Strange times might be coming up for Spain: With one week to go until a referendum called to dissolve a 500-year-old political union, neither the Spanish nor the Catalan governments are confronting head-on arguments about why Catalonia should secede from or remain in Spain. Instead, they are focusing on whether the Catalans have the legal right to secede.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, backed by a separatist majority in the regional assembly, has vowed to go ahead with the vote on October 1, which has been ruled illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court. However, Puigdemont and his Cabinet aren’t (publicly at least) shouting about a future, independent Catalan state, rather focusing their campaign on allowing citizens to decide their own future, not being dictated to by Madrid.
The Spanish government, meanwhile, is sticking to the legal arguments, with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy saying he will do “whatever is needed” to prevent the vote taking place.
Spain faces one of its gravest political crises in decades. Many in the establishment wonder if the situation could lead to unrest in the streets and ask how Rajoy will be able to prevent the vote without using drastic measures — such as taking control of the regional government.
Judges are investigating Puigdemont and other officials on charges related to the organization of the referendum that may result in prison sentences. The public prosecutor has ordered the police to monitor activities connected to the vote — a print shop and a newsroom have been raided in the past few days, triggering public demonstrations. Hundreds of mayors in Catalonia have defied court orders and offered their support for the vote, although others, especially in the bigger cities, have refused to do so.
Against this background of tension, however, there is little political debate about the reasons that led a significant number of Catalans — around 41 %, according to the Catalan government-funded Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió (CEO) — to be willing to break away from Spain. Research by the CEO shows the reasons to be manifold, with arguments including wanting increased autonomy (26 %), the belief that Catalonia would improve if it struck out on its own (23 %) and the desire for a new model for running a country (19 %).
Catalan unionist forces, as well as the Spanish government, accuse the separatists of feeding the people with lies and a constant stream of distorted facts aimed at reinforcing a Catalan sense of victimization at the hands of Spaniards. They haven’t been able to fully combat those perceptions, real or imaginary, on the ground.
Towering above all else is the economy. Catalonia has 16 % of the country’s population and generates 20 % of its gross domestic product.
Like many others (I guess) however, I have a bit of a pre Brexit – pre Trump election déjà vu as I believe again that an independent Catalonia is not going to happen, as it doesn’t fit in this era. But for sure it isn’t over on October 2nd