Give me a crash course in… Catalonia

There were bloody scenes as riot police broke into polling stations wielding batons and dragging voters away during referendum

Protesters hold a giant Catalan pro-independence ‘Estelada’ flag during a demonstration at the Placa de la Universitat square in Barcelona during a general strike in Catalonia called by Catalan unions on October 3rd. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

Protesters hold a giant Catalan pro-independence ‘Estelada’ flag during a demonstration at the Placa de la Universitat square in Barcelona during a general strike in Catalonia called by Catalan unions on October 3rd. Photograph: Pau Barrena/AFP/Getty Images

 

1. What is happening in Catalonia?

The nationalist-controlled regional parliament plans to issue a declaration of independence from Spain in the coming days, possibly as soon as Monday. This follows a referendum held on October 1st in which around 90 percent of participants voted in favour of secession (although the turnout was only around 40 percent). The Spanish government, meanwhile, says that it will do whatever it takes to prevent the independence plan from going any further.

2. Why so much fuss about a referendum?

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy deemed the vote illegal, saying the constitution does not allow for any kind of referendum on secession by a region. The constitutional court has backed his position, as has King Felipe, who reprimanded the separatists in a stern speech on Tuesday.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont disagrees, arguing not only is it legal to hold a referendum, but it is a democratic right of any people. In the build-up to the vote Spanish police seized millions of voting slips, arrested Catalan government officials and took control of part of the regional government’s finances. On the day itself, there were bloody scenes as riot police broke into polling stations wielding batons and dragging voters away, further damaging the already poor relationship between Madrid and Catalonia.

3. Why did Catalans want a referendum in the first place?

Several reasons. They have the biggest economy of any of Spain’s 17 regions, but argue that they pay a great deal more to the national coffers in taxes than they receive back in investment. Also, they complain that although they were granted substantial autonomous powers by Spain’s constitution, Madrid is intent on reeling those back in, with the courts regularly reversing laws approved by the Catalan parliament.

There is a feeling among many pro-independence Catalans that Spain – and Rajoy’s government, in particular – is unsympathetic to their culture and language. In addition, there are many Catalans, particularly in the region’s heartlands, who simply do not feel any emotional attachment to Spain.

4. Do all Catalans want independence?

Not at all. In fact polls over recent years have frequently shown that those who want independence are outnumbered by unionists, but the secessionist movement is much more organised and vocal. The referendum result did not represent most of those who oppose independence who stayed at home. However, around 80 percent of Catalans want their region to stage a negotiated referendum on their future, similar to that of Scotland in 2014.

5. Can’t they sit down and talk about it?

The Catalan government says it has repeatedly offered to negotiate but that Rajoy never accepts. The Spanish government has always ruled out holding a referendum and now says it cannot consider negotiations with the threat of a unilateral declaration of independence hanging over it. The EU appears to have decided not to get involved, at least for the moment. However, other domestic parties are working to convince both sides to sit down. There are reports that the Catholic Church might mediate.

6. So what happens next?

The constitutional court has suspended Monday’s scheduled session of the regional parliament, where pro-independence parties had planned to meet, quite possibly to approve an independence motion. The Spanish government is also considering triggering Article 155 of the constitution, which would give it the power to suspend Catalonia’s autonomous powers. However, both moves are likely to cause the crisis to escalate. With thousands of Spanish police currently deployed to the region, there are concerns that Spain’s deepest political crisis for decades could turn even uglier.