'No solution in sight': Spain braces for Catalonia declaration of independence

The Catalonia vote for secession from Spain may have boxed the regional government into a corner in which it has no choice but to declare unilateral independence — a move that could trigger a constitutional crisis and spark more violent clashes.

On Oct. 1, of 2 million votes cast, 90% voted in favour of leaving Spain

Polls show a tight race ahead in Catalonia between separatists and those who want the region to remain a part of Spain. (Santi Palacios/Associated Press)

The Catalonia vote for secession from Spain may have boxed the regional government into a corner, leaving it no choice but to declare unilateral independence — a move that could trigger a constitutional crisis and spark more violent clashes.

"It basically opens a valley of tears and a process that is very unclear on how it's going to end," said Pablo Beramendi, an associate political science professor at Duke University and a research associate at the Instituto Juan March-Carlos III in Madrid.

Beramendi said "it's very likely" the Catalan government will declare independence, fulfilling its promise made during the referendum campaign to a significant number of highly mobilized Catalonian voters. Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont had said he would move to a declaration of independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote.

"This will be extremely controversial and is the subject of a debate among the supporters of the Catalonia government," Beramendi said.

On Sunday, of the two million ballots cast in Catalonia, 90 per cent voted in favour of breaking away from Spain, a vote the Spanish government deemed to be unconstitutional. The voting sparked a violent crackdown by Spanish police. The Catalan government said almost 900 people were injured when Spanish police forcibly tried to close polling stations.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Catalonia on Tuesday to protest the actions by police.

While there has been condemnation of those actions, and the European Union, of which Spain is a member, has expressed concerns, they have been expressed in "very low voices," said Beramendi. And so far there hasn't been a massive pushback from the EU against the Spanish government.

Indeed, any kind of condemnation against the use of force during Sunday's referendum should not be confused with support for the pro-independence cause, he said.

The Catalonian independence movement sparked mass protests throughout October and resulted in the Spanish government talking control over the region. (Susana Vera/Reuters)

"Certainly no EU country, I would expect, to immediately recognize Catalonia as an independent state. I doubt very much that any of the advanced industrial societies will do that either," Beramendi said.

"So it could be a very strange situation where the government proclaims independence that is then recognized by very few."

Recipe for conflict

Yet such a declaration would have significant domestic implications and likely force Madrid to trigger Article 155 of Spain's constitution. That would allow the central government to legally suspend Catalonia's autonomy, remove its regional government and impose an interim administration.

"My prediction is this would trigger massive demonstrations in the street and a spiral, that — I don't know where it would end," Beramendi said.

Beramendi said he doesn't see those in favour of separation becoming something like the Basque militant group ETA, which spent decades waging violent campaigns against the Spanish government as it sought independence for the Basque areas in northern Spain.

"They have been very good at making this a peaceful civic democratic movement," Beramendi said. "I think this is one of their trademarks, and I think the leaders of the movement will try to keep it that way."

"They know very well from other experience that the moment they go the other route, they have lost."

Antonio Cazorla-Sanchez, a Spanish history professor at Trent University, said the amount of support for the independence movement should not be gauged by the results of Sunday's referendum.

Turnout was only 42 per cent, meaning that the number of Yes votes was less than 40 per cent of eligible voters, he said.

"Those against separation stayed at home," he said. "The absolute majority of Catalans, even separatists, have been always against unilateral declaration on independence."

What many want, said Cazorla-Sanchez, is a new arrangement with Spain. 

A Spanish riot police officer shoots a rubber bullet at people trying to reach a voting site on Sunday at a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona. (Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press)

Catalonia, Spain's wealthiest region, wedged in the northeast on the Mediterranean coast below the mountainous border with France, has its own language and culture, and a growing minority there has nurtured hopes of independence for years. 

'At an impasse'

But neither Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy nor Puigdemont has offered them that choice of a new arrangement, Cazorla-Sanchez said.

"That's why we are at an impasse. There is no solution, no solution in sight," Cazorla-Sanchez said.

"There's a serious risk of clashes and the Catalan government will take some provocative unilateral measure, the Spanish state will again overreact, who knows how, and we'll have something ugly happen."

"The only solution I see is a mobilization of Spanish society rejecting the policies of Rajoy and demanding a real dialogue with the moderate sectors of Catalonia society."

About the Author

Mark Gollom


Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from Reuters