June 9, 2017, Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, announced an independence referendum will be held on 1 October. Voters would be asked: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?” Spain’s central government continues to say it will block the referendum using all the legal and political means at its disposal.
September 11, 2017, up to a million people congregated in Barcelona to celebrate the region’s national day – la Diada – and to make another peaceful and good-natured call for independence.
Although the Catalonia regional government has insisted the unilateral poll will go ahead on Sunday, the Spanish government has vowed to stop the vote, which it says is a clear violation of the constitution. Spain’s constitutional court has suspended the legislation underpinning the referendum while it rules on its legality. Puigdemont accuses the Spanish government of effectively suspending regional autonomy and declaring a de facto state of emergency. Has the European Commission a duty to intervene?
The Spanish government says there will be no referendum because the vote would be illegal, unilateral and unconstitutional. A Spanish government official describes the referendum as a circus and claims Madrid has a democratic duty to protect the “silent majority” of Catalans who oppose independence and to make sure the dispute doesn’t descend into violence. Police will be deployed at polling stations to prevent people from voting in the Catalan independence referendum, the Spanish government has confirmed. The prosecutor’s office said it would take the names of anyone participating in the vote and confiscate relevant documents. September 12, 2017, Spain’s top prosecutor began investigating the more than 700 Catalan mayors who have agreed to cooperate with the vote, and has ordered police to arrest any who fail to appear for questioning. Madrid has also moved to take control of the region’s finances to prevent the funds being used for the referendum.
Speaking in Washington alongside Donald Trump, Rajoy said a unilateral declaration of independence would be “very wrong” and questioned the integrity of Sunday’s vote. “There isn’t an electoral committee, there isn’t a team at the Catalan government organising a referendum, there aren’t ballots, there aren’t people at the voting stations,” he said. The US president sided with Rajoy, saying it would be “foolish” for Catalans to try to leave Spain. “I think that Spain is a great country and it should remain united,” he said.
September 6, 2017, the Catalan parliament approved referendum legislation after a heated, 11-hour session that sees 52 opposition MPs walk out of the chamber in Barcelona in protest at the move. Spain’s constitutional court suspends the legislation the following day, but the Catalan government vows to press ahead with the vote. Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, has accused the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, of acting “beyond the limits of a respectable democracy” in his efforts to prevent the referendum. The Catalan government insists it is a democratic and legally binding referendum on breaking away from Spain. Polls suggest that although more than 70% of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people are in favour of holding a referendum, they are fairly evenly divided on the issue of independence. Almost 50% of the Catalans favour staying as part of Spain. The secessionists argue that Catalonia has a moral, cultural, economic and political right to self-determination.
Carles Puigdemont has also compared the Spanish government’s behaviour to the repression of the Franco era (1939-1975) and said it is only serving to drive more Catalans towards independence: “All we want is to carry out the greatest expression of a free democracy, and vote on Catalonia’s future. This is not about independence, it is about fundamental civil rights, and the universal right of self-determination.” With the arrests of high-ranking officials and threats to detain democratically elected politicians, Puigdemont believes the Spanish government has violated the European charter of fundamental rights: "The EU itself is built on these values and is committed to guaranteeing the rights proclaimed in the charter and in the EU treaties. As an EU member state, Spain should respect that. If not, it is the European commission’s duty to intervene."
The European Union has signalled it is unlikely to intervene in the crisis unfolding in Spain over Catalan independence, saying it must respect the constitution of the country. Spain’s constitutional court has suspended the legislation underpinning the referendum while it rules on its legality. The European Commission as protector of EU-treaties should welcome national judges doing their job properly. Doubts about democracy point into the direction of Catalonia: Catalonia regional government pushed through a referendum, without any debate, ignoring the opposition in the regional parliament and acting contrary to the decision of the Spanish constitutional court.
If Catalonia were to become independent, Catalonia is probably a frightening precedent for Spain (e.g. Basque country) and other European countries fear encouraging separatists at home: Belgium’s Flemings, Italy’s Lombards and Veneto, France’s Corsica and so on. There is also a broader unwillingness to another situation of economic uncertainty and legal disruption, now the EU and UK are in the middle of the Brexit negotiations.
The European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated the so-called “Prodi doctrine”: a breakaway state would have to leave the Union and could then only be let back in if it has gained independence in accordance with constitutional law in the member state it left. If Catalonia were to become independent, Catalonia would be confronted with the similar procedure of accession as any other European new member state and Spain would have a veto power to block Catalonia’s accession to the European Union.
Spain’s constitutional court has suspended the legislation underpinning the referendum.
First of all, Catalonia regional government lacks the powers to organize a referendum in the first place. Second, the referendum is a clear violation of the constitution and last but not least there is no agreement to held a referendum, nor between the Catalonian and Spanish government, neither between secessionists and opponents to independence (democratic deficit).The referendum has been exclusively organized by the secessionists. The opponents to independence are divided; some will vote ‘no’, others refuse to vote because they don’t recognize the legitimacy or legality of the referendum. Besides, there has been no place at all for a ‘no-campaign’.
The question ‘yes’or ‘no’to independence is rather a question ‘yes’or ‘no’ to more friction and provocation to Madrid.
Under Spanish law, the national government could still invoke emergency powers to take full administrative control of Catalonia, in case of a unilateral declaration of independence.
Catalonia would be better served by trying to once again amend its Statute of Autonomy to have greater control over the region while remaining a part of Spain.[number of readers: 1041]
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Ariño Ortiz, G., La independencia de Cataluña: historia, economía, política, derecho, Cizur Menor (Navarra), Aranzadi, Thomson Reuters, 2015.
- Gonzalez, C., "The Catalan National Identity and Catalonia's bid for Independence", Connecticut journal of international law, 32 (2016), No. 1, pp. 115-145.
- López-Jacoiste, E., "Autonomy and Self-determination in Spain: Catalonia's claims for Independence from the Perspective of International Law", in Hilpold, P. (ed.), Autonomie und Selbstbestimmung: in Europa und im internationalen Vergleich, Wien, Facultas, 2016, pp. 218-241.
- Nagel, K., "Catalonia's Struggle for Self-determination: from Regionalism to Independence?", in Achankeng, F. (ed.), Nationalism and intra-state conflicts in the postcolonial world, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2015, pp. 385-401.
- Pons Rafols, X., Cataluña: derecho a decidir y Derecho Internacional, Madrid, Reus, 2015.
- Reniu, J.M., "Could Catalonia Become Independent?", International journal of legal information: the official publication of the International Association of Law Libraries, 42 (2014), No. 1, pp. 67-74.
- Simón Castellano, P., "Catalonia and the Secessionist Debate: how did we get here?", in Belser, E.M. (et al.)(eds.), States falling apart? Secessionist and autonomy movements in Europe, Bern, Stämpfli Verlag, 2015, pp. 175-187.