Why do some Catalans want independence and what is Spain’s view?

Two governments are on a collision course: Catalonia says its referendum will go ahead, Madrid is adamant it won’t

Spain’s view
A demonstrator holds up a Catalan separatist flag in Barcelona. Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters
The GuardianWhat is going on in Catalonia?

Catalonia’s regional government intends to hold an independence referendum on 1 October. The Spanish government has vowed to stop the vote, which it says is unconstitutional, and the two governments – one in Madrid, one in Barcelona – are now on a collision course.

Why do some Catalans want independence?

The independence movement, led by the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, argues that Catalonia has a moral, cultural, economic and political right to self-determination. Its supporters feel their rich region of 7.5 million people has long put more into Spain than it has received in return.

Support for independence has grown over the past few years as Spain has endured a painful and protracted economic crisis. Many Catalans are still angry about the Spanish constitutional court’s decision seven years ago to annul or reinterpret parts of the 2006 Catalan statute of autonomy, which would have afforded the region greater independence.

How strong is support for independence?

Polls show 70% of Catalans want to be able to vote in a referendum but they are more evenly divided when it comes to independence. A survey two months ago showed 49.4% of Catalans were against independence and 41.1% were in favour.

How did we get here?

The Catalan parliament, where Puigdemont’s coalition has a majority, has been taking legislative steps towards independence for more than a year. In June Puigdemont announced that the referendum would be held in October and would ask voters: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?”

This month, after a heated session of the regional parliament, MPs passed the so-called referendum law to pave the way for the vote. The government insists the referendum will be legally binding and has promised to declare independence from Spain within 48 hours of a victory for the yes camp.

What does the Spanish government say about all this?

The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has insisted the referendum will not go ahead and has promised to use all legal means at the government’s disposal to prevent it.

On what grounds does the Spanish government oppose the vote?

It argues that any referendum on Catalan independence would be illegal because Spain’s 1978 constitution makes no provision for a vote on self-determination.

The Spanish constitutional court, which has suspended the referendum law pushed through the Catalan parliament this month, is looking into whether the law breaches the constitution.

In March this year the former Catalan president Artur Mas was banned from holding public office for two years after being found guilty of disobeying the constitutional court by holding a symbolic independence referendum three years ago. Other, current members of the Catalan government are facing legal action over their roles in the push for independence.

So it’s a standoff?

Basically, yes. But tensions have escalated significantly this week after Spanish Guardia Civil officers raided a dozen regional government premises in Barcelonaand arrested 14 senior officials, including Catalonia’s secretary general of economic affairs and the secretary of taxation. Police have seized nearly 10m ballot papers and confiscated more than 1.5m referendum leaflets and posters.

Meanwhile, the interior ministry has cancelled all leave for the Guardia Civil and national police officers tasked with preventing the referendum, the Spanish government has imposed controls on regional spending and the Spanish foreign minister has said some in the independence movement have adopted “Nazi attitudes” to try to intimidate Catalan mayors opposed to the referendum.

What’s the reaction been?

Puigdemont has accused the Spanish government of effectively suspending regional autonomy and declaring a de facto state of emergency. About 40,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona on Wednesday night to protest against the raids. In an address on Wednesday night, Rajoy told the regional government: “Stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all.”

What happens next?

No one knows but there will be more cat-and-mouse games between the Spanish government and the Catalan government. Neither side shows any sign of backing down: Puigdemont says the referendum will go ahead; Rajoy is adamant it won’t.

The Spanish government has not ruled out resorting to article 155 of the constitution, never before used, which would allow the central government to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy and take control to stop the vote. However, such a move – coming soon after the controversial raids – would probably prove hugely counter-productive. Not only would it be seen as excessively heavy-handed at home and abroad, it would also massively boost the independentists’ cause.

 

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