The Catalan independence crisis feels intractable. Ministers who defied the Spanish Constitutional Court to organize an independence referendum on October 1 have been jailed. The government in Madrid has dissolved the regional administration after the administration claimed the referendum as a mandate to break away. Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, has fled to Belgium.
Snap elections scheduled for December 21 are unlikely to break the deadlock. Polls show Puigdemont’s center-right separatist party losing support to hardliners, but the balance between pro- and anti-independence parties would be virtually unchanged.
That means the two sides could find themselves back at square one in the New Year.
Spanish attempts to suppress Catalan separatism have backfired. Since the government sent in the national police to disrupt the October 1 referendum (the regional police force largely refused to intervene), provoking clashes with voters in some cities and towns, Catalan support for secession has increased from 41 to 49 percent, according to the latest official survey. Only 43 percent want to stay in Spain anymore, down from 49 percent in June.
But public opinion becomes more fluid when Catalans are given more than two options.
Add becoming a federal state of Spain as a third option and support for independence falls to 40 percent.
That is still higher than it was during the summer, but the combined share of Catalans who are content with the status quo or want Spain to become a federation is larger: almost 50 percent.
This suggests there is still a way out of the crisis: the promise of more autonomy for the region could probably convince the majority of Catalans they are better off remaining Spanish after all.
Warnings from European leaders that leaving Spain would mean giving up and reapplying for EU membership—something the separatists don’t like to talk about—are also causing Catalan nationalists to think twice about secession.
Autonomy is what 78 percent of Catalans voted for in 2006, when they were asked in a referendum to approve a statute that had been decades in the making. It formalized the region’s self-government, giving it back the rights and privileges it had lost under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.
Current Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party—then in opposition, now in government—felt the autonomy statute went too far. It appealed to the Constitutional Court, the same body that ruled the October 1 referendum illegal. In 2010, it overturned Catalonia’s fiscal autonomy and determined that its description as a “nation” had no legal standing.
Mass protests erupted in Barcelona. Starting that year, more than a million people, out of a population of 7.5 million, would take to the streets annually to demonstrate for self-determination and ultimately independence.
Rajoy ignored the protests. When he got into power, Catalan leaders asked for talks in order to rectify the Constitutional Court’s ruling. He rebuffed them. When Catalan elections returned a regional parliament in favor of breaking away from Spain, Rajoy still wouldn’t talk. Even now, six years into his premiership, Rajoy has not once negotiated with the Catalans. As he sees it, there is nothing to negotiate.
This needs to change. Curtailing Catalan autonomy and refusing negotiations has only radicalized the independence movement. Separatist hardliners in Catalonia have taken advantage of Rajoy’s intransigence to press their case. They can now credibly claim that so long as the People’s Party rules in Madrid, Catalan self-rule will be at risk. Better to break away than lose more powers.
Catalan suspicions are the reason Rajoy must blink first. Promising to return self-government to the winners of the December election, whoever they might be, might just convince Catalans who are wary of independence to support moderates, like Puigdemont’s pro-business party or the soft left, instead of hardliners. Starting a process of constitutional reform, as proposed by the opposition Socialist Party, could give Catalans a legal pathway to expand their autonomy.
The challenge is not browbeating the Catalans into submission, but rather convincing those who feel separate from Spain but fear the consequences of leaving it that there is still a future for them in the country. Is Rajoy up to the task?
Nick Ottens is the owner of the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel.