On the 27th of October, 2017, Catalonia officially implemented its declaration of independence from Spain, after declaring what amounted to a deceleration of intent to form an independent republic on the 10th of October.
For the leaders in both Barcelona and Madrid, October of 2017 must certainly feel like the “longest month”. It was on the 1st of October that Catalonia held a referendum in which approximately 2.3 million Catalans voted to leave Spain, with the affirmative stance gaining 92% of the vote. With a turnout of 43%, while less than half the population of Catalonia, the percentage of votes cast was still higher for example, than the 2012 US midterm elections and only slightly lower than the last 10 US Presidential elections.
After long weeks of back and forth over whether the position of Catlaonia was negotiable and if so how, the matter is now moot. Just prior to Madrid stripping Catalonia’s autonomous government and parliament of its powers, the parliament in Barcelona voted via-secret ballot to secede from Spain, thus forming an independent republic.
At present, Spain holds the view that the then autonomous government of Catalonia (or former government dependent on one’s point of view) acted illegally and that therefore, Catalonia remains part of Spain and as such, will vote to elect a new autonomous Parliament on 21st December after just under 2 months of direct rule from Madrid. From the point of view of the parliamentarians in Barcelona who voted in a numerically proper quorum for independence, Catalonia is now an independent Republic.
These legally black-and-white positions, obfuscate the more pressing ‘grey areas’ around which the next set of crises and/or solutions will revolve.
With this in mind, here are the possible short-term consequences of yesterday’s events starting with the most peaceful:
1. Madrid ignores the implementation of the declaration of independence
In many ways, it seems counter-intuitive to list this as the ‘most peaceful short term option’, not least because there is ostensibly no bigger insult to a peoples than to simply ignore their declaration of independence. This is ironically, not necessarily the case with Catalonia.
The very reason that Catalan independence was not declared on the 2nd of October is because the Catalan leadership are very moderate in their approach to the issue. Forgetting whether one finds the Catalan leaders inspiring or incipient, the fact of the matter is that they did not so much say “give me liberty or give me death” as they said “give me European values and give me those values on my terms at the soonest possible date after a period of polite discussions”.
Because Catalonia has shown the propensity to wait for a good faith negotiation partner during a very trying month and because furthermore, many Catalan politicians have insisted that they seek peace and cooperation whenever possible, the onus therefore is now very much on Madrid to de-escalate the situation.
Madrid could still go through with the technical firing of the Catalan government in order to administer the humdrum business of daily life in Catalonia for an interim period on their terms, but if Madrid were to officially adopt a position of ignoring the formal independence vote, it could still negotiate with independence leaders in another capacity.
The west, including Spain, continually speaks of ‘moderate rebels’ in places throughout the world, notably Syria, in spite of the fact that they are acting violently, using terrorism as their de-facto means of ‘political expression’, are mostly foreign proxies and are violating not only national but international law. With the exception of Catalonia violating Spanish law, included the much hated 1978 Spanish constitution, which many see as overtly Francoist in nature, none of this applies to Catalonia.
No one can reasonably say that Catalan independence supporters or their leaders are terrorists or post a direct threat to world peace as al-Qaeda, the FSA, Kurdish ethno-nationalists and ISIS do in places like Syria or Iraq. Furthermore, unlike Middle Eastern Kurds who are something of Israel’s de-facto regional puppets, Catalan independence movements have been part of Iberian history going back centuries. The Catalan struggle, in other-words, predates the creation of the dastardly Israeli colonial state, the birth of George Soros, the idea of the New World Order and the advent of neo-liberal economics. To therefore say that Catalan independence is about any of these things, as many have, fails to realise the long historical basis which underlies recent events in Catalonia.
Because of this, Madrid has nothing to lose, yet much to gain from engaging in negotiations with the leaders of the independence movement. Had Madrid negotiated directly with the leaders in Barcelona, the entire independence movement may have fizzled-out over time, in the same way that Brexit appears to be doing in another EU state, or otherwise, Madrid could have agreed to a situation whereby Catalonia settles on an Andorra like solution whereby Catalonia becomes a state formally protected by Spain (as Andorra is technically protected by France), while technically enjoying the desired benefits of EU membership which logically derive from the ‘protector’ state. Because of Catalonia’s size vis-a-vis Andorra, some sort of financial agreement could be agreed upon on a per annum basis.
Such a solution would require creativity, but crucially it requires no blood and could be arranged to create face-saving and money saving measures that cover both sides in terms of economic, political and even ego driven requirements and desires. It is still not too late to achieve this as the “slowly-slowly” attitude in Barcelona has not dramatically changed, in spite of recent dramatic events. In this sense, yesterday’s vote was more of a sign that Barcelona is not bluffing, that it is a sign that Madrid is now an automatic enemy of the largely unrecognised new Catalan Republic.
2. Barcelona initiates a dialogue process….and it works
It must be re-stated that one of the reasons Catalonia implemented a declaration of independence yesterday was because it felt it had no option to do anything else. If Catalonia’s leaders did nothing while Madrid moved to abolish their autonomy, they would have looked weak before the eyes of their constituents and ineffective in the eyes of the world from which they will need to garner support, in one way or another.
Thus, we now know that Catalonia’s leaders have the collective strength to do what they said they would do. But can they now do something more difficult? Can they offer the wider world an option that cannot be refused?
Catalonia has gone out of its way to do that which, for example, the Kurds in the Middle East have not done. While Kurds have resorted to armed conflict and terrorism in their disregard for both national and international law, Catalans have practised entirely peaceful civil disobedience in arguable violation of national law, but in full compliance with EU law which is theoretically superior to national law in many cases, among member states.
The fact that Catalans are being totally disregarded by most EU states and the EU itself, is symptomatic of double-standards in the west, whereby an armed terrorist in Asia or Africa is a ‘freedom fighter’, but peaceful individuals initiating a controversial but totally non-violent political process in the west, are somehow bandits. Furthermore, Catalonia is a regional crisis and for the EU, an existential crisis. Such a reality is miles away from the very real security crisis that Turkey, Syria and Iran felt when Iraqi Kurds, machine guns in hand, voted in a secession referendum which went beyond their legally defined autonomous borders within Iraq. Again, none of this applies to Catalonia.
If followed to its logical conclusion, Catalonia can now call on international mediators to instigate a process for dialogue that Madrid simply could not ignore. If such a process fails, it will represent a total failure of the so-called international community. If not a single nation, not the UN, not a former UN Secretary General, not a single peace activist can step forward and heed Catalonia’s calls for a truly international dialogue process to be organised, then there truly is no international community to speak of. It certainly behoves Catalonia to attempt and find out.
3. Duelling governments in Barcelona
Madrid is set to appoint a new interim leadership in Barcelona who will answer directly to the Spanish government, while calling for new elections to form a Catalan parliament in December. The effectiveness of such a move depends on the de-facto current leaders in Barcelona (Puigdemont et al.) and their supporters simply going away quietly.
If anyone thinks it is likely that after a long standoff which was capped by the declaration of a Catalan Republic will end the moment Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy sends ‘his man’ to Barcelona, then they are not living in the real world.
With two competing governments in Barcelona, the short term confusion and deadlock could lead to disaster, as shall be explored in the following two, very un-peaceful possibilities.
4. Mass arrests of Catalan independence leaders
Spain has already set a worrying precedent by arresting Catalan independence organisers on sedition charges. There are now open fears that such a precedent could now lead to the arrest of the entire de-facto leadership in Barcelona, as well as many members of the Catalan parliament (even though the vote for independence was conducted via secret ballot).
This would not only set-off an uncontrollable chain reaction of fear and almost certainly violence in Catalonia and beyond, but would set off a chain of lawsuits which would test the primacy of national law versus EU and international law. If Madrid were to invoke the most neo-Francoist elements of its constitution and subsequently conduct mass arrests reminiscent of the 1930s, it would not only embolden more Catalans than ever in their desire to breakaway from Spain permanently, but it will be guaranteed to keep both the European Court of Human Rights and the European Court of Justice busy for years if not decades to come.
The legal issues which currently exist, could and should be solved through mediation followed by an accord. However, if mass arrests of prominent Catalan leaders are conducted by Spain, a larger legal Pandora’s Box would be flung open and more importantly, any claim of a peaceful regional dispute would be forever lost. Instead, it would be a repeat of the 1930s in more ways than one, combined with the legal labyrinth of 21st century judicial mechanisms.
5. Civil War
Depending of various push-pull factors at play, a repeat, however microcosmic, of the 1930s Spanish Civil War could take place. If Madrid cracks down hard on political leaders, demonstrators and other civil bodies in Catalonia, it is possible that Catalans could find the means to arm themselves and fight back.
If an armed struggle took place in the heart of the EU, not only would it quite possibly be the end of Spain and western Europe as we know it, but it could be the end of the EU…full stop.
Whatever would be leftover, would by definition be unrecognisable and only a great deal of effort to put the region back together could restore peace.
For mercenary thinkers who see questions of war and peace simply in economic terms, it is worth saying this: for the moment, the Catalan crisis has not drastically impacted global markets. If things escalate into an armed civil conflict, it will impact markets, but primarily in Europe with some ricochets in North America. The rest of the world will remain financially stable.
This will be the ultimate sign that an Iberian peninsula which once ruled large quarters of the world, is now reduced to a corner of a European Union that far from leading the world, can now, barely lead itself.
In many ways, this will be the ultimate wake-up call.