Two unprecedented events in one historic day

Last Friday saw a turning point for Spain’s constitutional crisis with Catalonia. In the early afternoon of October 27th, the Catalan government held an extraordinary parliamentary session to vote for a unilateral declaration of independence, following the results of a referendum held on October 1st where 90% of voters voted for a Catalan Republic, on a turnout of 43.2%.

Catalan President Puigdemont had called for dialogue with the Spanish government in a televised address on October 10th, but, after deeming there were insufficient guarantees by the Spanish government on Thursday 26th, he decided to convene a parliamentary gathering for the following day. During the session, 70 out of 135 MPs voted in favour of the declaration of independence in a secret ballot, votes that came from Puigdemont’s Together for Yes (Junts x Sí) party, but also from the anti-system party CUP. Both parties have depended on each other for the past two years to hold onto a fragile majority in Parliament that supports independence. With half of the Parliament empty – the session having been boycotted by three of Catalonia’s opposition parties – the declaration of independence looked almost comical.

As the television cameras showed the members of the session starting to clap and pro-independence demonstrators outside the Catalan Parliament beginning to cheer, the images were replaced by a more sombre scene in Madrid. The Spanish Senate, controlled by Spanish President Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (PP), had simultaneously been holding an extraordinary session to vote in favour of implementing Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, a measure designed to suspend a region’s autonomy and implement direct rule should a regional government “fail to comply with the obligations of the Constitution or other laws it imposes, or act in a way that seriously undermines the interests of Spain.”

This move, approved a week earlier by the state’s Council of Ministers and then by the Spanish Senate on Friday, had not been triggered since Spain became a democracy in 1975. In an equally sombre press conference, Rajoy announced that the government had dissolved the Catalan parliament, dismissed the region’s President, the Vice-President, and its Ministers (the Consellers), suspended the Catalan government’s delegations abroad (aside from Brussels), and sacked the Chief of Catalonia’s national police, the Mossos d’Esquadra. Rajoy also announced that snap parliamentary elections are to be held on December 21st, and later invited the pro-independence factions to participate.

Catalonia’s leaders have, for the most part, complied with these measures. Monday saw Puigdemont and a cohort of his advisers leave for Brussels, amid fears of arrest and charges of rebellion and sedition that could carry up to 30 years in prison. During a press conference on Tuesday morning from Brussels’ Press Club, Puigdemont noted that he was not in Belgium to seek political asylum, but to work for “freedom and security.” He also called for a clear commitment from the state to uphold the results of the December 21st elections, should pro-independence parties win. Yesterday, a study published by Catalonia’s own Centre of Opinion Studies shows that independence now has record support from Catalans, with 48.7% of people favouring independence against the 43.6% of Catalans who do not. 

What this means

The crisis in Catalonia has made headlines around the world. People outside of Catalonia and Spain are worried, and they should be. Ever since the referendum on October 1st, this month’s events in the region have been marked by civil unrest.  Most notably, this has taken the form of massive demonstrations in Barcelona either in favour or against independence but there have also been big corporate changes which  have disturbed Catalonia’s economy, with over 1800 companies in the region changing their headquarters from Barcelona to cities elsewhere  in Spain. Although this really means that some top corporate decisions will now be made elsewhere, these moves have sent shockwaves through the region, amid fears that these companies’ next step could very well entail moving their workforce to the rest of Spain. Immediately following the declaration of independence, Spain’s financial market, the Ibex 35, went down 1.9% in the afternoon, with Catalonia’s banks being the worst hit. The markets reflect a reality not before seen in Catalonia, which demonstrates tensions are running extremely high. People are worried about their jobs, about opportunities beginning to dwindle, and about Barcelona becoming a less than desirable tourist destination given the worsening political situation. Growing security concerns resulting from this past August’s terror attacks in the Catalan capital have not helped on the tourism front. 

The effects of implementing Article 155 on the region are likely to be minimal, given parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in less than two months. Companies may still halt their plans to change the location of their headquarters elsewhere as there is now the possibility that ‘normality’ may be resumed following the elections. Civil unrest is likely to continue, especially if some of Catalonia’s ministers or the Generalitat’s workers are arrested if they attempt to continue their work. The fact that Puigdemont is now out of Catalonia has likely quenched the flames of independence, at least for a short while. 

A very absent Europe

At a time when Europe’s institutions are being challenged by the forces of Brexit and continent-wide populist sentiment, Europe continues to dismiss the Catalan question as an internal, domestic affair. In my view, and in the view of many others Catalans, it should treat the Catalan crisis for what it is: a European crisis. Although it is unclear whether self-rule is something that all peoples should have the right to, it should certainly be clear that freedom of expression and freedom to vote are basic, inalienable rights that we should all have access to. The violence from the Spanish national police force that marred the independence referendum on October 1st challenged Europe’s principles of democracy, but Europe remained silent. When the state jailed two organisers of a night-long protest at the Ministry of Economy, following a raid by Spanish police a few days ahead of the referendum, Europe still remained silent. When the Catalan government asked the EU to be a mediator between Catalonia and Spain during the unfolding crisis, Europe decided to turn a blind eye, prompting protestors in Barcelona to chant “Where is Europe?!”

In the weeks to come, I believe Europe must be there for all Catalans, as European citizens. That includes Catalans that want independence, but also those that do not. Puigdemont’s government has never had the democratic mandate to make a unilateral declaration of independence, no matter how many “guarantees” were lacking from the Spanish government. In my view, the Catalan government’s mistake for far too long has been to rule only for a minority that seeks independence, leaving everyone else behind in the process. Furthermore, many struggle to understand how a region encompassing one fifth of Spain’s economy can simply break the law and drive a prosperous region and open-minded society into illegality and chaos, which not only has had an effect on all Catalans, but also on all Spaniards.

The Catalan and Spanish governments have been at loggerheads for years, neither willing to concede to considerations and demands from the other. Europe, and specifically Brussels, had an opportunity to lead and mediate in this crisis, but it has failed miserably. Now that the Catalan crisis is starting to boil over, there is a fresh opportunity for dialogue until December 21st, when the pro-independence parties could very well claim victory once more. If that were to happen, one can only hope that Europe will rise to the challenge and respond differently to the way it has done during this past month. If it fails a second time running, the consequences may be even greater for Catalonia, Spain and the rest of Europe.

For more information

Please watch the following three things video on Catalonia’s declaration of independence.


Alexia Faus Onbargi
Alexia Faus

Alexia Faus is a project assistant in APCO’s London office. Read More