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The secessionist move is the biggest political and constitutional crisis Spain has faced in the last 40 years. It is hurting the Catalonia region and Spain as a whole and also sending tremors through the European Union

~By Sajeda Momin

Catalonia was known to the outside world for being the home of Barcelona Football Club, its Gothic and Renaissance architecture, beautiful coastline and its warm sunny climate—that was, until now. Over the past month pictures of demonstrations, violence, talk of referendums and independence have flooded the media, putting the small region in the northeast of Spain firmly on the political consciousness of Europe and the world.

After years of mutual hostility and distrust, independence supporters have proclaimed a Catalan republic and in retaliation the Spanish government has used emergency powers under Article 155 of its Constitution and imposed direct rule on the autonomous region.

The secessionist move is the biggest political and constitutional crisis Spain has faced in the past 40 years ever since it adopted a democratic constitution in 1978 after the death of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. While the crisis does not look as if it is set to degenerate into an armed conflict yet, it is certainly hurting the Catalonia region and Spain as a whole.

The European Union, already beleaguered by Britain’s exit from the 27-member bloc, is watching the turn of events in Spain very nervously as are other countries with secessionist movements in Europe. Fresh economic instability, which this crisis is bound to bring, is the last thing that the eurozone needs at the moment.

Though it may seem that the Catalan crisis erupted suddenly last month when the regional government organised a referendum to decide whether it wanted to remain with Spain or become an independent country, in reality, the issue has been simmering since 2010.

Catalonia is one of the 17 regions of Spain and self-governance is devolved between the regions and the central government much like it is in India between the centre and the states. The wealthy region of about 7.5 million people has its own language, flag, anthem, directly elected parliament, government, president, police force and public broadcaster. It can create its own policies in most areas including commerce, public safety, culture, environment, transportation and communication. Foreign affairs, defence and the armed forces and fiscal policy are the sole prerogative of the central government of Spain in Madrid.

Separatist leader Carles Puigdemont speaks after the regional parliament declared Independence. Photo: UNI
Separatist leader Carles Puigdemont speaks after the regional parliament declared Independence. Photo: UNI

In 2006 a new Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia was approved by a referendum; but it was contested by some sections of Spanish society and the law was sent to the Constitutional Court of Spain. In 2010, the Court declared some articles that established an autonomous Catalan system of justice, better aspects of financing, and status for the Catalan language, among other things, unconstitutional. The Court’s decision did not go down well and strengthened the demand for independence.

The other bug-bear that Catalonia has is with taxes. “Madrid is robbing us” is a phrase that has caught on among the separatists. Catalonia is one of the richest regions of Spain. It is home to only 16 percent of the population, but contributes 19 percent of the GDP and more than 25 percent of Spain’s foreign exports. Of 75 million tourists who visit Spain each year, 18 million choose Catalonia, making it the most visited region in the country. The budget and taxes are decided by Madrid and Catalans feel they contribute far more than they receive. The region contributes 19.49 percent of the central government’s tax revenue and only gets back 14.03 percent of its spending.

Other freedom movements

Apart from Catalonia, there are several other countries that have separated recently or are on the verge of secession or independence.

South Sudan separated from Sudan on July 9, 2011, which was till then the largest country of Africa. Ninety- nine percent of South Sudanese voted for secession from Sudan. However, independence came at the cost of a decade-long civil war which claimed over two million lives.

Scotland, in 2014, held a referendum to separate from the United Kingdom but 55 percent of votes were for remaining in the UK. After Brexit, Scotland is planning and demanding a second referendum.

Quebec has constantly led a separatist movement for independence from Canada. The second referendum was held in 1995 and the support for secession has been increasing ever since. Quebec accounts for a quarter of Canada’s population.

Somaliland is a self-declared state and a fragment of Somalia which works like an independent nation with its own money, passport and banking system. However, it is not recognised by any foreign governing body.

—Compiled by Lilly Paul

The disgruntlement came to the fore when supporters of independence came to power in the regional elections in September 2015. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont fanned it by holding a referendum on October 1 when 90 percent votes were polled in favour of independence. However, the voter turnout was only 43 percent and the opposition had boycotted the referendum. Spain’s Constitutional Court ruled the vote illegal.

To make matters worse, the Catalan parliament on October 27 voted to declare independence from Spain again amid an opposition boycott. Immediat­ely after, Spain’s Senate took the unprecedented step of allowing the central government to impose direct rule over Catalonia. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said: “Spain is a serious country, it is a great nation and we are not prepared in any way to allow some people to liquidate our constitution.”

Since the referendum separatists have been calling for international mediation. The Catalan parliament urged the EU to “intervene to stop the violation of civic and political rights” by the Spanish government. Puigdemont and five other Catalan ministers are in Brussels to plead their case since the imposition of direct rule. However the EU and its individual member states have made it clear they see the crisis as an internal matter of Spain.

The US, UK, Germany and France have all expressed support for Spanish unity. European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, already having to deal with an unwanted Brexit, said, “The EU doesn’t need any more cracks, more splits.” The move has come as a major challenge for Europe and created economic uncertainty. In the month since the referendum two leading banks, several utility companies and more than 1,600 other companies have decided to move their legal headquarters out of Catalonia. Two-thirds of Catalonia’s foreign exports go to the EU and they too are in jeopardy.

Demonstrators in Barcelona hold up Catalan separatist flags and take part in a gathering in support of the banned October 1 independence referendum. Photo: Rajender Kumar
Demonstrators in Barcelona hold up Catalan separatist flags and take part in a gathering in support of the banned October 1 independence referendum. Photo: Rajender Kumar

Questions are swirling about Catalonia’s relationship with Europe if its declared independence is recognised. Like Brexit we are again in uncharted territory as no one has ever declared independence from a member of the EU and then asked to rejoin as a new country. If Catalonia manages to secede from Spain, it would need to apply to become a member of the EU and it would require all EU members—including Spain—to agree.

Some separatists feel that Catalonia could settle for a single-market membership without joining the EU, but even here Spain could make life difficult. In 2015, the governor of the Bank of Spain had warned that Catalan’s independence would make the region drop out of the euro currency automatically, losing access to the European Central Bank. To enter the eurozone, a qualified majority of countries have to approve their entry, and there is no denying that Spain and its allied would block that.

However, all this is in the future. Meanwhile, the Spanish government has sacked the Catalan president and the entire cabinet and dissolved the regional parliament. Deputy Prime Minister Sorya Saenz Santamaria has been appointed to run the region temporarily until the early regional election announced for December 21. Puigdemont has said he will fight this “democratically” and has called for civil disobedience. Catalonia is bound to stay in the news at least till then.

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