Democracy Dies in Darkness

WorldViews | Analysis

Catalonia poses a real crisis for both Spain and Europe

By Ishaan Tharoor

October 5, 2017 at 1:00 AM

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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.”

Anti-independence demonstrators wave Spanish flags in Barcelona on Oct. 4. (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

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.

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Spain's prime minister vowed Oct. 21 to sack Catalonia's leaders. (The Washington Post)

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.

Carles Puigdemont, Catalonia's regional president and a leading advocate for secession, addressed the king Wednesday night, saying the monarch “disappointed many people in Catalonia who appreciate you and are expecting a call to dialogue.” In earlier remarks, Puigdemont cast his region's plight as that of an oppressed fledgling democracy chafing against repression.

“The Spanish government is letting political opponents be arrested, it is influencing media and blocking Internet sites. We are under observation day and night,” said Puigdemont. “What is that other than an authoritarian state?”

Speculation now moves to whether Rajoy will invoke what's seen as a “nuclear option”: Invoking Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which would give Madrid the authority to dissolve the Catalan parliament now led by Puigdemont. But in doing so, Rajoy risks his own political future: His fragile minority government could face a backlash and potentially lose a vote of confidence in parliament. Catalonia's silent majority of people who aren't necessarily in favor of independence could start changing their minds.

The crisis is being closely watched elsewhere in Europe. Various politicians have already sided with Madrid or have referred to the matter as a purely Spanish affair. But as the showdown intensifies, they may not be able to look the other way should chaos break out in one of the more beloved corners of the continent.

“If this were Crimea, say, or friendless, penniless Greece, Angela Merkel would be in full mediation mode by now,” wrote Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall. “But when it comes to Catalonia, Germany’s chancellor, whose [own party] is allied with Spain’s ruling party, is otherwise engaged.” So, too, is French President Emmanuel Macron, who, in a major speech last week, energetically championed a more “integrated Europe” — a call echoed by Catalonia’s secessionists, who are fiercely pro-Brussels  — yet said he supported Spain’s “constitutional unity” this week.

To be fair, no Western European leader is going to speak up for separatists in another Western European country. But the standoff between Barcelona and Madrid betrays the complex tensions boiling within Europe — a mess of cosmopolitan ideals, nationalist agendas and regional aspirations for more direct governance.

“The Catalonia referendum has deepened cracks in the E.U.’s plan for greater integration, driving debate around identity across the continent,” noted economist Franz Buscha.

“The E.U. has set itself the goal of countering rising illiberalism and nationalism, and it’s struggling,” wrote French journalist and commentator Natalie Nougayrède. “The Catalan crisis exposes its political limits and its difficulty in making citizens understand how it functions. For Europe, as for Spanish democracy, this is a major test.”

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.


Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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