By: Ron Steinhoff
The cries for independence from Spanish regional governments are nothing new. A nation with a long history as an imperial power for most of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, Spain is no stranger to having its own citizens defy the governing body in Madrid. In spite of this history, the current constitution in Madrid, enacted in 1978, had until recently not been forced to deal with this problem. This relative calm has broken, and the 39-year-old Spanish Constitution will be put to the same test many previous governing bodies in Madrid have gone through, because on October 27, 2017, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona declared independence from the Spanish government. As someone who supports a stable European Union, I feel that this declaration of independence from Catalonia could disrupt the stability of Spain and the greater EU region.
The declaration and its details are important. The legitimacy of the vote has been called into question by Madrid. Catalan independence leaders made the declaration based on a vote in the Catalan parliament where 70 of the 135 members voted in favor. Barely making it past the 50% mark, the vote was held with no opposition party members present, as they had walked out in protest. This declaration vote in Parliament came shortly after 90% of voters in Catalonia voted to support independence in a referendum which had been declared illegal by the Spanish government in Madrid and was boycotted by its opponents, resulting in only a 43% voter turnout.
Additionally, the vote in Parliament came as a surprise to many. Just days before, talks of a deal were ongoing between officials in Madrid and Barcelona, with the terms mandating a call for new elections in Catalonia and a suspension of Spanish plans to invoke constitutional Article 155, removing Catalonian regional autonomy. Yet, because of mutual distrust between Catalan President Carlos Puigdemont and Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s Prime Minister, the deal failed. Consequently, only hours after the Catalan parliament voted for independence, the Spanish Senate, at the request of Mr. Rajoy, invoked Article 155. This constitutional provision has never been used before, and it grants the Spanish government a wide array of powers to coerce a region to obey the constitution. Some of these added powers include the dismissal of Mr. Puigdemont and his executives and taking control over the Catalan police force. Nonetheless, it is unclear how this direct rule will play with the Catalan public and civil service. In response to the invocation of Article 155, Mr. Puigdemont fled to Brussels but declared that he is not trying to escape justice. Yet, he added that he would only return if he was given “guarantees” by the Spanish government to avoid the possible 30-year sentence for rebellion.
It seems clear that the Catalan independence vote has created a sense of instability in an already shaken world. Catalonia may have their grievances against the Spanish government, but a poll earlier this year showed that only 41% of Catalans favored independence, which is obviously not a convincing majority. Furthermore, the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and France have all expressed support for continued Spanish unity. These states recognize the need for political and state continuity at a time when international terrorism and nuclear instability are on the rise. Beyond that, the European Commission Chief Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the EU, “doesn’t need any more cracks, more splits”. In response to these positions and comments, Mr. Puigdemont has called for his supporters to peacefully maintain their movement’s momentum.
It would be a major political change if Catalonia were to achieve its independence. It appears this independence movement has very little international support, and it would be difficult for a newly-independent Catalonia to survive in Europe as admittance to the European Union is far from assured. Additionally, with the leader of the independence movement fleeing, the odds of a successful secession seem slight at best. We can only watch and see how this will end for Spain, but it is my hope that the stability of Spain will not be upset by an illegal independence movement that is not supported by the majority of Catalans. The Spanish government ought to continue its resistance to the Catalan independence movement. It is not worth the instability that it will cause Spain, the EU, and the western body-politic.