Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1367, (2 - 8 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Tickling the beast

For now, the tide appears to have turned against the Catalan pro-independence movement. But the reverberations of the independence referendum have not fully played out yet, writes Salma Ahmed Nosseir


Tickling the beast
Tickling the beast

Hopes for peaceful negotiations between the Spanish government and the Catalan pro-independence government after the initial burst of violence seem to be drifting further and further into the distance. In the weeks since the Catalan government called for an independence referendum that was deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish courts, and hence rejected by the Spanish government, the situation seems to be continuously escalating beyond the borders of Spain.

Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalonian government, received an offer by the Spanish national government after the referendum results were published. It included a demand for the Catalonian government to provide a yes or no answer to whether or not they declare independence and an offer to conduct possible reforms within the Spanish Constitution if the answer was no. Puigdemont missed the deadline set for this offer and sent a letter to Mariano Rajoy, prime minister of Spain, to ask for a two-month extension to evaluate the situation and how to proceed further. The refusal to commit to a certain answer led the Spanish government to provide another deadline, which was also ignored by Puigdemont. Rajoy, in response, offered to halt the impeding suspension of the Catalan government if they agreed to conduct general elections.

The refusal to do so triggered the Spanish government to pursue a step that has been called a “nuclear bomb”: invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. Article 155 was included in the 1978 Constitution as a compromise on the autonomous rights of the different regions in Spain and the need of the Spanish government to have some mechanisms of centralised control. It requires an absolute majority in the Senate to pass and if invoked would lead to the suspension of regional governments, the take-over by the Spanish government in all matters related to regional autonomy (including media and finance) and the holding of regional elections within the next six months. Article 155 is not intended to revoke the autonomy of the Catalan region for good; it is meant as a temporary measure to restore the rule of law in the region to protect the unity of the Spanish nation. It’s still unclear how Article 155 will be implemented in practical terms, because it has never been invoked before.

Resorting to such a drastic move highlights the gravity of the situation facing Spain today. Catalonian Vice-President Oriol Junqueras said that this move doesn’t simply mean suspending Catalonian autonomy, but more broadly democracy as well. The pro-independence movement has been very vocal in the recent weeks as to their motivations and ambitions, whereas the government side has remained relatively calm except for Spanish politicians themselves. While over 90 per cent of the people that went to the polls voted pro-independence, those were only 43 per cent of eligible voters. Some might have stayed home because intimidated by the violence employed by the police, but that is not sufficient to assume that this referendum wouldn’t have produced different results if the whole population would have voted.

The same occurred when Puigdemont allowed the Catalonian parliament to vote on declaring independence. The parliament voted for declaring independence; 70 in favour, 10 against and two votes voided. The problem is that 55 MPs that belong to the opposition in a parliament that is structured around the independence issue didn’t show up due to the illegitimacy of the vote by the time it was being conducted. The Spanish Constitutional Court had already ruled that the law the voting was based on was unconstitutional. To add to the complexity, thousands went to the streets in Barcelona to protest the Declaration of Independence, further undermining the legitimacy of a referendum that was unconstitutional and that didn’t meet a legitimising threshold in voter turnout.

Less than a few hours after the parliamentary vote, the republic that had just been “born” was already finished. The Spanish Senate approved invocation of Article 155 with 214 votes for, 47 against and one abstention. This enabled Rajoy to suspend Puigdemont and his cabinet, to disband the Catalonian parliament, and to schedule new elections for 21 December. Puigdemont and his cabinet are now being accused of rebellion, which in Spain constitutes a crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. If they plead not guilty by the time of the elections, they will be able to participate as candidates.

The tide seems to be turning against Puigdemont and his supporters no. wHis failure to get the Spanish government to negotiate with them led to his government losing the autonomous rights they used to have, and now the Spanish government is in control while he might end up behind bars, incapable of participating in the cause he built his political career on. Now with the pro-unity movement making their voices heard in an internationally visible manner, the groundswell he was counting on to legitimise his cause seems to be waning.

Support, however, is coming from unlikely places. Politicians from different separatist movements all over Europe have voiced their support for the independence movement in Catalonia, while the national governments have — as expected — voiced their support for the Spanish government, referencing the unconstitutional manner in which the referendum played out. The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, tweeted that, “For the EU nothing changes.” However, in the context of recent events, this seems more like reassurance than actual belief. While it does look grim on the side of the independence movement, Europe cannot afford other regions following suit and setting in motion a domino effect.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, issued a more sombre picture than Dusk: “The EU doesn’t need any more cracks, more splits… we shouldn’t insert ourselves into what is an internal debate for Spain, but I wouldn’t want the European Union to consist of 95 member states in the future.”

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