As Catalonia’s disputed independence referendum on October 1st descended into widespread violence, it has become clear this crisis over Spanish unity is like none other. So much so that the resulting political stand-off between President Carles Puigdemont’s devolved government in Catalonia and the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s central government in Madrid risks plunging Spain into its greatest national crisis since the failed military coup of 1981. With Puigdemont now looking to call a unilateral declaration of independence this Monday, it is looking increasingly unlikely this crisis will conclude with a peaceful and mutually-beneficial resolution.
For example, we have already seen mass protests and violence on the day of the vote which saw over 800 civilians sustain injuries from baton attacks to rubber bullets. The ruling conservative Popular Party in Madrid may argue those measures were justifiable to defend the constitution, but that means little when in real terms their actions have only caused them to lose the moral-high ground and inflame tensions further. An alternative and more pragmatic approach would have been to continue their initial position of exposing the votes illegality through rhetoric. That way the vote would have gone ahead peacefully. If the independence movement was deemed to have won, Rajoy could re-emphasise that it was never legal in the first place and thus non-binding. However, by trying to quash the vote through what Amnesty International described as an ‘excessive and unnecessary use of force,’ they incited international outrage and galvanized support for the separatists.
What makes matters worse is the missed opportunities for de-escalation. The obvious mediator to negotiate through such a crisis is the European Union. After all, they represent the 7.5 million EU citizens of Catalonia. Further, EU inaction towards a separatist movement in one of its member states is hardly a display of strength and confidence in arguably one of the unions most testing times. Regardless of this, key figures such as Jean-Claude Junker and Emmanuel Macron are reluctant to involve themselves, arguing it is an internal affair for the Spanish people, despite calls from both the separatist and unionist groups for EU engagement. Consequently, Spain is robbed of its best way out. Moreover, King Felipe VI, a national figurehead who has the influence to ease tensions, did little to rekindle national identity. In a televised announcement, the King described the independence attempt as ‘unacceptable,’ adding that Puigdemont’s government had placed itself outside democracy and the law. Puigdemont and Catalonians responded with outrage to this with the President defiantly claiming that the King is merely a mouthpiece for the Spanish government.
Another crucial point which does not bode well for a peaceful resolution is Rajoy’s threat of initiating Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution which stipulates that Madrid can revoke all regional powers from Catalonia at any point. Puigdemont has already declared any attempt to activate this as the ‘ultimate mistake’ and with the emotional and violent displays of force on October 1st evident, it is unclear whether any form of de-escalation is forthcoming.