What was feared has happened. The arrest in Barcelona of 14 senior executives in the Catalan government, accompanied by detailed searches and the seizure of 10 million electoral cards, is an unprecedented episode in democratic Spain. But it is just as serious that the regional government of Catalonia, through the approval of an ad hoc law, has called for a referendum on Oct. 1, in defiance of the Constitution, to decide on the possible “secession” of the wealthiest Spanish region, where 7.5 million Spanish citizens live.
The national government and the Constitutional Court do not acknowledge this decision and have begun to boycott the referendum weeks ago. On Thursday, it moved from words to the facts. “What happened is equivalent to the end of regional autonomy and the break of the Confederation Pact, which holds together the autonomic regions of Spain,” said Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government.
Thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets to protest the arrests. Even Podemos, represented by its leader Pablo Iglesias, spoke of “the shocking return of detainees in Spain.”
There is now a legal war between Madrid and Barcelona, and the situation is deteriorating. The most radical secessionists are even demanding that the national police leave Catalonia. The government, for its part, is carrying out searches in printing facilities to prevent the ballots from being printed, reminding the officers and mayors involved in the preparation of the referendum that they depend on the Spanish state. Most mayors have already announced their mutiny. If the confrontation continues, as expected, even the army could be mobilized.
It is wrong for the European Union to remain neutral.
What will Brussels do if secession prevails? The virulent re-emergence of nationalisms and the idea of “small homelands” — exemplified in the Catalan case — is a symptom of the crisis of the political and inclusive European project. The Spanish case is unprecedented in international law and could be imitated by other entities (Scotland, Ireland, the Basque Country, etc.).
There is only one precedent in Europe: The former Czechoslovakia, which — in a rather painful way, even though it is considered consensual — was divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992, by a unanimous national parliamentary act. However, this division was not approved by popular involvement or referendum; it was the outcome of a unilateral choice made at the table by Czech and Slovak presidents, Havel and Meciar, respectively.
Then there is the history of the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia. Those talking about “the right to self-determination” in the case of Catalonia forget those situations when that right is “legitimized,” with so many ambiguities and geostrategic interests, by international institutions: dictatorships, lack of respect for human rights, neo-colonization attempts, etc.
The independent political forces that govern Catalonia have progressively radicalized their positions, by marginalizing the socialists and popular parties. Only the latter, more centrist than the Ciudadanos party, consider the referendum and secession hypothesis a disaster. Podemos’ left-wing movement does not demonize the referendum and its consequences, hoping that after Oct. 1, the idea of a Spanish state can be reformed, while accusing Mariano Rajoy’s government of having ignored the independence fever far too long (even the socialist politicians say that).
The problem is, however, that no simple reform is envisaged to make the Spanish state more federal: The referendum’s goal is secession, period. In the meantime, some intellectuals and militants of the scattered left, not represented by any party, have made an appeal not to participate in the referendum.
Thus comes the final station of the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona after 40 years of rediscovered democracy. The four decades of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship had repressed the claims of Catalan identity; they were not allowed to speak their language or use the red and yellow colors on their regional flag. Since Felipe González’s governments in the early ‘80s onward, much has been done in Spain on the issue of regional autonomy, based on the Italian model of special regional status: teaching Catalan, TV broadcasts in the local language, economic incentives, regional legislative powers, and so on.
However, the separatist fever has been growing in recent years, reaching the secessionist pressure of recent months.
Some project future scenarios in these dramatic hours. For example, in which football championship will Barcelona and Real Madrid play? Will the 2010 World Cup national champion be called Spain again? Between now and Oct. 1, will Real Madrid really face off with Barcelona Football Club?