Catalonia's Self-Defeating Independence Declaration

The northeastern region of Spain tried to assert its freedom—and looks set to lose it.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont hands in his ballot during a vote on independence from Spain at the Catalan regional Parliament in Barcelona, Spain on October 27, 2017.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont hands in his ballot during a vote on independence from Spain at the Catalan regional Parliament in Barcelona, Spain on October 27, 2017. (Albert Gea / Reuters )

The Catalan parliament voted Friday overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Spain, reaffirming the result of the contested independence referendum the region held nearly four weeks ago. The vote marked a major escalation in Catalonia’s territorial dispute with Spain’s central government in Madrid. “We shall constitute the Catalan Republic as an independent, and sovereign, democratic, and social state of law,” the motion read.

But of course it won’t be that simple.

If anything, the passage of the motion puts hopes for Catalan independence even further away. At the same time it was being held, Madrid was threatening to impose direct rule on its northeastern region, which would mean taking away the broad autonomy long enjoyed there and dismissing the very regional government that led the independence push—including Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. It seemed likely even before the Catalan parliament acted that Spanish lawmakers would grant Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy the authority he had requested, under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, to suspend Catalan autonomy. And passage of the independence motion all but assured it. Shortly after Catalonia’s regional parliament voted in Barcelona, the Spanish senate voted in Madrid to hand Rajoy extraordinary powers over the region. “Catalans must be protected from an intolerant minority that is awarding itself ownership of Catalonia and is trying to subject all Catalans to the yoke of its own doctrine,” Rajoy told lawmakers Friday.

Rajoy has long maintained that Catalonia had no legal right to declare independence—and indeed, the Spanish Constitutional Court found that the independence referendum held earlier this month violated national constitution, which holds that Spain is indivisible. Just minutes after the Catalan vote was announced, Rajoy tweeted: “The Rule of Law will restore legality in Catalonia.”

And despite Catalonia now having passed both a popular referendum and a parliamentary motion in favor of independence—and despite the celebrations on Friday by independence supporters inside and outside the parliament in Barcelona—not all Catalans were jubilant. The popular referendum, while it saw a 90 percent vote in favor of independence, did so with a low turnout of only around 40 percent. A similar dynamic played out in Barcelona’s parliament on Friday, with opposition lawmakers walking out of the chamber to protest the vote. Of the 135 deputies, 82 cast ballots (70 voted in favor, 10 voted against, and two were left blank).

If the real popularity of Catalan independence within the region itself remains in question, the level of international support for it is clearer: There is very little. Despite Puigdemont’s appeals to international leaders to support Catalonia’s self-determination aspirations, the bid has so far failed to get the backing of any country or major international body. European Council President Donald Tusk reaffirmed the European Union’s position of declining to support Catalan independence shortly after Friday’s vote in Barcelona took place, noting that “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force.” The State Department issued a similar statement soon after.

Mary Vincent, a professor of Modern European history at the University of Sheffield, told me the speed with which the Catalonia crisis has escalated only adds to the confusion about what happens next. Article 155 has never been invoked in the four-odd decades in which the current Spanish constitution has been in force; there is no historical guide to what implementation looks like. And whereas Rajoy has framed the independence issue as being about “the rule of law and the Spanish constitution, Puigdemont has dubbed Catalonia’s quest for independence one of democratic aspirations. “Both sides talking about democracy doesn’t seem to me to be helping things at all,” she said. “It seems if anything more precarious, more fragmented, more confused than it was when it started.”

Article 155 is expected to go into force Friday night local time, and it’s not clear how Catalonia will respond. “It’s difficult to understand what an independent Catalonia will be, or is,” Vincent said. “Are they suddenly going to find their own army, put up customs borders? There’s a sense in which it all seems a bit rhetorical and, at the moment, Article 155 also seems like that.”