In Spain, Confusion And Uncertainty About Catalonia’s Future : Parallels : NPR

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People rally in Barcelona for Spain’s National Day Thursday, shouting against the independence of Catalonia.

Andrea Baldo/LightRocket via Getty Images

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Andrea Baldo/LightRocket via Getty Images

People rally in Barcelona for Spain’s National Day Thursday, shouting against the independence of Catalonia.

Andrea Baldo/LightRocket via Getty Images

Did he or didn’t he declare independence? That is the question in Spain.

The answer has huge implications for what the Spanish government does next, and how the country’s relatively young democracy — indeed, possibly even the whole European Union — might stay intact.

The “he” in question is Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who delivered an ambiguous speech Tuesday to his regional parliament in Barcelona in which he appeared to declare independence from Spain — and then abruptly took it back. He also signed a document afterward which read, in part: “We constitute a Catalan republic, as an independent and sovereign state…”

Some separatists cheered and claimed victory. Others said Puigdemont’s words fell short.

Many were simply confused.

“He’s trying to buy some time,” says Xavier Arbos Marin, a constitutional law expert who teaches the University of Barcelona and other institutions in Catalonia. “His party is split between those who are more shy in terms of advancing to independence, or others, like Puigdemont himself, who are more radical.”

Puigdemont is playing it both ways, Arbos says. He’s balancing the more than 2 million voters who cast ballots in favor of secession in an Oct. 1 referendum against what may be a similar number of Catalans, according to opinion polls, who do not wish to leave Spain. There is pressure from Spanish and European officials as well.

More than half of Catalonia’s 5.3 million registered voters did not vote at all on the referendum. Unionist parties encouraged their supporters to boycott the vote, which was ruled illegal by Spanish courts.

But the Spanish government is losing patience. In Parliament, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accused Puigdemont of being “intentionally confusing.”

Here’s exactly what Puigdemont said in his speech:

“The people have determined that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic. That is what needs to be done today… I myself propose that the parliament suspend the effects of the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we may begin a dialogue.”

Do those words, along with the document Puigdemont signed, amount to a declaration of independence in the legal sense?

That’s the question Rajoy posed in a formal letter Wednesday to Puigdemont, a copy of which was obtained by NPR. In it, he called on the Catalan leader to “cease grave actions contrary to the general interest of Spain.”

The letter represents the first step in a process of invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows Madrid to assume control of any Spanish region, canceling its partial autonomy. The article has never been invoked in Spain’s 39-year democratic history.

Spain’s richest region

After the end in 1975 of Gen. Francisco Franco’s nearly four-decade dictatorship, during which some of Spain’s disparate ethnic and national groups were repressed, the survival of the new Spanish democracy was thought to rest on the devolution of powers to the regions — reversing the centralized power of the dictator.

The post-Franco 1978 Constitution recognized 17 autonomous regions, many of which, like Catalonia, have their own languages, cultures and traditions. The regions enjoy powers to set policy for many services, including health care and education, but rely on the central government for tax collection and redistribution of funds.

The financial aspects of the arrangement have long been a central complaint by industrialized Catalonia. It is Spain’s richest region, and essentially subsidizes poorer parts of Spain.

Some Catalans resent that, and believe they could be even more prosperous as an independent state. Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents contribute about a fifth of Spanish GDP, and more than a quarter of the country’s exports. Its regional economy is larger than that of Portugal or Finland.

Catalan separatists have already set up a new tax agency to collect revenue if the region breaks away from Spain. But it’s unclear whether independence would be a financial net gain for Catalonia, given the costs of border control, foreign relations and possibly creating a new military — all of which are currently paid for by Madrid.

Any new country of Catalonia would also be forced to leave the European Union, at least initially. It could continue to use the euro as its de facto currency, but it’s unclear whether the new central bank it would have to create would be allowed to issue debt in euros.

Catalan separatists were a small fringe in society and the regional parliament for years. But Spain’s economic crisis brought their concerns sharply into focus for the general population. Opinion polls show Catalans are roughly divided 50-50 on the question of independence, though a big majority of Catalans said in the past they wanted to vote on the issue. Spain considers any such vote, like the one held Oct. 1, unconstitutional.

Spain’s ultimatum and the ‘nuclear option’

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