Spain may — or may not — have avoided a civil war today. Observers expected a full declaration of independence from the Catalan parliament, but its president decided to hold it in abeyance … for at least a few weeks. The parliament gave Carles Puigdemont a standing ovation when he announced that he would negotiate with Madrid for autonomy with the declaration in his back pocket:
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont says he has a mandate to declare independence for the northeastern region, but proposes waiting “a few weeks” in order to facilitate a dialogue.
Puigdemont tells the Catalan parliament that a landslide victory in the region’s disputed Oct. 1 referendum on independence gives his government grounds to implement its long-held desire to break century-old ties with Spain. But he is suggesting holding off.
Puigdemont’s speech was highly critical of the Spanish government’s response to the referendum, but he said Catalans have nothing against Spain or Spaniards, and that they want to understand each other better.
Madrid has a different take on Catalans — they still consider them Spaniards, too. The government announced that they will reject any claim of independence by the breakaway region, perhaps noting that they actually signed the declaration:
#BREAKING Madrid rejects Catalonia's 'tacit' independence declaration says spokesman
— AFP news agency (@AFP) October 10, 2017
So what’s next? The problem for the Catalonians is twofold. First, the EU has lined up against the independence bid, no doubt in part as a message to potentially restive ethnic minorities in their own nations. Second, as CNN points out, the referendum that pushed Catalan’s parliament into this action isn’t entirely reliable anyway:
Madrid and the European Union had implored Puigdemont to step back from the brink. The Spanish government had warned Puigdemont not to take any “irreversible” action.
Spain was plunged into political uncertainty when a divisive and controversial referendum on October 1 found that 90% of Catalan voters in favor of independence. But the result was not as decisive it appeared — turnout was only 43% and many Catalans stayed at home.
The Spanish federal government has threatened to prorogue Catalan’s parliament and regional government entirely if it persists in demanding independence. They will have to act forcefully in order to prevent further fracturing of the Spanish state, perhaps most acutely in Basque country, with an ethnic enclave that has long agitated for independence. In fact, some expected any declaration from the Catalan parliament to be followed immediately by an Article 155 declaration from the Rajoy government in Madrid, which would have put the EU in a very tough position:
Experts were worried that a declaration of independence would compel Rajoy to go for the ‘nuclear option’ and invoke article 155 of the constitution. That would permit Madrid to take administrative control, effectively revoking the powers devolved to the region. Such a move “would further escalate the crisis,” Josef Janning, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told TIME. “[It] would create a case of undeclared civil war and there could be cases of civil disobedience.” …
Catalan’s push for independence comes at a time of widespread mistrust of delegated power on the continent. Experts think how events play out in Catalonia might fuel the fires of other seccession movements on the continent, in countries like Italy, Britain and Belgium.
“The owners of the E.U. are the member states” Janning says. “Member states don’t want the [E.U.] Commission to play a role in this because if the commission has a role in the Catalan question why should they not have a role on the Northern Ireland question, or on the Basque question, or on the Italian Lega Nord claims?”
The issue, at least is broad strokes, underscores the tension between self-determination and national identity in the post-imperial era after the Versailles Treaty. That has mostly manifested itself in the Sykes-Picot areas of the Middle East since the end of the Cold War, but also in Africa for the last several decades. It also fueled the Balkan wars, and provided the catalyst for the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. There are still more ethnic enclaves in Europe that could catch independence fever, and might make a united Europe all but impossible.
Interestingly, Pope Francis suggested a workable model for dealing with self-determination questions, although it seems doubtful that the Catalans will accept it:
Pope Francis is against the secession of the Spanish region known as Catalonia that is threatening to declare its independence next week. This claim comes from the Spanish ambassador to the Vatican, who had a private meeting with the pontiff on October 2. …
According to the weekly Catholic magazine Vida Nueva, the pope spoke to Bugallo about the “Holy See’s position against every self-determination process that is not justified by a process of decolonization.”
The piece was signed by Antonio Pelayo, the magazine’s correspondent in Rome, and ecclesial councilor of the embassy. He also wrote that the pope “manifested the rejection by the Church to every attitude that is not rooted in respect to the constituted legality.”
One could argue that this might still leave Northern Ireland an open question, but not Scotland, which agreed to form Great Britain with England and Wales in parallel acts of Union in the parliaments of both nations. And arguably it could apply to Catalonia too, which has been reincorporated into Spain on more than one occasion by force of arms — the final time being during Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. However, after Franco’s death in 1975, Catalonia voted for the Spanish Constitution in 1978 and a Statute of Autonomy in 1979, rather than independence for its region. At least at that time, they willingly agreed to the status quo arrangement.
At any rate, it’s clear that Spain has no intention of parting with Catalonia, and that its fellow EU members have no intention of playing along with this bout of self-determinism. Autonomy is one thing, but the fracturing of the post-Versailles order has gone on long enough to have the capitals of the West very concerned. They’re likely to overlook any use of force necessary to prevent it from spreading further. The Catalonians may wind up losing more liberty than they gain in this process.