In Catalonia, the home of FC Barcelona — one of the world’s most famous football teams — Spain’s governing Popular Party has kicked one of the most spectacular own goals you could ever see.
- Independence has not always been a priority for Catalans — in opinion polls from 2007, 15-17pc were in favour
- In 2006, Spain gave the region more powers — but part of the new statute was ruled unconstitutional and struck down in 2010
- The decision was a turning point, and the push for independence gained momentum
They have helped turn a fringe political issue, in a small yet influential region in Spain, into a full-blown political and constitutional crisis.
While pursuing a goal of national unity, they have somehow achieved the opposite, radicalising separatists in Catalonia at such a rapid rate that the independence movement there is now threatening to tear Spain apart.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has demanded that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont confirm by Monday whether he declared independence or not in his historic speech to parliament this week.
If the answer is yes, or no answer is forthcoming, Mr Rajoy is threatening to invoke a never-before-used section of the Spanish constitution that would impose home rule on the region.
As we await that deadline, it’s worth looking back at how Mr Rajoy’s party triggered the problem they’re now trying to deal with.
‘That was a disaster’
While autonomy and identity are hugely important to Catalans, independence hasn’t always been a priority.
If you look at opinion polls from 2007, only 15-17 per cent of Catalans wanted their region to break away from Spain.
In 2006 the Spanish parliament voted to approve a new Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia that gave the region more powers. A referendum in Catalonia ratified the statute.
They had more control over their economy, their identity and their institutions, yet could remain a part of Spain.
A deal had been struck, but not everyone was happy. The centre-right Popular Party which was in opposition at the time had lost the vote over the statute in both chambers of the national parliament.
They then made a decision that would help kickstart Catalonia’s modern independence movement. They appealed to the Constitutional Court.
Four years later, the court ruled that 14 of the articles of the reformed Statute of Autonomy were unconstitutional.
“That was a disaster,” said Artur Mas, who was Catalan president from 2010 to 2015 and became the driving force behind the independence movement.
“It was then I understood that we had to change our project.”
The Popular Party’s challenge of the Statute of Autonomy was a “disaster” for them, Artur Mas describes. (ABC News: Tim Stevens)
The disappearance of respect
Joan Botella has been following Catalan politics, as he puts it, “for all of my 66 years”. The Dean of Politics at Barcelona’s Autonomous University said the decision in 2010 was a turning point.
“Until that time most Catalans thought they were understood and respected,” Professor Botella said.
“After 2010, the feeling was this respect was disappearing or had disappeared.”
Independence hasn’t always been a priority for Catalans — but recent developments have raised the issue. (Reuters: Albert Gea)
The push for an independence referendum gained momentum. The Popular Party’s Mr Rajoy became Prime Minister in 2011.
He refused to negotiate over Catalan autonomy. When asked for a binding referendum, he rejected the claims outright. Catalan authorities say they asked at least 16 times for a vote on the issue.
If the Prime Minister had been able to find a way to make this happen, the referendum probably would have gone the same way as Scotland in 2014 and Quebec in 1995.
Mr Rajoy could have portrayed himself as a democrat, a leader who had been willing to listen to the people. Pro-independence activists like Mr Puigdemont would have been starved of the kind of voter resentment they have been able to exploit ever since.
At the 2015 regional elections, pro-independence candidates won a majority of seats. Mr Puigdemont became the local president in 2016, the first one to refuse to take an oath of allegiance to the King and the constitution.
Madrid is ‘producing separatists’
With his coalition of pro-independence MPs, he forged ahead and held an unofficial referendum on October 1, a poll that was ruled illegal by the same constitutional court that made its ruling on the reformed Statute of Autonomy.
Of those who voted, 90 per cent favoured independence. But this poll had little legitimacy. Only 43 per cent of the electorate voted, with many boycotting the poll after it was ruled to be illegal.
It was not run by a proper independent electoral authority and there was not an official “No” campaign.
The power of this poll stems mostly from Madrid’s reaction to it. Riot police were sent in to prevent voting. Ballot boxes were seized and hundreds of voters were injured.
Catalans who were not planning to vote showed up at polling stations later in the day in disgust at the heavy-handed tactics employed by the police.
Catalans won’t easily forget the violence seen at polling stations that day. Nor will they forget King Filipe VI’s televised address two days later.
Not once did he mention the victims of police violence. Not once did he mention mediation. Not once did he speak in Catalan. As local MP Albano Dante Fachin told me: “That night, he abdicated as King of Catalonia.”
Professor Botella can’t quite believe the political ineptitude coming from Madrid.
“They are producing separatists every day,” he said.
Retired journalist Cesar Lopez is lobbying for Spain’s political leaders to enter mediation talks over the Catalonia referendum. (ABC News: Tim Stevens)
Political debate hijacked
The Spanish Government’s blanket refusal to negotiate with Catalonia since the poll has further compounded the situation.
Mr Rajoy continues to treat a political problem as a legal one. In rejecting calls for mediation he said:
“It’s not possible to accept a dialogue to agree on what is expressly forbidden by Article 2 of the constitution — to negotiate over the ownership of sovereignty that belongs to all Spaniards, and the unbreakable unity of Spain.”
Catalan Ombudsman Rafael Ribo said it’s ludicrous to suggest the Spanish Government cannot negotiate. (ABC News: Tim Stevens)
Catalan Ombudsman Rafael Ribo said political debate in Spain has been hijacked by the court’s interpretation of the constitution.
“It decided that not only legal decisions were going to be prosecuted, but political standings in parliament could be prosecuted in penal terms,” he said.
Mr Ribo, who is also the president of the European section of the International Ombudsman Institute, said it’s ludicrous to suggest the Spanish Government cannot negotiate with the Catalans because of legal reasons.
As he pointed out, previous governments negotiated with ETA — the terrorist group pursuing independence for the Basque Country.
“At the same time they were assassinating people, the Spanish Government was in dialogue with them,” he said.
“Is there anything worse than killing people? It’s not only outside of the constitution, it’s outside any human right.”
Mr Rajoy continues to refuse to sit down and have talks with Catalonia. His solution to the crisis is to threaten to use a section of the constitution that would seize more autonomy off the region.
This could lead to the local police being taken over by Madrid, control seized of public broadcasting and fresh elections called.
Like the King’s speech, and the police beatings, and the Popular Party’s court challenge to the Statute of Autonomy back in 2010, this could further alienate Catalans and help recruit more members to a cause that was on the fringes of political thinking just a decade ago.