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“I prefer to go into the abyss”: Catalonia stands on the brink of independence

Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, is expected to make a statement at 6pm on Tuesday. 

Tuesday 10 October may be the day on which Catalonia is declared an independent or state. Or, then again, it may not.

The clock is ticking as Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan government, is expected to appear at 6pm today before the regional Parliament in Barcelona to “report about the present political situation” in Catalonia.

This “political situation” is, to put it mildly, extremely complicated.

In the 1 October referendum, which was considered illegal by the Spanish state and repressed by its police, 90 per cent of those who did vote – the turnout was 43 per cent – answered “Yes” to whether they wanted Catalonia to become an independent republic, according to the figures published by the Catalan authorities.

After this vote, and according to the Referendum Law passed by the Catalan parliament last July, which then was also duly suspended by the Constitutional Court, Puigdemont should report to the regional MPs, who would then implement the referendum result.

As “Yes” won and the Generalitat, as the Catalan government is known, considers the referendum binding, despite all the logistical and technical problems it suffered, today's parliamentary session should lead to a unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan PM.

And so this is the question everyone in Catalonia, most people in the whole of Spain, and quite a few in Europe are wondering: is Puigdemont going to proclaim the independent Republic of Catalonia? And would this be great for Catalonia and very bad for Spain? Vice versa? Something in between? Or simply just a terrible mess?

Catalexit

If somehow the Spanish state allowed Catalan independence to happen, and since the process hasn’t been negotiated with either Madrid or Brussels, Catalonia would probably be automatically outside the European Union and the eurozone. All EU members would have to approve an eventual re-admission of Catalonia into the union. This could be boycotted by Spain, which would then have to share some kind of hard or soft border with newly independent Catalonia.

Theoretically, and unless some extremely fast negotiations were successfully held, Catalonia would also be left out of all trade agreements the EU and Spain have with other parties. Likewise, the new Catalan Republic might find itself outside the United Nations and at the bottom of a long negotiating ladder to get back in.

And most worrisome to some: the Barcelona football team might not be allowed to go on playing in the Spanish La Liga. This would mean no more Clásicos until Catalonia were able to join UEFA, and FC Barcelona could then encounter Real Madrid in the Champions League or in other European competition.

But while those in the rest of Spain feeling quite anti-Catalan might smile at all this, Spain-minus-Catalonia would also be hugely affected by this so-called Catalexit.

As well as a chunk of land in its north-east corner, suddenly Spain would lose 19 per cent of its gross domestic product and 16 per cent of its population. Many, if not most, Spanish economic indices would worsen. Catalonia has a lower unemployment rate and higher GDP per capita, not to mention a higher PISA student score than the Spanish average, for example. 

Today, the Catalan region also receives a quarter of all foreign tourists flocking into Spain. It is the source of a quarter of all Spanish exports, and has received 31 per cent of foreign investment in Spain since 2011, according to official statistics.

And then, of course, Real Madrid fans would miss their Clásicos as much as FC Barcelona fans would.

Remember Companys

But football fans – as well as those supporting the unity of Spain – would have nothing to fear according to the Spanish government, which insists Catalonia will not become independent. Period.

If, after the almost universal condemnation of the police violence on referendum day a week ago, Catalan independence seemed almost unavoidable, today the tide seems to have changed.

“We are going to prevent the independence from happening,” asserted Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, in an interview with El País newspaper published last Sunday. “It’s obvious we will take any of the decisions allowed by the laws, depending on how the events keep unfolding.”

Days earlier, Rajoy had closed the door to any kind of negotiation. “The unity of Spain is not subject to to ay mediation or to any negotiation,” he asserted last Thursday after reports that the Catholic Church, several political parties, the Catalan civil society, and even former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan had tried to mediate.

If Puigdemont does declare independence, the Spanish government “will take some measures”, the deputy prime minister, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, told a Spanish radio station – “a unilateral declaration of independence) will not be unanswered”.

Neither Rajoy nor his deputy detailed what these “decisions” or “measures” might be, or whether the ultimate legal weapon in the executive’s arsenal would be used. This is the now-famous Article 155 of the constitution, which allows the central government to take over any regional administration that threatens the general interest of Spain.

“Using the 155 might mean many different things because it hasn’t been studied much,” Santamaría admitted. This article has never been invoked in the Spanish democracy, and its vague wording doesn't help when thinking of what it could mean in practice. “On the other side, there’s a fanatic and it’s up to us to apply a double dose of good judgement,” she said, referring to Puigdemont.

“Let’s not repeat history because (the Catalan leaders) may end up like Companys!” chipped in Pablo Casado, vice-secretary of communications in the governing People’s Party (PP), speaking to the media.

Lluís Companys was the Catalan PM who, on 6 October 1934, declared the first independent republic of Catalonia. But the government of Spain, then also a republic, didn’t recognise it and the military was told to retake power in Barcelona.

Following this, Companys surrendered early in the morning of the next day, and was arrested along with other members of his government in the Palace of the Generalitat, the same building where today Puigdemont sits. They were later tried and jailed.

After the leftist People’s Front’s victory in the general election in February 1936, Companys returned to government, but was forced into exile by the Spanish Civil War in 1939. One year later, Company was arrested by the German Gestapo in France, sent back to Spain and executed.

Casado, whose words were sharply criticised by all political sides but his own, also reminded his audience that the present Spanish penal code establishes prison terms of “15 years for sedition and of 25 years for rebellion”.

“Money is money”

In spite of these threats, according to some members of the Catalan government, the only option left is for it to declare independence today.

“Is there any alternative at all? The (Catalan) parliament has the sovereignty, it’s important to acknowledge this, and there’s a parliamentary majority [for independence],” said Raül Romeva, the Catalan head of foreign affairs, when asked by the public Belgian broadcaster about a possible declaration of independence. It was up to the Catalan MPs to “follow up on what the people voted”, he added.

In the Catalan parliament, the Together For Yes governing coalition (this “yes” is to independence) and its ally, the anti-capitalist and fiery pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), hold 72 of the 135 seats.

Today's announcement by Puigdemont “may not be something ambiguous”, said Carles Riera, one of the CUP deputies in the regional parliament. “As of right now, there is no doubt” that Catalonia will be declared independent, he added.

But it seems there are doubts. 

Last Sunday, TV3, the public Catalan broadcaster, sent out a press release announcing a TV interview with Puigdemont in the evening, in which the Catalan PM would say “the declaration of independence, which we don’t call a ‘unilateral’ declaration of independence, is provided by the Referendum Law as the implementation of the results. And we’ll do as the law says”.

But when TV3 did broadcast the interview later on, Puigdemont wasn’t shown saying those words.

Also last Sunday, Artur Mas, Puigdemont’s predecessor as head of the Generalitat, told the Spanish press “the debate is about how to apply in an effective way a declaration that leads to an independent state”. Mas was suspended from public office after presiding over the organisation of an informal consultation on Catalan independence back in November 2014, in which 80 per cent of voters supported the move with a turnout of 33 per cent.

We are now in a situation where one “should use a political judgement, political intelligence”, Mas added, fuelling the fears of those in the pro-separation movement who want an unambiguous declaration of independence.

Mas’s and Puigdemont’s party has a pro-business stance, and the former Catalan PM’s words followed a series of days in which more than 25 companies based in Catalonia have changed the addresses of their registered headquarters to outside the region. These include CaixaBank and Banco Sabadell, two of the biggest Spanish banks, Gas Natural Fenosa, one of the Spanish energy giants, and Aguas de Barcelona, which despite its name is now officially based in Madrid. Other companies have said they are also considering moving outside of Catalonia, while yet others have said they will do so if independence comes.

As a Catalan saying goes, la pela és la pela, meaning “money is money” and other things come after. These companies fear the legal uncertainty and the potential economic restrictions that could follow a declaration of independence.

As of right now, in practical terms, and so long as these companies don’t start closing their offices in Catalonia or firing their staff, the impact is minimal, beyond the negative image of the region this may give to investors. In Spain most taxes are centralised by Madrid, so these companies moving their registered headquarters will just result in the loss of some local taxes for Barcelona and the other Catalan cities where they were based.

Beyond the Spanish (and Catalan) borders, the European Commission has maintained its support for the Spanish government, even if it has also criticised the police response to the vote. “If there were to be a declaration of independence, it would be unilateral, and it would not be recognised,” said Nathalie Loiseau, France's minister for European affairs, in case things were not clear.

Second-class citizens united

But as if all this wasn’t enough, then there was last Sunday's demonstration in Barcelona.

This was the biggest show of force in Catalonia by pro-unity political parties and civil society alike that anyone can remember. Organisers said almost a million people had taken to the streets to protest against independence, while the local police put this figure down to about 350,000. It was huge, in any case, and there had never been as many Spanish flags in the streets of Barcelona as on Sunday. Many people had come from other Spanish regions. Most, though, were Catalans who said that up till then, they had never been able to publicly oppose independence.

“Long live Spain!” they chanted. And, “Puigdemont to jail!” And, “We are not fachas, we are Spaniards!”, fachas being a term equivalent to “fascists” and which some still apply to those ostensibly attached to Spanish values and symbols (although some others on the march made fascist salutes). The demonstrators' slogan was: “Enough! Let's get good judgement back.”

“We are Spain, we don’t want an independent Catalonia. I am Catalan because I was born here, but I feel Spanish”, said May Cumplido, 47, a sales representative, who was holding the Catalan and the Spanish flags together in a way that each side showed one of them. “We were repressed, we shut up to avoid conflicts with our neighbours,” she added. “We feel like second class citizens,” said her companion, Joaquín García, 49 and also a sales representative.

They had come with some friends from Sant Andreu de la Barca, a town in Barcelona province where the biggest quarters of the Guardia Civil in Catalonia are based. They told stories of friends and families being divided over this issue in the last weeks, of people leaving WhatsApp groups and deleting friends from Facebook, and of the conflict dividing even schoolchildren.

“Maybe those who are pro-independence don’t know the richness and beauty of Spain,” said Cumplido. “What I always say is: not to violence and not to independence,” said García.

At the end of the march, Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian-born writer and Nobel Prize in Literature winner who also holds the Spanish nationality, and Josep Borrell, a Catalan socialist politician who was the president of the European Parliament, made the official speeches calling for an end to this process and for the constitution and the unity of Spain to be respected.

The demonstration, the big numbers of which took everyone by surprise, was almost peaceful except for a few isolated incidents, and seems to have changed something in the atmosphere. More official Catalan flags – those not starred unlike the pro-independence one – and even Spanish ones could be seen hanging from windows and balconies in Barcelona.

Historical days

“We usually abuse the adjective 'historic', but I think 1 October did mark a historic day, if by this we mean that things will never be the way they were the day before,” said Agustí Alcoberro, professor of history at Barcelona University and a former director of the Museum of Catalan History.

Alcoberro says that ever since 1714, when King Philip V abolished the Catalan institutions and banned the language after the War of the Spanish Succession, Castilian Spain has imposed its will by force onto Catalonia. That coercion, he argues, has lasted until today in spite of the present democratic regime and the high level of Catalan self-government.

“I don't know how this will end, but I do know that the model of the Spanish state divided in several autonomous regions, which came to be with the 1978 Constitution is going to disappear,” he added, now echoing what many do think, including among those opposed to Catalan independence.

Facing the abyss

While both sides have their political daggers drawn, currently it would seem that the Spanish government has the upper hand as we await this evening's showdown.

The Catalan National Assembly, one of the main civil organisations behind the pro-independence campaign and referendum, called yesterday on citizens to gather in front of the Catalan parliament by 6pm. “The people have spoken and said YES to independence. Now, let’s declare it,” said the Assembly on its Twitter account.

“I think everyone is willing to take to the streets, the police will charge, I don't know what we'll do, but will (the Spanish authorities) call the army and shoot at us?”, wondered Víctor Rubinat, 40, and who is one of the 15 per cent who have always been pro-independence, according to polls before the present political process began in earnest in 2010.

“You look at the process and we are in the middle. You look back and you see the Spanish state chasing you with batons and laws they impose on us even if we disagree. You look ahead and you see an abyss. You look back again and you say, 'I prefer to go into the abyss'”, said Rubinat, who is an online developer.

As minutes and hours go by, everyone is looking toward the Catalan parliament, in the Park of the Ciutadella in Barcelona city centre. The surrounding area was yesterday already cordoned off by the local police.

Whatever happens inside and outside the building today, it is indeed difficult to see how things could go back to how they were before these past few weeks.