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Catalonia/Spain: On track for the crisis to escalate by Monday

4 min read

The situation in Spain isn’t exactly getting better. And now it looks like the first real deadlines may have been set in the escalation of the Catalan push for independence.

Previously in this series:

Part I — Part II

When last we left this story, Catalonia had voted for independence by a huge majority of votes cast, but a minority of eligible voters due to a combination of a pro-union boycott and attempted disruption of the referendum by Madrid. That disruption came in the form of truly widespread police violence. Firing rubber bullets at protesters, beating women with rubber batons, dragging people around by their hair. That kind of police violence. In protest of the violence, a general strike was announced. Meanwhile, the central government was increasingly strident in its rhetoric.

Several days have passed since then. Perhaps everyone has decided to deescalate the situation with a call to compromise, negotiations, and mutual respect? No, of course not.

So, Tuesday was the planned general strike. Now, Spanish law prohibits the organized trade unions from general strikes for purely political purposes. So two of the biggest unions in Catalonia didn’t hold a general strike at all. That would be illegal! Coincidentally, however, they held a “work stoppage”, which you can plainly see is different from a strike. Whatever it was called, though, not a whole lot gone done in most of Catalonia on Tuesday. Substantial numbers of businesses closed, protests were widespread, tractors blocked some roads and intentional slowdowns… well, slowed down others. It was everything you’d expect from a widespread regional protest by people incensed at the abuse of their fellow citizens under the cover of police action.

In my outsider’s view, after that was probably one of the best windows for a negotiated solution. The vote happened, the police crackdown happened. The counter-protest to the violence happened. Madrid could have issued a statement, apologizing for the severity of the crackdown, but insisting on the importance of a unified country, and I think everyone would have come to the table for a compromise. That is… well, that’s not what happened at all.

Instead, late Tuesday, King Felipe VI, who rarely involves himself in the politics of the country, gave a televised address. In it, he heaped scorn on the Catalan independence movement, declaring their referendum an “unacceptable attempt” to fracture the country, and took time to specifically assure pro-unionist residents of Catalonia that “they have all the support and solidarity of the rest of the Spaniards, and the absolute guarantee of our rule of law in defending their liberty and rights.” Things he didn’t mention, even in passing? The police violence against unarmed citizens during the crackdown. You don’t need me to tell you how that went over in Catalonia.

Meanwhile, there still hasn’t been an actual declaration of independence. Catalonia’s President Puigdemont was expected to make the announcement himself after the vote, but (perhaps in the interests of leaving things amenable to compromise, opted not to do so). Instead, he promised to bring the referendum results to the Catalan Parliament, where pro-secession parties have a majority, albeit a slim one. By the rules this whole process set up, if/when he does so, Parliament will then have 48 hours to issue the formal declaration of independence.

As rhetoric grew more heated, the Catalan Parliament announced it would assemble on Monday, and strongly suggested that Puigdemont would present them with the results at that time. Whether they act immediately or not, that’s very likely a point of no return. Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy is faced with an increasingly small set of options. He could actually try to negotiate on the issue. Puigdemont has been all but begging the various European international groups to have someone—anyone—come and provide formal mediation to the dispute, but none of those orgs want to be seen as interfering in a domestic politics of a member state. Rajoy has essentially refused negotiations; most recently, he has claimed that he is willing to have Madrid come to the table, but only after Catalonia renounces any interest in independence from Spain at any time and in any form. As a precondition especially, that’s a nonstarter. Alternatively, he could also exercise a clause in the Spanish constitution permitting Madrid to seize control of a regional government. Puigdemont has intimated that that would essentially be a declaration of war, and since actually doing so would probably require seizing both Puigdemont and the members of the Catalan Parliament by force… well, he’s probably not wrong.

But it looks more and more like that’s the path we’re on. Today, Rajoy went to the Constitutional Court, which ordered the suspension of the Catalan Parliament on Monday, legally prohibiting them from meeting, but stopping short of calling for the seizure of the regional government. There is absolutely no indication that the Catalan Parliament is the least bit willing to be suspended in this manner. Also, shortly thereafter, Rajoy made his first public remarks since Sunday, stating that Catalonia needed to abandon independence and return to order or face “greater evils”. I’m certain that everyone involved found that argument helpful and convincing.

Unfortunately, I suspect this isn’t the last diary I’ll be writing in this series. And I’m increasingly concerned that later chapters won’t be bringing happy news.

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