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Catalonian conflict far from over

Santiago Saez Madrid
October 2, 2017

Catalonia's referendum may be over, but the respective positions appear irreconcilable. The conflict with Spain's central government could escalate, as Santiago Saez reports from Madrid.

Protesters forming a circle
Image: Reuters/A. Gea

Aggressive police tactics, injuries and chaos at the polling stations made the headlines across the world on Sunday as Catalans voted in a referendum on independence from Spain.

The 90-percent approval figure is tempered by a low turnout of only 42 percent, but enough for the region's leader Carles Puigdemont to announce that he would inform the regional parliament of the results, allowing the chamber to pass the law that would pave the way for Catalonia to become an independent state.

Magda Bandera, journalist and director of the investigative magazine La Marea, is in Barcelona covering the events. For her, Puigdemont has a difficult decision on his hands. "There's huge pressure by [radical pro-independence party] CUP on the Catalan government to break from Spain, but, realistically, Puigdemont doesn't have much room to move with only 42 percent turnout. They have the sympathy of many people now, but they could lose it if they declare independence like that," she told DW.

Political analyst Antonio Barroso, deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, agrees. "I expect a reinforcement of the pro-independence feeling in some sectors, but after all, it was a sham vote without the proper legal guarantees. In addition, not even half of the census turned out, so there are many other people who may see that a declaration of independence would make no sense," said the researcher, adding that such a move would mark "an escalation of the conflict."

Rajoy's reaction

Meanwhile around 600 kilometers away, in Madrid, Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy dismissed the vote as "non-existent," and said that the Catalan government had "failed in a process that has only achieved division among the citizens." He announced that he would meet the leaders of other parties, although so far meetings have only been scheduled with Pedro Sánchez of the socialist PSOE and Albert Rivera of centrist party Ciudadanos. 

Read more: Catalonia referendum finds allies in the heart of Madrid

Magda Bandera is skeptical of the central government's response to the crisis. "Rajoy's cabinet has shown zero political intelligence and that makes me fear that his decision on Catalonia won't be the best. He's only meeting with PSOE and Ciudadanos, so it doesn't seem like he wants big changes to his strategy."

Spain PM Rajoy speaking
Prime Minister Rajoy is coming under increasing pressure to find a solution that both sides can live withImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Soriano

Read more: Opinion: Spain and Catalonia — 'Out with them all!'

The pro-independence parties and several labor unions have called for a general strike on Tuesday in response to the police intervention in the region. For Bandera, the next steps will be crucial. "The police is still here [in Barcelona], and, as in any general strike, there's a big chance of violence. We've seen the response with closing schools, so I'm afraid what's going to happen during a strike."

In the event of a declaration of independence, one possible outcome would be the application of Article 155 of the constitution, which suspends regional self-government and puts the Catalan administration directly under Rajoy's control. Article 155 has never been used before. "We would be in uncharted waters, so it's hard to know what would happen in that case," said analyst Barroso, adding that the rule is "not a blank cheque for the Spanish government."

In case Rajoy's cabinet decides to activate the article, the government must specify what concrete measures it plans to implement in the affected region and receive approval by the Senate's absolute majority. This wouldn't be a hurdle for Rajoy and his People's Party as they hold such a majority.

International pressure

One idea floated by the Catalan government on Monday is the involvement of international actors to mediate in the conflict. The European Commission has already issued a statement condemning the police violence, but a spokesman for Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker repeated Brussels' position that the referendum was illegal and that an independent Catalonia would automatically exit the EU.

"Even with the statement [condemning the violence], I don't think the EU's view on the story changes. I don't expect it to have the effect sought by the pro-independence politicians and I don't think it's going to put so much pressure on Rajoy that he has to take decisions against his will," said Antonio Barroso.

Magda Bandera, on the other hand, thinks that Brussels will have to act as a mediator. "The problem will only grow if they stay on the sidelines, plus there's a risk of contagion to many other countries with similar pro-independence movements. And then there's the public opinion in all those countries. I trust that the citizens, including those in Spain, will pressure their governments to help solve the problem."

Map of separatist movements in Europe