Catalonia poses a real crisis for both Spain and Europe
In the aftermath of Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia, the rifts in Spanish society are only growing wider. “With each passing day, national authorities and the pro-independence forces in Catalonia appear to be moving inexorably toward direct confrontation,” wrote my colleague William Booth.
The past few days have seen heated protests and a general strike in Catalonia, an economically prosperous region in northeastern Spain whose local government unilaterally staged the independence vote over the weekend. The bruising handling of the situation by right-wing Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who deployed security forces to Catalonia who bloodied unarmed protesters, has hardened Catalan attitudes against Madrid. And as both sides dig in, the showdown may trigger a constitutional crisis that would have profound ramifications not just for Spain but for all of Europe.
Catalan’s separatist leaders say that more than 2 million people were still able to cast ballots, the vast majority of which were for secession from Spain. Officials in the region suggested they could formally declare independence as early as this coming Monday. On Wednesday, Spain’s high court launched an investigation into possible sedition charges for a number of pro-secessionist Catalan police officials and politicians as they press ahead with their plans to break away.
It’s not clear at all what an unilaterally “independent” Catalonia will look like, but the move toward it will be profoundly messy. “We know that there may be disbarments, arrests,” said pro-independence Catalan politician Mireia Boya in a message posted on Twitter. “But we are prepared, and in no case will it be stopped.”
The irony is that many Catalans aren’t on the same page as secessionist leaders and believe their region has been hijacked by politicians pushing a narrow, uncompromising agenda.
“We are completely silenced,” filmmaker Isabel Coixet told my colleagues. “They have created a climate of tension in which anyone who doesn’t agree with them doesn’t exist and is discredited. And, honestly, there are so many people keeping quiet. The biggest problem I see is the double fracture that has been created — the division with Spain and the division between the Catalans.”
Meanwhile, the head of a union that represents the Guardian Civil, the national paramilitary police force involved in the Sunday crackdown, bemoaned the harassment his comrades are facing on the streets of Catalan cities and urged that reinforcements be sent from the rest of the country. A speech delivered Tuesday by King Felipe VI, Spain’s head of state, echoed Madrid’s position that the Catalan independence move was “outside the law” and a display of “unacceptable disloyalty.” The following night, the Spanish government rejected a Catalan call for negotiations.
All of this is only giving Catalan secessionists more ammunition. “Catalonia is divided. Spain is divided. King Felipe VI’s speech was inadequate,” noted Federiga Bindi, a senior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “He should have spoken in both languages — after all, he is fluent in Catalan and Prince of Barcelona. He should have called for dialogue and negotiations between both parties, but instead he stood firmly on the side of the Moncloa Palace” — a reference to Rajoy’s residence.