The Catalonian Referendum in Retrospect

By Tom Leprince-Ringuet
Correspondent, Internation Relations & Spanish Undergraduate

Since the Catalonian referendum of the October 1st, 2017, followed by the unilateral declaration of independence on the 27th, Spain has been plunged into its biggest institutional crisis since democracy was restored in 1975. Spain’s outcome remains very uncertain, as the snap elections of December 21st have renewed the pro-independence majority in the Parliament of Catalonia, but the different separatist parties are unable to reach an agreement over the presidency of the Generalitat (the Catalonian government), and Madrid keeps putting pressure on the region to stop any secessionist aspirations.

When I arrived in Barcelona for my year abroad in September, uncertainty was at its peak with regards to what was going to happen on the October 1st, the day the referendum of independence — declared illegal by the central government — was supposed to take place. The severe police crackdown that followed shook the rest of the world and was unanimously condemned, leading to numerous demonstrations in the streets. House hunting in these times was definitely not the easiest thing, even less so, was having to move in on the October 3rd, right in the middle of a 700,000 people demonstration next to the national police Prefecture on the day of the general strike to protest against police violence.

The results of the snap elections called by Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime minister, ruined his hopes of ending the crisis and kept the status of Catalonia’s future very uncertain. These elections gave for the second time a slight majority to the three pro-independence parties (70 seats out of 135), even if they only managed to secure 47.5% of the popular vote. However, Ciudadanos (“Citizens” in Spanish), the unionist party, collected by itself the largest number of votes (25.35%) and won 36 seats, representing an impressive growth compared to the previous elections (25 seats in 2015, 9 in 2012). That said, the separatists cannot enjoy their majority since eight MPs are still imprisoned or in exile in Belgium with Puigdemont, who is claiming presidency of the Generalitat but whose return to Spain would lead him straight to prison.

Moreover, the secessionists are now divided between those who remain loyal to Puigdemont and want to believe in a Catalan government in exile in Brussels, and those who favour appointing another president. There was an attempt to invest Puigdemont via videoconference on January 30th but the Constitutional Court forbade it and the session was postponed, meaning that Catalonia is still without a government to this day. A possible way out of this political stalemate would be for the secessionists to choose another president, especially as Puigdemont is giving signs of throwing in the towel and losing hope, but again there are many disagreements regarding who should replace him. Another option could be the conduct of new regional snap elections, possibly this spring, to form a new parliament and, hopefully, invest a new president of the Generalitat.

This crisis has led to many debates regarding a possible independence of Catalonia. I have witnessed from my own experience the division that exists deep in the Catalonian society. As a student in a public university (University of Pompeu Fabra), I realised that a majority of the youth, as well as the academic community was fervently pro-independence. Indeed, my university went on strike several times during the first term, and its buildings were, and are still, covered with secessionist propaganda. However, just like in the case of Brexit, large cities are much more unionist than the countryside, and the demonstrations against independence that I watched right under my balcony were at least as important as the ones in favour.

Moreover, among those against independence, there was the dilemma between voting in the referendum, and giving it legitimacy, or boycotting it. This day of referendum was a turning point and changed a lot of minds in the Catalan society, as many were shocked by the police’s violence on ordinary people who were just exercising their democratic right. These scenes of violence revived memories from the Franco era, and people were also shocked by the lack of reactions from the other Spanish autonomous communities, which they took as an approval. After these events, there was a consensus – even in the unionist camp – that this was outrageous and that the Spanish government should let the Catalans vote in a properly held referendum. However, this is a very risky bet for Mariano Rajoy, because he would not be able to ignore the results if the outcome was a majority of “yes”.

As a result, many blame the crisis on Puigdemont, an unelected president who exacerbated the tensions and divisions in the Catalan society, accelerating the process of independence and bringing it to a point of no return, but also on Rajoy, not only for his decision to violently repress the referendum, but also for his years of apathy with regards to the situation, which led to the rise in power of separatist feelings. For instance, before his election in 2011, around 20% of Catalans wanted an independent state, but in this number rose up to 44% in 2017. This is due mostly to Rajoy disregarding the Catalan’s complaints, especially the economic grievances about the fact that they give much more money than they received from Madrid, a trend intensified by the 2008 economic crisis.

Finally, the international recognition of an independent Catalonia is very problematic. Indeed, leaders of the European Union have unanimously claimed that they would not recognise it and gave full support to Madrid. This is understandable, as many European leaders do not want to create a knock-on effect on their own separatist regions such as Corsica in France, Wallonia in Belgium, or Scotland in the UK.

However, many have criticised the EU for having double standards regarding new states recognition. For example, William Mallinson, a former British diplomat, asked wryly why NATO was not bombing Madrid, referring to Kosovo and the 78 bombing of Belgrade by NATO forces. Even if the comparison is questionable (the level of violence is fortunately much lower in the case of Catalonia), it raises an interesting question as to how the EU should handle separatist movements that are proliferating across Europe. Some suggest that these movements are a response to the weakening of the nation-state, which is a consequence of the European project itself, so the future of the EU lies in the recognition of these regions and the creation of a union of small independent states.

This reflects the inherent tension in international law between the fundamental principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of states, and the equally fundamental principle of the people’s right to self-determination, which is why the EU has recognised some states and not others depending on the context, by favouring one principle over the other. A possible hypothesis could be that the decisive factor of recognition is the level of violence inflicted on populations, which triggers the responsibility to protect of the international community (R2P principle, adopted by the United Nations in 2005). Indeed, new states often emerge from situations where peoples have been victims of genocide or other major human rights abuses, so a possible conclusion would be that Catalonia would not be able to legitimately ask for international recognition for as long as it has not “suffered enough”.


Featured image from SBA73/Flickr

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