Tensions mount over Catalonia's independence vote – and Madrid won't back down easily

Even if referendum turnout is high enough to grant legitmacy, a showdown looms with Spain's government.

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Independencia es dignidad” – independence is dignity – adorns flags hanging from apartment balconies in clusters throughout Barcelona. Ironically written in Spanish, rather than Catalan, this appeal to Catalonians to vote Yes in October’s independence referendum sits side by side with others saying “Si!” – “Yes!” – as well as the Senyera Estelada flag, the battle standard of Catalan separatists.

Last week, the Catalan government raised tensions by saying it could declare independence within “two days” if it wins the referendum, scheduled for 1 October. Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Generalitat, Catalonia's government, promised the assembly on July 4 that the referendum “would not be a train crash” and that no action of the Spanish state would stop the will of the Catalan people. 

Puigdemont made the declaration while passing the law that will pave the way for the referendum to take place. However, there remains one sizeable hurdle standing in his way. No matter how enshrined in Catalan law the vote may be, the referendum will not be recognised by Madrid. In fact, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has promised to thwart Catalan separatism at every turn, saying that the referendum is “illegal”, that it is “forbidden” by the Spanish constitution. 

For Madrid, Catalan independence is a nuisance that simply won’t die, a bug that cannot be squashed. There have been numerous referendums since the turn of the millennium, each with much fanfare, and October is not likely to be any different.

The big question, however, is whether voter turnout will be significant. A referendum in 2014 – again, unrecognised by Spain – which included two Yes/No questions, saw 80.8 per cent of voters support Catalan independence. However, according to media outlets, just 37 per cent of voters showed up at the polls (although the then-Catalan government reported 41.6 per cent.)

The recent push for independence is down to many different factors, but is strongly fuelled by economic arguments. Catalan citizens are unhappy that the Spanish government takes more in taxes than it gives to the region, and are also angry at pushes from Madrid to make schools teach lessons in Castellano, ie Spanish, rather than Catalan. Across Spain, the debate on Catalan independence is seen as Madrid’s self-made problem.

In reality, it is a long-fought battle – arguably ongoing since the 1700s. International attention once again focused on Catalan secessionism as the Scottish independence debate gathered momentum, in part due to the fervent support for Scotland’s independence exhibited across Catalonia.

Catalan separatists have been buoyed in no small part by the election result of 2015. A coalition of four independence-seeking parties, known collectively as Juntos por el Si (JxS) – Together for Yes – managed to take 48 per cent of the vote in an election in which 77.4 per cent of the population headed to the polls.

Although they are enthusiastic for their chances in October, Puigdemont and the Generalitat have made cynical safeguards to stack the post-referendum rhetoric in their favour – at least if they secure a win. The question on the ballot paper will be simple enough: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” Yet the result will depend entirely on the vote either way, having nothing to do with turnout. A standard practice, maybe, but dismissing potentially swathes of voters who will ignore an unofficial, unrecognised referendum seems dicey at best.

Then there is Spain’s reaction. In his speech to the Generalitat, Puigdemont conceded that the Spanish government might work to prevent the opening of polling stations, but said he was confident that Madrid would not resort to war to prevent Catalonia from becoming a breakaway state. 

Frankly, it is too early to count those chickens. When the topic of Catalan independence hit fever pitch in 2012, Francisco Alamán Castro, a retired colonel of the Spanish army, said he regarded the pursuit of independence as treason. In the same interview, he made thinly veiled threats, urging the army to take oaths to protect Spain’s unity and saying that independence would come “over my dead body”. While it wouldn’t do to jump to conclusions based on just one interview, it would also be remiss to think Alamán is the only Spanish military figure willing to protect the country's unity, no matter the cost. 

Would a No vote be an end to Catalan secessionism? Definitely not. The referendum law requires that regional elections be called immediately in the event that Puigdemont and the independence movement are defeated in October, but this will be little more than breathing space for Madrid. While conversations in Barcelona now waver between supporting No and Yes, it is clear that the Spanish government must do more to re-engage with Catalans who want to break away. Acknowledging the desire for a referendum might just be the place to start.

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona.