Catalonia’s Bid for Independence Amidst Wider Intra-European Friction
Prof. Gabriel Tortella summarises events that have taken place in Catalonia since publication of his latest book, Catalonia in Spain: History and Myth (2017).
As predicted in the Introduction to Catalonia in Spain: History and Myth, the problem of Catalan separatism has spilled over international borders and caused serious conflicts within the European Union. In September 2017 the Catalan Parliament, where the separatists held a razor’s edge majority, approved a series of laws ‘disconnecting’ from Spain and announcing a referendum for independence to be held on October 1st of that same year. All this legislation by the Parliament of an autonomous Spanish region was declared unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court, but the Catalan Parliament proceeded with the referendum preparations regardless. In spite of –or thanks to--the Spanish government’s timorous and ineffective opposition, the referendum took place in a highly irregular and contentious way (among other irregularities, there was no electoral census and no effective prevention of ballot stuffing), with frequent scuffles between the Spanish police and violent bands of would-be voters, with the Catalan local constabulary playing an ambiguous role, more often than not hindering rather that supporting the Spanish policemen. On October 3, the king made an announcement on public television denouncing the rebellious attitude of the Catalan authorities and their repeated violations of the Constitution. This was received with a wave of support by the majority of the Spanish people and with indignation and disrespect by the separatists.
In spite of the many irregularities of that semi-clandestine referendum, the Catalan government carried on an uncontrolled recount and announced that the independence vote had won. As a response to all this, two mammoth demonstrations took place in Barcelona on alternate weekends of October showing support to the Constitution and against separatism. Up to then Catalan unionists, who are in the majority there, but underrepresented in the Parliament due to a skewed electoral law, had abstained from demonstrating publicly, cowed as they have long been by the aggressive attitude of the separatists, who are squarely backed by the Catalan government and media. Obviously, the Parliament’s ominous policies alarmed the unionists to such a degree that they dared to defy the powers of separatism. Ignoring the king’s speech and the massive demonstrations, the Parliament carried on its threats and on the 27th of October declared independence by a slender majority of votes and with the chamber half empty because the unionist parties had abandoned it in protest. The Spanish Cortes (Parliament) then dissolved the Catalan Parliament and government, and denounced the leaders of the rebellion to the judicial courts. Several of these politicians were indicted, some were jailed, and some escaped abroad, among them Carles Puigdemont, up to then the president of the Catalan autonomous government, who had acted as the leader of the rebellion and who took refuge in Brussels. This created an embarrassing situation between the Belgian and Spanish governments due, among other reasons, to the complexities of the extradition procedures.
Puigdemont established himself in Brussels and from there he carried out an intense campaign of propaganda and slander by means of press conferences and some travelling to chosen European cities. He miscalculated, however, and was detained by German police, in cooperation with Spanish police, in Germany, near the Danish border, on 25 March 2018. Immediately the Spanish judges requested Puigdemont’s extradition on the charges of rebellion and embezzlement of public monies. The request was submitted under a so called ‘Euro-order’, which normally is accepted in an almost automatic way, once the credentials of the requesting judge are ascertained. The Schleswig-Holstein magistrates, however were less compliant than expected and denied the accusation of rebellion on the part of Puigdemont on the allegation that there was no violence in the declaration of independence, a highly debatable statement and an unusual intrusion in another country’s procedure which is not supposed to occur in Euro-order transactions. Puigdemont is now free on bail in Germany and his return to Spain is dubious. This incident is another cause of intra-European friction and complicates considerably the legal situation of the detained former members of the Catalan autonomous government.
The reader of Catalonia in Spain: History and Myth will find in this book a clear and detailed background to this awkward situation and will be able to understand the historical and economic bases of Catalonia’s nationalism and separatism.
Gabriel Tortella is Professor Emeritus of Economic History at the Universidad de Alcalá, Madrid, Spain.