No Way Back: Catalonia Referendum Opens Pandora’s Box

The independence referendum in Catalonia can be seen as a way of bargaining with Spain’s central government, according to Valdai Club expert Tatyana Koval. For ordinary Catalans, this referendum is one thing, while for politicians it is another. The difficult question of redistributing funds, including those from the EU, will now be discussed in a new context.

In recent years, there has been a growing conflict between Catalonia and the central government of Spain. Catalan government chairman Carles Puigdemont, despite prohibitions and the decision of the Constitutional Court said that the poll would take place whether Madrid wants it or not. The question put to the referendum was “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” From the very beginning, it was clear that if the majority of voters (no matter how many votes in total) answered this question positively, the Catalan government would consider this a legal basis for declaration of independence, and the Law on Legal Transition and on the Constitution of the Republic adopted on September 8, 2017, will enter into force.

A single electronic list of voters was created as insurance, which allowed for voting at any site and for printing out ballots at home. The police, acting in accordance with the Constitution and obeying the central government, confiscated ballot boxes with ballots at many sites and closed 400 schools in which voting was to be held. However, using virtual lists, data could be restored, according to a special, urgently created section of the Catalan government website. According to the latest data, 2.2 million people voted, and 90% of them voted for independence. However, 770 thousand votes are lost because of the actions of the police, according to Catalan authorities.

The main issue is whether two to three million people can decide the fate of, firstly, the whole of Catalonia, where 5.3 million people have the right to vote and, secondly, the whole of Spain, in which 36.5 million have the right to vote. The very participation in the referendum initially implied support of the Catalan authorities, and non-participation – support of the central government. It turned out that no matter how much more numerous the silent part in Catalonia was than the supporters of independence, it would still lose, because it did not participate in the illegal referendum.

Having conducted the referendum, the Catalan authorities challenged, firstly, the monarchy and personally the Spanish king, who, according to the current 1978 Constitution, is the head of state and a symbol of his unity and permanence (Section 56). The Constitution ends with words that the king commands all Spaniards to observe it, and among other numerous titles has the title of “Prince of Girona.”1

Secondly, this is also a challenge to the central government and the Constitutional Court. The Catalan government ignored all their prohibitions. Not only because “autonomous communities” have no right to initiate referendums, but also because the question of the collapse of the country cannot in essence be legitimate. Indeed, according to Article 2, “The Constitution is based on the unbreakable unity of the Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible Fatherland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to autonomy for the nationalities and regions that make it up, and solidarity between them.” And, according to Article 8, the Armed Forces must not only ensure the sovereignty and independence of Spain, but also “to protect its territorial integrity and constitutional order”. Legally, Catalonia could have been put under martial law. The police fired rubber bullets only in extreme cases, trying not to cause a wave of protest and not inflame tempers.

Thirdly, the referendum became a challenge to all other Spaniards. They do not want to submit to the will of a minority that is carried away by populist slogans, and “give up” Catalonia, the most economically developed region of the country. In addition, the majority of Spanish citizens (54%) see themselves equally as Spanish and as native of their region.2

It is important to take into account that the Catalan government considers not only the ethnic Catalans, but all the inhabitants of Catalonia who have lived there for at least 5 years to be part of the Catalan “nationality” (la nacionalitat catalana).3 Approximately half of them came from other regions of the country in the 1960s and 1970s, after the economic boom began thanks to the so-called Stabilization Plan. Catalonia was flooded by masses of migrants, primarily from the most economically backward southern areas. It can be assumed that most of them did not participate in the referendum and do not want to break away from Spain, as they have relatives who live in other regions.

Why did separatist sentiments take such deep roots? To better understand the situation, it is important to consider several points. First, throughout Spanish history, two opposite tendencies coexisted, unity and disunity. Centralization under the rule of the Spanish King occurred rather late and was in many ways superficial. Up to the 18th century, inhabitants of the former independent kingdoms treated each other as foreigners, had the right not to let “foreign troops” into their territories, including Castilian ones, while the inhabitants of Aragon, which included the territories of modern Catalonia, did not consider themselves obligated to protect Castile even from external enemies. It is important that in the War of the Spanish Succession, they supported the Hapsburgs, and not the Bourbons, and as a result, lost all of their special rights and privileges.

Since then, the contradictions with the center did not disappear, but acquired a new meaning, tied to the development of the Catalan bourgeoisie and the development of nationalism in the nineteenth century. In the years of First Republic (1873-1874), the head of the government Francesc Pi i Margal, a Catalan by origin, put forward the idea of “​"unity in diversity,” suggesting that the “regional states” of Spain should be united in a federation. However, "Cantonalist" radicals came to power after that, and the country was on the verge of total collapse, saved only by the restoration of the monarchy. Therefore, remembering this unfortunate experience, the current 1978 Constitution expressly prohibits the federation. During the era of the Second Republic (1931-1939), Catalonia received autonomy and approved its Statute.

After the death of Francisco Franco, who greatly feared separatism, in 1975, Spain embarked on the path of democratization. This meant rejection of centralization, which was associated with dictatorship. Greater decentralization was perceived as greater democratization. There was a tendency towards centrifugal tendencies. It is no accident that the referendum in Catalonia on October 1, 2017 was held under the slogan of more democracy. For many Catalans, it was important that they are “heard” and have the right to express their position, but many want recognition of the right of nations to self-determination.

This is what is especially important: the situation in Catalonia is largely due to the peculiarities of the territorial and state organization of Spain. Having entered the path of democratization, Spain has been building a unique model of the territorial-state structure for more than four decades, the so-called “state of autonomies.” The specificity of this model consists, firstly, of the fact that the initiative to create autonomous communities was to be done on the grassroots level, according to the plan conceived by the authorities, and, secondly, each of the autonomous communities has its own scope of powers and its degree of independence from the center. That is, relations of autonomous governments and central authorities are crafted separately in each case.

As a result, Catalonia, which already had an Autonomy Statute, gained autonomy before others, in 1979. Having a specific ethno-cultural identity, it began actively to impose Catalan language and culture on all Catalans, half of whom are Spanish-speakers. It was forbidden to speak Spanish in public places, the 1997 law on language policy enacted fines for signs in Spanish, and there are no schools with instruction in Spanish.

Thus, a referendum can be seen as a pressure on the central government for bargaining. For ordinary Catalans, the referendum is one thing, but for politicians, it is another. The difficult question of the redistribution of funds, including from the EU, will now apparently be discussed in a new context. After all, the referendum opened a Pandora’s Box, and there is no way back. It is not entirely clear how one can find a way out of this more complicated situation. However, the Catalan political elite does everything to increase its potential for influence. For the central government, this is a very difficult moment. It has the issue of the Basque Country, whose government has a plan not only to gain independence, but also to form a new Basque state, uniting the Basques of Spain and France. All of this is unwelcomed in the EU countries.

It is also important to bear in mind that according to the 1978 Constitution, “If a Self-governing Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way that is seriously prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the President of the Self-governing Community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by the overall majority of the Senate, take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations, or to protect the abovementioned general interest.” However, coercive measures will only provoke a wave of struggle for independence. And no one needs a new civil war.


1. Importantly, he was the first Bourbon to use this title, since 1990, when he visited Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia.

2. According to the 1978 Constitution, the Spanish nation denotes all people and regions, which are part of the state. For levels of identity as of July 2017, see this link.

3. The Catalan law of September 8 contained this formula.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.