Catalan Referendum, Despite the Racket, Unlikely to Provide Clarity (9/27)     Print Email

ryan barnes photo 2By Ryan Barnes, Washington DC

Seized ballots, police raids, counter protests – Catalan separatists and the Spanish state are hurtling toward the proposed October 1st referendum on independence in Catalonia. The political truce in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Catalonia has been short-lived. The centuries-old tussle between Barcelona and Madrid has taken on a new dynamic with the Catalan regional government’s initiative to hold a vote on seceding from Spain.

The Spanish Government cites the rule of law, calling the referendum illegal and utilizing the state apparatus to try and halt the vote. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy observed that Catalan lawmakers had “invented a new legal order.”[1] Madrid points out that Article II of the 1978 constitution explicitly refers to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation”. Cracking down on what it deems an unconstitutional act, the central government has ordered raids on Catalan regional government offices, the arrest of officials, the confiscation of referendum materials, and the blocking of some websites related to the referendum.

The Catalan regional government, for its part, has invoked democracy and self-determination, promising to defy Madrid and pay any price to give its constituents a voice. Carles Puigdemont, Catalan President, has declared that the referendum “will proceed because it has the support of the immense majority of the population.”[2] Neither side seems likely to blink first.

Madrid will continue to do all that it can to deter the referendum, including fining organizers and withholding funds. PM Rajoy has cancelled his visit to Estonia – he was due to fly from Washington to Tallinn – to tend to the crisis.  But the central government may ultimately be powerless to stop some people from voting. Recent data shows a divided populace on the issue. A July poll from the Center for Opinion Studies (CEO) showed 49.4 percent against independence and 41.4 percent in favor. [3]

If the vote does come off, the separatists would likely win by a large margin. But “victory” would probably be marred by low turnout, particularly from moderates and anti-secessionist voters, and thus a lack of legitimacy. In an informal referendum in 2014, 80 percent of participants backed independence, but with a turnout of just over 40 percent. While some Catalan officials have pledged to verify the outcome shortly after the referendum, they will have trouble making it stick for the reasons above.

Regardless of the outcome, the referendum does not appear to have had much impact yet on the rest of Europe. Secessionists in Scotland and Flanders are seemingly at bay for the moment. The Scottish National Party has not been able to fully rebound from their own failed 2014 referendum, losing seats in the most recent election in Britain. And there has not been much movement lately in Belgium for the Flemish separatists.

Despite a recent full court press by the Catalan regional government in foreign media outlets – Puigdemont has written op-eds in the Guardian and Washington Post and gave an interview to Le Monde – Barcelona has not received much official support from other capitals. The EU has largely offered an officially neutral stance on the referendum. European Commission chief spokesperson, Margaritis Schinas, recently stated, “We are respecting the Spanish constitutional order”.[4] Neither the EU, nor any of its member states, many of which have their own separatist elements at home, have been publicly open to letting an independent Catalonia accede to the EU in the future, despite many Catalan overtures.

Both sides will likely be in a similar position as before the referendum crisis started. Cooler heads could prevail, with the intense standoff providing an opening for renewed negotiations. Each side would have to give a little bit. Madrid could provide some carrots, likely in the form of increased financial autonomy – some of the separatist sentiment stems from the desire for relatively affluent Catalonia to control more of the funds it transfers to poorer regions in Spain (estimated at roughly 10 billion euros annually) – and Barcelona could forgo the push for independence for now.[5] As some analysts have pointed out, the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, which was approved by all parties and then struck down by the Constitutional Court in 2010, may provide some basis for agreement. This issue is not going away anytime soon.

Ryan Barnes is Senior International Trade Specialist, U.S. Department of Commerce. Views expressed here are those of Ryan Barnes and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.