What you need to know to catch up on Catalonia’s convoluted bid for independence

Now what?
Now what?
Image: Reuters/Eloy Alonso
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Catalonia’s push for independence from Spain is getting messier by the day.

Given that there’s 1,000 years of history underlying this fight, its complexity is unsurprising. It’s been almost a month since Catalans voted for independence in a referendum that Spain’s central government considered illegal. Later this week, the regional parliament of Catalonia will meet to figure out the next move. Meanwhile, the national government in Madrid must decide to what extent it wants to take away the autonomy Catalonia currently has.

Whatever happens this week, the standoff won’t be resolved soon. What will bring an end to the impasse? Nobody is quite sure. But let’s get you up to speed on where things stand now, and some of the most likely scenarios for the future.

How did we get here?

On Oct. 1, Catalonia held an independence referendum that the Spanish government declared illegal and undemocratic. (How? Why? Read this.) Still, more than two million people showed up to vote and were met by Spanish police determined to stop them. Hundreds of people were injured as police physically dragged them from makeshift polling stations. The next day, the Catalan government announced that 90% of voters opted for independence, but overall turnout was only around 42%. 

On Oct. 5, Spain’s Constitutional Court stepped in to suspend a Catalan parliament session, which could have been used to officially declare independence. The session eventually went ahead on Oct. 10, during which Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said the region had won the right to independence, but then declined to make a formal declaration. Spain wasn’t sure what that meant so prime minister Mariano Rajoy told Puigdemont to clarify his intentions. Puigdemont then missed two deadlines from Madrid to spell out whether the region was declaring independence or not, and instead sent a letter requesting time for “dialogue.”

Sticking to his own schedule, Rajoy activated Article 155 of the Spanish constitution on Oct. 21. This gives Madrid the power to dissolve the regional government in Catalonia, assume control of its functions, and call a new election. The catch: it’s never been used before, so there is no guide to what invoking it means in practice. Formally triggering the article needs to pass the Senate in Madrid, which is underway now. Puigdemont has dubbed this one of the “worst attacks against the people of Catalonia” since Spain’s military dictatorship under Francisco Franco.

What happens next?

Excellent question. “Predicting is extremely hard,” says Antonio Barroso, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. Invoking Article 155 has pushed Spain into uncharted waters, but on Oct. 26 and 27 both the Catalan parliament and Spanish Senate could make important decisions that may end or prolong the standoff.

First up, on Thursday Oct. 26, the Catalan parliament will meet to discuss their response to Article 155. The two most likely scenarios are that either Puigdemont declares independence or he instead calls for early regional elections. Remember, Puigdemont still hasn’t formally confirmed to Madrid whether his Oct. 10 speech was a declaration or not.

Puigdemont is facing a lot of pressure from all sides, including the media and businesses, in favor of both outcomes. As Barroso explains, “Puigdemont is always playing a two-level game. He’s playing one game with Spain,” which basically goes if you don’t sit with us and talk about the referendum, I’m going to continue pushing for independence. “And there’s a second-level game happening between the different elements of the pro-independence movement,” Barroso adds. These factions include left-wingers and anti-capitalists who all want different things. Puigdemont needs to keep them united to keep the pro-independence movement that supports his party alive.

Meanwhile, at the same time the Spanish Senate committee deciding on Article 155 proposals are meeting in Madrid. Puigdemont has been invited to appear on Thursday and explain his case. Will he go? Is it even feasible for him to attend the Catalan parliament sessions and the Spanish Senate committee on the same day? Either way, the committee in Madrid will finalize its proposals and a vote will be held on Friday.

If Puigdemont declares independence on Thursday then Rajoy would go for a “full-blown implementation” of Article 155, says Barroso. This could involve suspending Puigdemont’s position, that of the other ministers, issuing all orders on regional affairs from Madrid, taking control of the local police and public broadcaster, and then calling for new regional elections in January. 

Or, Puigdemont could pre-empt this and call for early elections himself, hoping that his pro-independence coalition would expand its power in the regional parliament. If he plans to go to the Senate in Madrid, then he probably wouldn’t call them before that. Otherwise, he might wait until after going to the Senate but before the Senate’s vote on Article 155 on Friday, says Alfonso Tamames, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). “It’s a very tight timeline,” he adds.

If Puigdemont calls elections, then the Spanish Senate might reconsider its application of Article 155. For example, it might not make sense to plan for elections in Catalonia when elections have already been called.

So, to recap: Puigdemont could declare independence and Spain could take total control of Catalonia using Article 155. Or, Puigdemont could call early elections, sowing some confusion for Spain, which would nonetheless likely apply some aspects of Article 155 regardless. “I think these are the two scenarios,” says Teneo’s Barroso. “I know they are not very clear but that’s what we have right now.”

Of course, Puigdemont could declare independence and call early elections, in an effort to satisfy all the wings of the separatist movement. Or, he could simply sit tight and make no definitive decisions until the Senate in Madrid reveals its hand.

Then what?

The EIU expects some form of implementation of Article 155 to happen on Friday, Tamames said. Given how much momentum the independence movement has gained in the past few months, it’s unlikely either side will totally back down. But Article 155 is untested and just because powers are granted to the Spanish government it doesn’t mean they have to use them immediately.

Ultimately, the EIU still believes that independence is highly unlikely for a variety of reasons. This  view is shared by Teneo. Barroso says some of the separatists want to create as much noise as possible and get international support by creating the impression they are repressed by Spain. However, “they know independence right now is absolutely impossible,” he adds. “It’s not viable because there is no support from the EU and no support from any of the major powers in the world.”

This week will be important but it’s unlikely to produce anything close to a clear solution. Regional elections, which seem certain to happen before long, could result in a new Catalonian government with an even stronger mandate for secession. And then we are back to wondering what comes next.