Catalonia Referendum : The Train Crash Has Happened. What Now?

Catalonia referendum

Joan Tapia (Barcelona) | Months, even years, have gone by during which we analysts have warned about the increasing possibility of a train crash between the Spanish and Catalan governments.

We would point out that the Catalan independence movement was a relatively recent phenomenon – backing for it amongst public opinion rose from levels of below 25% in 2004 to 47.8% in the Catalan elections in 2015. But it was a relevant one, boosted significantly after the Constitutional Court’s ruling on the 2006 Estatut which did not emerge until 2010.

The Madrid establishment should not underestimate it. The PSOE could not continue being tormented by the fear of an accusation that they were “not very patriotic”. As for the PP, they made a big mistake with their campaign against the Estatut and their appeal about the unconstitutionality of something already approved in a referendum. Furthermore, they did not take advantage of their absolute majority in 2011 to put some antiseptic on the Catalan wound of disaffection, which the President of the Generalitat, Jose Montilla, had already warned them about. He was the only non-nationalist, along with Pasqual Maragall, who had taken over that responsability.

So now the train crash has happened. It’s true that Rajoy – and the deputy prime minister – have been more concerned about the conflict (and with a more pragmatic focus) since Rajoy’s swearing in last year. And they have tried to build bridges. But it’s all been too late. Independence had already got a head start and didn’t want, or didn’t know how to rectify or modulate its attitude. It preferred the train crash.

The separatist movement isn’t holding the best cards. The latest survey by the CEO (the Generalitat’s equivalent to the CIS) puts support for it at 41% compared with 49% for the non-separatists. So, according to an institution which no-one has any suspicions about in terms of its “Spanishness”, a moderate setback compared with the 2015 elections. Whatsmore, the two separation laws – the one regarding the referendum and the one regarding disconnection – were approved only by the votes of 72 MPs (those of the Junts pel Si party and those of CUP) and by the final abstention of another 52 MPs who outrightly rejected the laws.

All this indicates that the separatist leaders have lost their sense of reality. They are not just jumping over the Spanish Constitution – and the warnings from the Constitutional court – but also the Estatut itself, which sets out that there must be a qualified majority of two thirds (90 MPs) to pass any reform. And to repeal it – something which is much more relevant – would 72 be enough? Madness.

There might be some hostility in the train crash. The separatist movement has voted on the two laws in the Parlament  – which was a bit ridiculous since the lawyers there had warned they were illegal – and the Generalitat has already asked the town councils for premises for the referendum on October 1. For its part, the Constitutional Court has suspended the laws and the call, at the request of the government.Furthermore, the public prosecutor’s office has opened legal proceedings against the Catalan government and the Parlament’s Bureau.

So how will this conflict end up? In the long-term, it’s impossible to predict because – as Keynes said – we’ll all be dead. And in the short-term? This is the title of the analysis written by the Financial Times’ European editor Tony Barber: “Catalonia’s independence is still a distant dream.”  Barber’s argument highlights the legal and financial weapons the Madrid goverment has, the lack of visible complicity in other European countries, the fact the population is divided, as confirmed by the CEO survey, and the absence of any enthusiam in the business world.

It’s a good analysis. But the fact that there is no independence in the short-term, doesn’t mean that the train crash is not going to have consequences in the medium-term. The Spanish government has said it will block the referendum and if the means used are judged to be excessive by the population – we are not saying that if there was violence it could be attributed to Madrid’s attitude – it’s possible the independence cause will win supporters. And this would have consequences. Perhaps this is what some separatist leaders are hoping for, calculating that, which is always dangerous, “the worse it is, the better”.

It’s also true that if the referendum doesn’t not only produce independence but that the occasional protests – although they may be strong – don’t alter the normality, the movement would lose credibility. It had been seen as a paper tiger. This should be a cause for concern in Madrid. Independence has burned its boat, and it can’t afford to make a fool of itself, then…

There are lots of incognitos and the attitude of the city councils could be decisive. Some will be decidely in favour. Others – governed by socialist mayors (the PP and Ciudadanos don’t have a lot of power in the municipalities) like L’Hospitalet, Tarragona and Lleida – will not. Many of them, sometimes the result of coalitions, will have doubts. What Barcelona does, governed in a minority by Ada Colau, allied with the PSC, will be relevant. Colau has already said that she doesn’t believe it’s a real referendum but sympathises with it as a protest movement. It seems as if it will be decided according to the legal dictamen which has been requested from the municipal secretary.

It’s difficult for the referendum to be a success, but if the independence  movement manages to get enough ballot boxes out there and more than 2.3 million people (the figure from the participating survey of 9-N 2014) vote, it will be a victory. And an even more serious crisis could be sparked if independence is proclaimed. Or it could opt for early elections, expecting a bigger absolute majority which allows it to continue.

What is clear is that if there is a repeat of 9-N – a referendum which appears normal and in order – and although the participation doesn’t reach 40% (the  independent movement will record it), Rajoy will have a credibility problem. And the right, as well as those damaged in his own party could try to take advantage. In order to oblige further anti-Catalan pressure and so fuel independence? How will the markets react to the inevtable nervousness and if, in the end, independence is proclaimed, even though it’s only a figure of speech?



About the Author

Joan Tapia
Former editor of La Vanguardia, El Noticiero Universal and Spanish public TV channel in Catalonia, Joan Tapia also advised the Minister of Economy and Finance of Spain’s first Socialist Government. One of the country’s most veteran journalists, Mr Tapia also holds a Law degree and founded La Caixa’s Information and External Relations Department. He is a regular columnist for some media outlets both in Catalan and Spanish, and a member of the Royal Academy of Economic and Financial Sciences.