Stockholm (Ekonamik) – The decision by Spain’s Supreme Court to imprison nine separatist leaders – including Catalonia’s former deputy Prime Minister Oriol Junqueras, for 13 years – for their participation in the failed bid for independence two years ago last week has almost certainly contributed to pushing Catalonia further to the brink of crisis ahead of parliamentary elections next week (November 10) (other separatist leaders received between nine and 12 years).
It was an unusually harsh judgment for the crime of having organised a referendum and is unlikely to go any way towards solving the crisis. All the separatist leaders were explicitly acquitted of sedition and were not found to have encouraged any form of violence, with the Court even finding that they had sought in the main to strengthen their negotiating position with Madrid.
Nevertheless, the 2017 referendum itself was found to be illegal, as Catalonia has no legal claim to independence. But what was deemed to be a political stunt and the harshness of the punishment is creating severe unrest and making it even more difficult to find a solution to the crisis, with imprisoned politicians likely to be martyred and compromise even less likely ahead of the general election next week, which will now be dominated by this issue.
350,000 people marched in a pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona protesting the decision last weekend, which was countered by a smaller demonstration of about 80,000 organised by the Societat Civil Catalana, a grouping of parties and civic groups campaigning for Catalonia to remain part of Spain.
While it is difficult to estimate the exact economic impact of the situation, Spain’s acting Economy Minister Nadia Calvino said last month the country as a whole would be outperforming growth in the European Union if the region returned to stability and its average economic output. Catalonia is a strong contributor to Spain’s economic growth and the largest economy in Spain by nominal GDP, but it has been hobbled in recent years in part because its bid for independence forced numerous companies to leave the region, among other factors. It had a 34.2% debt-to-GDP ratio in 2018, and its CPI stood at 0.3% in September of 2019.
Popular support for seceding from Spain currently stands at 44%, while 48.3% of Catalans oppose it, reflecting the deep divisions within the region itself. These are unlikely to heal soon no matter what happens. 47% of Catalans speak Spanish as their daily language, with 36% still preferring Catalan (a decline of eight per cent from 2003 to 2013, according to available statistics) and it still predominating in rural areas. There are no easy solutions to the question of independence because identification is often shared equally between the region and the country.
Moreover, the crisis in Catalonia is political and cannot be resolved legally, something which the European Union would do well to remind Spain’s leaders of considering other separatist movements in the bloc, which are also likely to gain strength on the basis of the growing revolts and other discontents elsewhere. The government could have decreed an amnesty for the separatist leaders, which would have helped to dampen moods and de-polarise debate leading up until the election, but this does not seem a likely course of action in the next week.
The issue is further complicated. The Charter of the United Nations is based on the principle of a people’s right to self-determination. The European Union celebrates Baltic independence, for example, but rejects it for Catalonia and – so far – Scotland (which is also possibly set for another referendum soon). Paradoxically, European institutions make it more possible for small and medium-sized countries to function cohesively politically and economically and to pursue their interests, as opposed to being subjected to larger powers. Surely the EU should be expected to apply the same standards universally.
As it stands, it appears as if the only tangible solution is to allow Catalonia’s current population a democratic path to a vote for independence. Madrid’s denial of that opportunity will only ensure that the issue will always return with a vengeance. A referendum could be held by qualified majority as opposed to the 50% threshold that has created such trouble in the UK, such that a decision either way by the Catalan people can be seen to be legitimate. Whether Spain’s leaders can ever find themselves in agreement about this, however, is another matter.
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