Explainer: The big questions behind the Spanish crisis over Catalonia

  1. Threat to an entity formed over centuries
  2. Economic and international fallout anticipated
  3. Basques and Galicians also desire self-rule

Less than 40 years after its peaceful transition to democracy from fascism, Spain faces a constitutional crisis that goes to the roots of its history as a collection of nations and regions. That entity was assembled nearly 500 years ago as the country emerged from centuries of Islamic rule. The crisis in Catalonia has not only exposed deep fissures within the modern Spanish state, but also provides lessons for the rest of Europe as the continent grapples with contemporary quests for self-determination and regional independence movements.

Here are some critical questions and some partial answers which you’re welcome to enlarge upon.

Why is this happening?

The parliament of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, declared independence unilaterally on October 27. This followed a referendum on the issue on October 1, which had a 90 percent “yes” vote – based on 43 percent of the eligible electorate. The central government in Madrid voted shortly after to take charge of Catalonia and hold new elections instead.

Protesters hoist the pro-independence Catalan flag. By George Engels/WikiTribune

What does Madrid say?

The central government, led by Mariano Rajoy, as it had promised, applied section 155 of the Spanish constitution, the so-called “nuclear option”, which refers to action to be taken if any of the autonomous provinces of the state rebels from central authority or affect the general interests of Spain. Rajoy said the Catalan government, the Generalitat, would be dissolved and elections for new representatives held on December 21 2017 [link in English to Spanish newspaper El País].

What would this achieve?

New elections would give the people of Catalonia the chance to demonstrate whether they want their representatives to pursue the path to independence. But independence also means Catalonia would no longer belong to the European Union. Concern has also been expressed about the economic impact on the region, one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive.


What does Barcelona say?

The government of Carles Puigdemont contains several strong pro-independence parties. It says it has sought dialogue and that Madrid has acted harshly and unfairly, first in denying the referendum should take place, second in violently repressing it, and thirdly in proceeding to invoke the Constitution.

Who is Mariano Rajoy?

Mariano Rajoy, 62, was born in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, northern Spain. He leads the Partido Popular, one of Spain’s main political entities, and has been prime minister since 2011. Regarded as a social conservative and a cautious politician, he has nevertheless taken decisive and dramatic action in response to Catalonia’s independence demands. At a press conference announcing his government’s plans to dissolve the Generalitat, he said it was his responsibility to uphold the constitution, but “I did not choose this.”

Who is Carles Puigdemont?

Carles Puigdemont, 54, is a journalist and politician who has been president of the Government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, since 2016. He was a compromise candidate when Artur Mas stepped down, as the New York Times reports here. Between 2002 and 2004 he was director of the Casa de Cultura in Girona, his native city, and was first elected in 2006. His party is  Convergence and Union (Convergéncia i Unió), a centre-right coalition. He has led the government steadily towards the October 1 referendum for independence.

What happens next?

The Spanish Senate, the upper house, voted  on the measures announced by Rajoy hours after the vote in the Catalan parliament, as newsagency Bloomberg reports,  which supported Puigdemont’s independence declaration by 70-10, [link to El País in Spanish] with two abstentions and a boycott by 53 pro-union deputies. There is now a stand-off, with Puigdemont one leader of Catalonia, and Spain’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, appointed by Rajoy to run the region for central government. It is difficult to see how this can all be resolved peacefully, although both sides decry violence.

What does history tell us about how this will turn out?

On the one hand, the Constitution doesn’t want to allow any part of Spain to secede. Other regions – the Basque Country and Galicia to name two – have also actively sought self-rule in the past. On the other, a proud community with its own language and culture is adhering to a history of seeking as much autonomy as possible. The pro-independence movement claims that Puigdemont’s government is still valid, but Rajoy’s government says the region is behaving irresponsibly and illegally.

Spain is the one of the most decentralized countries in the world, according to the OECD, but the three main parties in Spain -Partido Popular (PP), Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) and Ciudadanos (C’s) have decided to reform the Constitution in order to reorder the territory. They asked the Catalan parties to participate, but they have refused.

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