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Catalonia will remain a part of Spain — for now

The Catalan president said he had the right to declare independence, but proposed suspending that process in favor of dialogue over the coming weeks.

Supporters of Catalan independence wave Catalan flags as they drive with tractors through the Arc de Triomf (Triumphal Arch) in Barcelona on October 10, 2017. /
JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

The man at the center of the political crisis ripping apart Spain has just attempted to pull off the impossible: both declaring that his native Catalonia has the right to secede from Spain and then immediately making clear that he wouldn’t actually be seceding. Instead, he asked to negotiate with the Spanish central government before demanding independence.

The comments from Catalan President Carles Puigdemont on Tuesday stopped short of the full and unilateral declaration of independence that had been expected since part of his region overwhelmingly voted to break away from Spain earlier this month in a highly controversial independence referendum. Instead, Puigdemont said he was willing to meet with the central government in Madrid “to start dialogue,” and “to arrive at an agreed solution to advance with the demands of the people of Catalonia."

If that sounds vague, that’s because it is.

The problem is that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, has thus far rejected calls for dialogue and is expected to move forward as if Puigdemont had fully declared independence anyway.

That means the confrontation between Madrid and Catalonia over secession is nowhere near over.

Puigdemont clearly thought he’d found a way to bridge the increasingly fervent insistence on the part of Catalan separatists to break with Spain and Madrid’s desire to hold on to its wealthiest region. He announced that the results of the contested independence referendum held on October 1 gave Catalonia “the right to be an independent state.” But then he offered to suspend those results for several weeks to engage in talks with the Spanish central government.

"If everyone acts responsibly, the conflict can be resolved with calm," he said in his comments to Spain’s parliament on Tuesday.

It was both something of an olive branch and potential political suicide. Nearly 90 percent of the 2.3 million Catalans who cast ballots were pro-independence. But the vote was held under highly unorthodox conditions. The Spanish Constitutional Court ruled the referendum illegal and the central government sent in the Spanish national guard to stop the vote. Police forcibly dragged would-be voters from the polls and shot rubber bullets into crowds, leading to more than 800 injuries. Some 5.3 million eligible voters were eligible to vote — only 43 percent participated in the referendum, many boycotted.

Now the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy must decide if he will employ the so-called “nuclear option” — Article 155 of the Spanish parliament, which allows him to suspend the Catalan regional parliament and assume control of the region. That won’t go over well.

Barcelona has become a city of protest

In the week since the referendum, the city of Barcelona has been roiled by protests. First came those who stood with the separatists, demanding the right to vote, carrying the Catalan flag. Then came those who protested police brutality, and stood with the independence minded Catalans, demanding a right to speak.

Catalonians Face An Uncertain Future After Independence Vote Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

But in the past few days, a shift has taken place. On Saturday, thousands dressed entirely in white, their palms painted to match, held signs saying “Let’s talk,” a demand for dialogue between Madrid and Catalonia. And on Sunday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators, many bearing the Spanish flag, walked the streets demanding unity — with Spain. These were the so-called “silent majority” of voters who did not believe Catalonia should secede.

Meanwhile the tremendous uncertainty has already had an impact on business. Banks and multinational corporations based in Barcelona have begun the process of relocating their headquarters elsewhere in Spain.

European Union leaders have repeatedly told the Catalans to back down. Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau has also asked Rajoy and Puigdemont to come back from the brink and find a way toward mediated agreement. “Don’t take any decision that would dynamite the space for dialogue and mediation,” she said in a statement Monday. “That’s the bravest thing that you can do at this moment.”

Both Rajoy and Puigdemont have backed themselves into a corner

“In the case of Puigdemont, people who believe in independence truly believe in independence — you don’t play around and back off at the last minute,” José F. Buscaglia, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern University, told me. That meant, said Buscaglia, it would have been “political suicide” for Puigdemont — and the entire movement — if they had not followed through in some way on independence.

“On the other hand, Rajoy has never been willing, or able, to sit down at the table to discuss anything really with the possible break up of Spain. He has not moved an inch.”

That’s partly because giving in to the Catalans’ quest for independence could unravel Spain entirely. The Basque country of Spain, which has also long advocated for full autonomy, would likely follow suit. “That is what is at stake here,” said Buscaglia. “That is what everyone fears and no one wants to name.”

“I don’t think people think there would be a new civil war,” he added, “but Spain could really disintegrate, as least as we know it.”

Correction: an earlier version of this article initially said 5.3 million eligible voters boycotted. The sentence was meant to read as it does above now —- 5.3 million residents were eligible to vote but only 43 percent participated in the referendum (2.3 million voters).