The Catalan crisis deepens by the day. This afternoon, the region’s parliament backed a declaration of independence from Spain. Here is the moment Carme Forcadell, president of the Catalan parliament, announced the outcome of the vote:
The country’s senate did not take long to react by voting to impose direct rule in Catalonia. This triggering of Article 155 in the Spanish constitution, which allows the government to take charge in the Catalan region, has never been done before and it amounts to something of a nuclear option (the country’s former foreign secretary Jose Manuel Garcia once likened the Articl to ‘an atomic bomb’). Both sides, it is now clear, will not back down in this ongoing tussle and the tit-for-tat nature of the situation shows why a resolution remains so far off.
Spain’s Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, must now tread carefully and learn from the mistakes made during this month’s referendum. Brutal scenes of police snatching ballot boxes and beating up protesters emboldened the Catalan cause and fostered sympathy with the secessionists. Another violent crackdown would only make matters worse.
Another difficult question facing Rajoy is what to do with Catalan president Carles Puigdemont. Now that Spain has triggered Article 155, there is the prospect that he might be arrested. While the Spanish government would be, legally, within their rights to apprehend Puigdemont, to do so would further enflame tensions. It would also have the effect of turning Puigdemont – who is far from universally popular in Catalonia – into something of a martyr.
The coming days will now be key. If large numbers of people take to the streets in Barcelona, it is difficult to see how the Spanish government can continue to ignore the demands of the secessionists. Spain has kept up the stance that the referendum was illegal and has refused to recognise its legitimacy. But a wave of popular support for independence in the form of protesters taking to the street is harder to ignore. The Spanish government cannot hide behind the constitution forever.
The pressure is not only on the Spanish government though, and today’s declaration of independence is a big gamble on the part of the secessionists. While Puigdemont is good at making himself heard, it’s important to remember that he doesn’t speak for all Catalans. His brinkmanship has made him enemies in recent weeks, even among those who share his ultimate aim of independence.
Yesterday, in a debate in the region’s parliament, he was criticised for his role in escalating the crisis. ‘We are losing international legitimacy and you can’t do that to Catalans,’ Ines Arrimadas, leader of the liberal Ciutadans Party, told him. Another party leader, Lluís Rabell, who heads up the left-wing Podemos party, said it was time to ditch the prospect of independence. Puigdemont did not heed their advice and used his trump card today.
The EU is also in a difficult situation. Donald Tusk reacted to the unfolding situation by tweeting the following:
For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) October 27, 2017
While Brussels continues to back Spain in this fight, this is also a clear warning to Madrid that it must show restraint.