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In Spain, Confusion And Uncertainty About Catalonia's Future

Oct 13, 2017
Originally published on October 13, 2017 4:34 pm

Did he or didn't he declare independence? That is the question in Spain.

The answer has huge implications for what the Spanish government does next and how the country's relatively young democracy — indeed, possibly even the whole European Union — might stay intact.

The "he" in question is Catalan separatist leader Carles Puigdemont, who delivered an ambiguous speech Tuesday to his regional parliament in Barcelona in which he appeared to declare independence from Spain — and then abruptly took it back. He also signed a document afterward that read, in part: "We constitute a Catalan republic, as an independent and sovereign state ..."

Some separatists cheered and claimed victory. Others said Puigdemont's words fell short. Many were simply confused.

"He's trying to buy some time," says Xavier Arbos Marin, a constitutional law expert who teaches at the University of Barcelona and other institutions in Catalonia. "His party is split between those who are more shy in terms of advancing to independence, or others, like Puigdemont himself, who are more radical."

Puigdemont is playing it both ways, Arbos says. He is balancing the more than 2 million voters who cast ballots in favor of secession in an Oct. 1 referendum against what may be a similar number of Catalans, according to opinion polls, who do not wish to leave Spain. There is pressure from Spanish and European officials as well.

More than half of Catalonia's 5.3 million registered voters did not vote at all on the referendum. Unionist parties encouraged their supporters to boycott the vote, which was ruled illegal by Spanish courts.

But the Spanish government is losing patience. In parliament, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy accused Puigdemont of being "intentionally confusing."

Here is exactly what Puigdemont said in his speech:

"The people have determined that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic. That is what needs to be done today... I myself propose that the parliament suspend the effects of the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we may begin a dialogue."

Do those words, along with the document Puigdemont signed, amount to a declaration of independence in the legal sense?

That is the question Rajoy posed in a formal letter Wednesday to Puigdemont, a copy of which was obtained by NPR. In it, he called on the Catalan leader to "cease grave actions contrary to the general interest of Spain."

The letter represents the first step in a process of invoking Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which allows Madrid to assume control of any Spanish region, canceling its partial autonomy. The article has never been invoked in Spain's 39-year democratic history.

Spain's richest region

After the end in 1975 of Gen. Francisco Franco's nearly four-decade dictatorship, during which some of Spain's disparate ethnic and national groups were repressed, the survival of the new Spanish democracy was thought to rest on the devolution of powers to the regions — reversing the centralized power of the dictator.

The post-Franco 1978 Constitution recognized 17 autonomous regions, many of which, like Catalonia, have their own languages, cultures and traditions. The regions enjoy powers to set policy for many services, including health care and education, but rely on the central government for tax collection and redistribution of funds.

The financial aspects of the arrangement have long been a central complaint by industrialized Catalonia. It is Spain's richest region and essentially subsidizes poorer parts of Spain.

Some Catalans resent that and believe they could be even more prosperous as an independent state. Catalonia's 7.5 million residents contribute about a fifth of the Spanish gross domestic product and more than a quarter of the country's exports. Its regional economy is larger than that of Portugal or Finland.

Catalan separatists have already set up a new tax agency to collect revenue if the region breaks away from Spain. But it's unclear whether independence would be a financial net gain for Catalonia, given the costs of border control, foreign relations and possibly the creation of a military — all of which are currently paid for by Madrid.

Any new country of Catalonia would also be forced to leave the European Union, at least initially. It could continue to use the euro as its de facto currency, but it's unclear whether the new central bank it would have to create would be allowed to issue debt in euros.

Catalan separatists were a small fringe in society and the regional parliament for years. But Spain's economic crisis brought their concerns sharply into focus for the general population. Opinion polls show Catalans are roughly divided 50-50 on the question of independence, though a big majority of Catalans said in the past they wanted to vote on the issue. Spain considers any such vote, like the one held Oct. 1, unconstitutional.

Spain's ultimatum and the "nuclear option"

Article 155 would cancel Catalonia's devolved powers and reroute them to Madrid. Spanish and Catalan media refer to it as "the nuclear option." It overrules the very nature of Spain's post-Franco system.

Rajoy has given Puigdemont an ultimatum: He has until 10 a.m. local time Monday to clarify whether he has already declared independence. If he makes clear that he has not, Rajoy will discontinue Article 155 proceedings. But if Puigdemont replies that he has indeed declared Catalonia's independence, he faces another deadline, at 10 a.m. local time Thursday, to reverse course.

If he does not do so by then, Rajoy says he will ask for Senate approval to depose Puigdemont's regional government — the next step in Article 155.

The Catalan leader has clarified nothing so far. But he tweeted in Catalan Thursday: "I ask for dialogue, and they put Article 155 on the table. Understood."

Carles Campuzano, a spokesman for Puigdemont's party, warned lawmakers in the national parliament that this weekend may be "the last opportunity" for dialogue.

But Rajoy has so far refused to engage, saying he will not negotiate the breakup of Spain. "Some kinds of dialogue are not helpful," Rajoy told parliament.

The Catalan National Assembly, a pro-independence civics group thought to hold sway with Puigdemont, issued a statement late Thursday urging secession: "Given Spain's rejection of any proposal for dialogue, it no longer makes any sense to maintain the suspension of the declaration of independence." It called on Puigdemont to "implement ... the legal transition" and secede from Spain.

Early Friday, the far-left separatist Popular Unity Candidacy party issued a letter to Puigdemont urging the same. His ruling coalition in the Catalan parliament relies on support from the CUP.

Europe's concerns

Puigdemont hinted Tuesday in his speech that international mediation was underway but that he could not reveal who was involved. The European Union has not come to his rescue, at least not publicly. It still considers this an internal Spanish matter.

The vice president of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, last week justified Spanish police raids on polling stations Oct. 1, in which hundreds of civilians were injured. The constitutions of EU member states must be upheld, he said, "and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force."

Saddled with negotiations on the United Kingdom's departure from the union, the EU does not need another fire to put out.

"Other countries also face their own separatist movements within their own borders. The U.K. is one, which allowed a binding referendum in Scotland. Italy, the Netherlands and Germany are other examples. There's concern that giving mediation to Catalan separatists might encourage similar movements around Europe," says Federico Santi, a political analyst at the London-based Eurasia Group.

Possible compromise?

This week, Barcelona's tapas bars have been abuzz with discussions of Rajoy's timeline and the content of Puigdemont's declaration. No one agrees on what to expect.

"It was good enough for me. He said it! He announced, 'I am proclaiming independence,' " says Carla Ricart, a 21-year-old business student. She voted Oct. 1 for independence and believes that since Puigdemont's speech, she is already living in an independent republic of Catalonia.

"For me, it was not very straightforward. He's just walking in circles," says Eugenio Juliá, 28, a Mexican-Spaniard who is worried the terms of his graduate school scholarship may change if Catalonia leaves Spain and thus the European Union.

At the eleventh hour, there are signs of a possible compromise — but it will take time.

Pedro Sanchez — the leader of Spain's opposition Socialists, who hold the second-highest number of seats in the national parliament, after Rajoy's conservatives — revealed Wednesday that he has held a series of secret meetings with Rajoy in recent weeks. The topic: reforming the Spanish Constitution.

They agreed to set up a bipartisan group to study reforms to the relationship Spain has with its regions, to prevent a crisis like Catalonia from happening again. Such future reforms could possibly grant the regions more powers over taxation and spending — something Catalonia has long demanded.

The reform study will be a six-month process. Spain must first get through the next few days.

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