless. Puigdemot used popular protest in the streets of Barcelona as a form of ersatz democracy — he referred to it in his non-declaration of independence, and called for it to continue. No doubt this played some role in his last minute change of heart on Tuesday, and the resulting decision to suspend the effects of independence, pending negotiations.

The Torero Stumbles

While President Puigdemont is keen to try and appear reasonable, having determined that the best approach is to try diplomacy and again portray the Spanish government as aloof and authoritarian, his approach has backfired. Dramatic events make news headlines; negotiations, for the most part, do not. Already the Catalan issue has begun to fade from current affairs, and from the minds of the international audience. He has also begun to lose support at home, and in the face of an uncompromising Spanish government, his coalition partners are pushing him to drop the talks and get on with independence. By dithering on the edge, Puigdemont makes it ever more likely that independence will fail and that Spain will regain control of the crisis.

Worse still for the torero, the bull has paused to assess its winded opponent, before moving in for the kill. Until now, the Spanish government’s heavy handed response has played right into Puigdemont’s hands, every threat and reaction another proof of the Francoist oppressors from Madrid. Rajoy was expected to respond to any declaration of independence by invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, thereby suspending Catalan autonomy and imposing direct rule; but in the face of hesitation he too has decided to wait it out, forcing Puigdemont to make a decision. In keeping with last week’s ball game exchange concerning Brexit, Rajoy has made it very clear that there is only one ball, and that it is still in Puigdemont’s court.

So, barring any dramatic new developments, it seems, for now at least, that Catalan Independence is off the books. Yet Catalonia remains a divided place, and the antagonistic actions of the Spanish government have not helped in this regard. It will take a long time to reintegrate Catalonia fully into Spain, if at all, and this is by no means the last we will hear of the matter. So how might the situation be resolved?

“Give them what they want”

The answer is simultaneously very simple, yet near impossible to bring about: a referendum. After years of ignoring Catalan demands — and holding a referendum is the one thing that the majority of Catalans do support — the Spanish government could offer Catalonia an official, legally binding referendum, requiring a majority of the electorate, as opposed to the turnout. Prior to October 2017, according to polling, this almost definitely would have resulted in Catalonia staying within Spain and put independence on the back-burner — at least for the meantime — as it did with Scotland.

The chances of this actually happening are very remote, and with clear reasons. Firstly, the Spanish government has been taking a hard line against Catalonia, following public opinion in Spain. (If you are in any doubt of how badly it is perceived, just watch a video of crowds cheering on Guardia Civil and national police as they are dispatched to Catalonia, amidst cries of “go get them”.) Allowing a referendum would be a huge U-turn — perhaps greater than any of Prime Minister May’s — and would be extremely unpopular. The Spanish govenment would be stupid to make such a big concession in this fight just as it has gained the upper hand.

Furthermore, the outcome I outlined was very likely prior to the recent crisis. As we know all too well in Britain, the polls do not always predict the outcome correctly, and even before the harsh reaction of Madrid, the margin of error was such that any referendum could have still swung in favour of independence. We do not know what the exact percentages are now after the crisis, but I would not be at all surprised if there were a far narrower gap between both sides.

The bullfight is drawing to a close, but we must wait to see how the final charge pans out.