27th October, a day of glory in Catalonia’s struggle for independence? More like a blunder they’d like to forget…
The events that have unfolded in the past two months in Spain seem to resemble a TV political drama more than a constitutional crisis. The series kicked off with police obstruction of the legally dubious referendum of 1st October descended into violence. Then, Catalonia’s Parliament impetuously declared independence in defiance of Spanish constitutional law. Less than an hour later the Senate’s unprecedented issue of Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution followed, revoking Catalonia’s political autonomy. The Spanish Attorney General then issued an arrest warrant for prominent members of the Catalan Parliament, including Carles Puigdemont, the President of Catalonia. The next installment saw them hiding in Brussels, provoking a cross-continental legal cat and mouse chase, which was only resolved when Puigdemont et al handed themselves in.
The motives behind independence are deep and intricate. On the one hand, there is the familiar Europe-wide rhetoric against the centralisation of political power that we’ve become accustomed to during Brexit. However, the issue of Catalan independence goes beyond the economic and political practicalities that characterised the Scottish and Brexit referendums. Centuries of cultural oppression, which peaked during Franco’s dictatorship, have entrenched a distinct cultural identity within many Catalonians; many define themselves as being apart from the rest of Spain.
It is fair to say that the centuries-long wait for independence was not exactly the historical moment of glory they had envisaged. Catalonia maintained its independent status for less than an hour and, ironically, the declaration caused the most heavy-handed curtailments by Madrid in decades. Following the triggering of Article 155, the central Spanish government can now oversee the finances, policies and civil servants in Catalonia. If Catalonia felt controlled before it is nothing compared to the current situation. Not only that, but their ‘heroic’ President immediately abandoned ship and fled to Brussels, leaving the ‘state’ of Catalonia leaderless and without legitimacy.
If anything it seems that the independence declaration has only backfired. The 300,000-strong anti-independence demonstration in Barcelona highlighted how divided Catalonia is. Despite the Catalan Parliament’s exclamations about the near-unanimous referendum result, the 42% turnout means that only 38% of the electorate actually voted for independence. Equally, many Catalonians have failed to be impressed by Carles Puigdemont’s ‘self-imposed exile’ as though he is a sort of martyr for the Catalan cause, instead seeing him as a coward.
At least they’ve managed to drag the reputation of the Madrid bureaucracy through the mud along with them. Many have criticised Madrid for launching a judicial offensive against 14 Catalonian politicians, simultaneously blurring the separation of powers that characterises the Spanish political system, and issuing an arrest warrant against Carles Puigdemont and 4 of his allies. These charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement could carry a 30 year prison sentence. Furthermore, their mobilisation of the police to obstruct the independence referendum has been seen by many as obstructing democracy. Ultimately, it does not reflect well on Spain that a 21st century western democracy is locking up its political opponents, an act reminiscent of the right-wing dictatorship that ended only four decades ago.
So what happens next? Well, the snap elections called for 21st December will be very telling of the people of Catalonia’s attitude towards independence. If anti-independence parties win a majority in the Parliament then it seems as though the events of the past couple of months will simply symbolise another failed attempt to assert independence.
What is certain is that Spain is a country more divided and unstable than it was two months ago. However, it seems very unlikely that the 27th October will become Catalonia’s equivalent to America’s 4th July…
Read our past articles