Will Catalonia gain independence?

Will Catalonia gain independence?
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We’re not making a lot progress here on deciding whether Catalonia has declared independence or not. You may recall that millions of Catalans went to the polls two weeks ago to try and vote in a referendum organized by the Catalan regional government, and that the Spanish government did not approve of that. In addition to (correctly) pointing out that the Spanish constitution does not allow for this kind of unilateral secessionism, the Rajoy administration responded positively to the judicial branch’s attempts to make the referendum physically impossible by having the national police force seize ballots and club voters.

Those attempts largely failed, and supporters of independence easily won their low turnout referendum. Under the legal construct sustaining the referendum, this victory would trigger a unilateral declaration of independence, and so it did a week ago. This declared independence lasted for only a few seconds, as Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont announced that he was suspending Catalan independence to start negotiations with the Spanish government instead.

Why the cold feet? The Catalan independence movement appears to have been surprised by the response to its declared ambitions from two sides, the Catalan business community and the international community. After years of laying the groundwork for independence through public commentary and the construction of a parallel foreign service, it expected more international support than the occasional tweet from a Flemish nationalist or expressions of support from lamentable populists of the Nigel Farage and Nicolas Maduro variety.

Instead, governments from Belgium to Botswana effectively declared the issue to be a domestic Spanish one, while expressing their concern about the policy response and the path forward. Securing international support for secession was always going to be an uphill battle, and the Catalan government appears to have overestimated its chances here.

A crucial part of the local response was not promising either. Leading Catalan firms, from banks to bakers, chose to relocate to the rest of Spain. These moves do not involve the relocation of real resources for now, but they reflect real concerns about looming chaos and, especially in the case of financial institutions, being left outside the European Union if independence were somehow to materialize after all. They also reflect the Spanish government’s willingness to play hardball in an area where Catalonia has long been strong: It generates about 20 percent of Spanish gross domestic product with a population that amounts to just about a sixth.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s formal response to the suspended declaration of independence was an ultimatum. He gave Puigdemont a week to clarify whether he had actually declared independence. That deadline hit yesterday, and Puigdemont responded by restating his muddled position. He declared that his “suspension of the political mandate” to declare independence ought to be seen as an olive branch. He cannot back down entirely, as his more unbathed coalition partners would revolt, while pushing ahead with revolutionary fervor would undoubtedly lead to forceful intervention by the central government.

In response, Rajoy extended the deadline: Thursday it is. Then we will finally know whether Catalonia has, indeed, declared independence. If it has, then the Spanish government is likely to suspend Catalonia’s home rule and risk more ugly imagery. If it won’t say, Rajoy faces a difficult choice. He can infer that independence or something along those lines has been declared and take drastic measures that risk inflaming separatist sentiment even more. He can give in to what he and his supporters see as illegal blackmail and sit down to renegotiate the fundamental nature of the Spanish state, which would contradict all of his actions and statements so far. Or he can continue to kick the can down the road, hoping that it will eventually disappear.

That hope seems unlikely to materialize, as a significant share of Catalans now support independence, and they have not been offered a vision of Spain that can bring them back into the fold. Meanwhile, leaders of the independence movement and Catalan law enforcement officials are being investigated and jailed, and it seems hard to imagine that the conflict and confrontation will not grow tenser.

Stan Veuger is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a fellow at the Center for the Governance of Change at the Instituto de Empresa School of International Relations in Madrid. You can follow him on Twitter @StanVeuger.