It was former British Prime Minister Harold Wilson who famously declared ” a week is a long time in politics”. The past week in Catalonia has proved Sir Harold’s observation unerringly correct as, once again, events in Barcelona have taken an unexpected twist less than a month after Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy set the date for the country’s general election.
With voters across the country set to go to the polls on December 20, an announcement by the president of the new Catalan parliament stunned political observers in Spain and across Europe earlier this week . On Tuesday Carme Forcadell, new president of Catalonia’s parliament. issued what is being viewed as a unilateral declaration of independence. Speaking in the assembly, Ms Forcadell presented a resolution which stated “the beginning of a process of the creation of an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic”. While the Madrid government naturally views this as an antagonistic and bullish response from secessionist parties to last month’s Catalan parliamentary elections, pro-unionist factions in the Catalan parliament are also alarmed by what they perceive as an attempted coup d’etat.
Examined more closely, however, it is perhaps possible to see the root cause of pro-independence motions here. With a central government in Madrid proving once again intransigent in the face of secessionist entreaties, Catalan leaders appear to have opted for the unilateral route out of sheer frustration. Indeed, Ms. Forcadell argued that the courts in Madrid have been “delegitimised”, while “the process of democratic disconnection [from Spain] will not be subject to decisions made by the institutions of the Spanish state and in particular the constitutional court”.
Meanwhile, The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, has so far proved unflappable in his opposition to demands for a Catalan independence referendum, stating once again this week “As long as I am president of a nation of free and equal citizens, justice will prevail over unreason.”. Mr. Rajoy is also keen to invoke the settlement made among all Spanish regions, in the form of the constitution, instituted shortly after Franco’s death in 1975 when democracy was restored. Referring to the post-Fascist era pact once again this week, Mr. Rajoy stated that he would utilize“all political and judicial mechanisms in defence of the common good and the sovereignty of Spain as laid down in the constitution”.
The end game for the secessionists is not only independence however, but of a Catalan state within the European Union. On this issue, as in others, it would appear that they are at the mercy of Madrid. As Mark Naylor observed in The Spectator this week, the relevant articles of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty would need to be tweaked and approved by the Spanish state, something which, as of now, seems highly unlikely:
“For an independent Catalonia seeking continued membership of the EU, there would be two options, as there would have been if Scotland had split from the UK. One would be for Spain to seek amendment of relevant EU treaties, while Catalonia was still part of an EU member state, to allow the province continued membership of the bloc after secession – a move that some maintain is permitted under Article 48 of the Lisbon Treaty. The other would be for Catalonia to leave the EU, for an unspecified amount of time, and re-apply for membership under Article 49 of the Treaty. The first option would constitute an unprecedented use of Article 48 and the second would be a long and fraught process: Croatia’s eventually-successful application for EU membership, for example, was a ten-year affair. The fundamental problem with either route, though, can be stated in one word: Madrid. The current Spanish government would refuse to apply for amendments to Article 48, and Catalonia would probably be unable to apply unilaterally. An application to re-join the EU after secession, under Article 49, would require the approval of all 28 member states, and Mariano Rajoy’s Popular Party has vowed that it would vehemently oppose an independent Catalonia’s attempts to re-join the EU.”
Artur Mas, the Catalan Prime Minster, is by his own admission an unlikely nationalist, having been converted to the cause in 2006. It was in the face of continued intransigence from the Madrid national leadership that he eventually moved over to the cause of secessionism. Mistrusted by political opponents – Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo referred to him as “the technocrat who turned into the Catalan Odysseus”, while leader of the Spanish socialists Pedro Sanchez dubbed him a “swindler” – Mas nonetheless believes the relationship between Catalonia and Castile is far removed from the reciprocal ideals of democracy and negotiation. In a Guardian article written earlier in the month, he observed ” Our hands are extended, yet the fist in Madrid is never unclenched’.
What is certain is that the upcoming Spanish general election will not be short of spice. Aside from the Catalan issue, the country’s two main enduring parties – the Popular Party of Prime Minister Rajoy and the opposition socialists PSOE – will have opposition snapping at their heels in the form of the Left-wing Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos. A different political landscape in Madrid, with Podemos sympathetic to a Catalan independence referendum, might just be the catalyst for changes in Catalonia and in Spain.