Friday morning, the regional parliament in the Catalan region of Spain overwhelmingly voted for independence, throwing Spain into the biggest constitutional crisis in its 40-year democratic history.
Under Spanish national law, the vote has made secessionist parliamentarians vulnerable to arrest for sedition. Immediately following the vote, the Spanish parliament in Madrid voted to strip the Catalan regional government of its powers, invoking a never-before-used article of the constitution — Article 155 — which allows Madrid to dissolve the autonomy of a region if the unity of Spain is deemed at risk.
All of that means we have reached the moment the Iberian Peninsula has both anticipated and dreaded since a controversial referendum on Catalan independence was held on October 1: brinksmanship and deep uncertainty about the future.
How we got here
The day of the October 1 referendum — which was ruled illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court — was marred by violence, with Spanish national police yanking would-be voters from polls, beating protesters, and shooting rubber bullets into crowds. Hundreds were injured.
While the vote passed by a 90 percent to 10 percent margin, that number itself was enormously skewed: Only 43 percent of eligible voters went to the polls, with voters who wanted to remain in Spain largely avoiding the ballot box. Many would-be voters believed the referendum itself was an undemocratic measure imposed upon them by a slim majority of secessionists in the regional government.
In the weeks since the vote, protestors have filled the streets of Barcelona. First came those who protested the Spanish central government’s heavy hand on October 1; then came crowds all in white, asking for dialogue with Madrid; and still more came out under the red-and-gold Spanish flag asking to remain in Spain itself.
Meanwhile, then-Catalan President Carles Puigdemont tried a confusing Solomonic approach to appeasing the hardline secessionists in his government and the large swath of Catalans of who wanted to remain with Spain. He announced that the region had won the right to declare independence — but he held off on a declaration, asking, instead, for dialogue with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, hoping Rajoy would agree to greater autonomies and allow him a way to save face. Rajoy refused.
For weeks now, Puigdemont has been trying to find his way out of this bind by attempting to coax Madrid to a negotiating table. But Rajoy has steadfastly refused dialogue with the Catalans, instead insisting they back fully away from their bid for independence. Puigdemont, who is backed by secessionist parliamentarians, has been unable to do that.
Ultimately, Puigdemont gave up: He stepped aside and kicked the decision about whether to declare independence to the Catalan parliament. On Friday, they made their choice.
The fallout from today’s votes will be ugly
Now everything is in a state of complete limbo.
The Spanish government is on the verge of dissolving the regional parliament, which means there will soon be no local leaders recognized in Madrid. And anyone installed by Madrid likely will be protested by those who want to secede. Puigdemont could have called snap elections and turned it back to the people, but as of Thursday night, that moment has passed.
The political uncertainty could well do serious damage to the Catalan and Spanish economies as well.
When the Catalan crisis began earlier this month, businesses began to pull away from the region. Banco Sabadell, one of the region’s largest banks, announced it was moving its headquarters from Barcelona to Alicante, a southern Mediterranean port city, in order to protect its shareholders from the chaos there. CaixaBank, Catalonia’s largest bank, said later that its board was meeting to discuss moving its headquarters as well.
The banks are anxious because independence would throw the region’s finances into total disarray. They worry, as well, that they’d lose out if an independent Catalonia were forced out of the EU. The European Union offers umbrella protections for banks that operate within it.
The banks aren’t alone in their concern. The Spanish utilities company Gas Natural announced that it would move its headquarters from Barcelona to Madrid "to protect the interests of the company, its customers, employees, creditors and shareholders." And the Spanish biotech company Oryzon Genomics, which works on cancer-fighting drugs, declared it was relocating from Barcelona to Madrid as well. Its stock market share immediately soared.
The point is that we’re already seeing real, painful consequences from the Catalan independence vote — and the longer this fight goes on, the graver those consequence could be
“If we really are headed for a unilateral declaration of independence,” José Luis Bonet, the president of the Catalan wine company Freixenet, told the press in early October, “there will be a major exit of firms from Catalonia, which will cause grave damage to Catalonia.”
Now Bonet’s fears have become a reality.