Spain Takes Steps Towards Suspending Catalonia’s Autonomy

In Spain’s second largest region, a constitutional crisis is unfolding. After a fiercely disputed referendum took place on October 1st, the central government in Madrid is taking action to centralize power away from Barcelona. The region’s 7.44 million residents and 200 billion euros in GDP (19% of Spain’s total GDP) could soon find themselves back under the direct control of the Spanish government, which the Catalonian nationalists sought to gain independence from.

Catalonia’s autonomy is a sore subject for most sides of the political spectrum across the Spanish kingdom. Under General Francisco Franco – Spain’s military dictator that ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975 – the Catalans suffered from linguistic, nationalistic, cultural and political restrictions, with severe consequences for those defying the ban.

The 1978 constitution that followed Franco’s death allowed for the democratic transition in Spain to occur, with significant autonomy given to a regional government in Catalonia; the 1979 new Statute of Autonomy gave the region direct, shared, or concurrent rule over many aspects of life. In addition to political and cultural freedoms, their newfound autonomy included areas of education, health, justice, environment, commerce, and public safety.

The same constitution that the Catalans had grown to value could now be their biggest concern. The independence drive by the president of the Catalonian regional government, Carles Puigdemont, and his nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) party, revealed deep wounds in the Spanish social and national fabric that had never fully recovered from the brutal days of Franco’s regime and the historical ambitions that preceded it. Despite the constitutional court of Spain ruling the referendum illegal and the central governments’ staunch opposition to any form of independence drive within Catalonia, 1,300 polling stations remained open. Of the 5.30 million registered voters, 2.26 million people voted, with 770,000 ballots confiscated by the central police force; a turnout of 43%. 844 voters and 33 police officers were injured as they attempted to stop voters from casting their ballots.

After the Spanish High Court challenged the Statute of Autonomy in 2006, and the following economic crisis of 2009, the nationalists of Catalonia rose to power and the issue avalanched into the movement it is today. The resistance of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his government to the referendum also comes with plenty of strategic motives as well. As Catalonia’s economy is so important to the rest of Spain, with its exports accounting for 25% of the country’s total, and a quarter of all of Spain’s tourists choosing Catalonia as their primary destination, this is not a fight Madrid can easily back down from. Adding on to the woes facing Madrid, Catalonian independence is also seen as a possible encouragement or model for the Basque and Galicia regions of Spain, which have always had their own ambitions for independence.

As tensions and the constant war of words continue to escalate between Madrid and Barcelona, Rajoy has taken the first steps in activating a small section of the Spanish constitution known as Article 155, which could give the government the power to “take all measures necessary to compel the [self-governing] community”. In short, this constitutional crisis could lead this tumultuous confrontation into even more uncharted territory as Madrid’s ‘nuclear option’ would suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

Such measures would do no benefit to restoring relations between Catalonians and Madrid. Nonetheless, while nationalist parties control majorities in Catalonia and Madrid, there is little room for compromise. Independence and henceforth, suspension of autonomy does not only look increasingly likely but almost inevitably possible. A long road lies ahead for rapprochement.