Spain: A Tense Stand-off in Catalunya

Published on October 4, 2017

Tensions are running high in Catalunya since the regional government’s attempt to organize an independence referendum in open defiance of the Spanish Constitution was crushed by central government police forces on Sunday.

*** Despite the crackdown that disrupted the voting, an overwhelming majority within the Catalan government – and among them the President of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont – is now determined to go ahead with the plan to declare independence, most likely this coming Monday, October 9, touting a mandate in double the (suppressed) turnout they claim to have expected going in. And in light of the disrupted election, exact numbers are no longer relevant, with elections and the crackdown fueling a ruling Catalan coalition of Junts pel Si and CUP that has run on the secession movement above and beyond all. ***

*** The central government could then adopt the “nuclear option” in response – the suspension of Catalunya’s autonomy and statute – but Popular Party officials have said Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who lacks a majority in Parliament, will not take such an explosive move without the support (and political cover) of the opposition Socialist Party, PSOE. That seems unlikely at this point, and so PP officials are skeptical that such radical action will be taken anytime soon. A response otherwise would be an escalation in kind. ***

*** But there is for now still no sign of a way through the stand-off, with Rajoy having publicly stated that negotiations can only happen within the boundaries of the Spanish Constitution, which disallow the independence vote and movement. Officials in Madrid confirm this is the government’s only viable position, and add that they are in a wait and see mode, for now focusing on garnering and maintaining international support to isolate the secessionists, keeping the strategic infrastructure in Catalunya out of their hands, and, in at least one positive development, avoiding confrontation with the crowds in the streets after this weekend’s public relations disaster. ***

The two sides are now stuck in a tense stand-off.

Isolating the Secessionists

Questions over the legality, mandate, or lack thereof, of the Catalan elections and independence movement have been superseded by a public relations battle in the streets that Madrid has lost, at least for now. Privately, officials in Madrid acknowledge that they are not capable nor willing to control the streets – full of demonstrators further egged on by a general strike that was called yesterday to protest the central government’s heavy hand.

The money card – starving Barcelona since Madrid still controls the coffers – is also a no-go in the short term, as the Catalan government has been hoarding cash and the region is well-funded, for now.

Rajoy is nevertheless focused on isolating Catalunya’s secessionist drive – especially in ensuring that no international organization or country recognizes an independent Catalunya, assuming a declaration is made on Monday of next week.

He has scored two small victories on that front so far: for one, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, an independent advisory body to the Council’s Parliament, has not recognized the vote. And more importantly, the European Union has refused to get involved, stating the issue is an internal matter for Spain to resolve, in effect giving Rajoy the green light to enforce the centralist Spanish Constitution as he sees fit.


Brussels, while pushing for restraint, clearly does not want to touch the hot potato of a secessionist uprising, in a core member state, no less, and with others lined up behind. And for all of Barcelona’s efforts, the debate in the European Parliament’s plenary today yielded the same results: some vague condemnation of the methods on both sides, but no desire to weigh in on the issue per se.

Article 155

Back home the government is in the meantime concentrating its police force in key areas – bridges, airports, and seaports – to ensure they do not fall into the hands of the demonstrators.

But all of that will not be enough to put the Catalan issue to rest, not even close.

In the short term, Rajoy, who, it is worth reminding does not hold an absolute majority in the Chamber of Deputies, will be facing the (PSOE) socialist party’s opposition to taking a harder line on Barcelona. PSOE has little to gain, at least for now, in letting Rajoy off the hook of this crisis.

And officials from Rajoy’s Popular Party (with 137 seats) maintain that even if they did have an absolute majority, they still would not proceed without much wider political support than the current backing of the center right Ciudadanos Party (with its 32 out of 350 seats), and a broader mandate for such action from the public. They acknowledge only a grand bargain can really stabilize the situation.

A response otherwise – specifically the invocation of the Spanish Constitution’s Article 155 to suspend home rule for Catalunya – would be a sharp escalation of the crisis in kind.

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