Catalan independence decision expected as Spain's crisis reaches crucial stage

  • All eyes are on Catalonia to see whether the region's leader and its parliament could declare a unilateral declaration of independence when it meets on Tuesday afternoon.
  • Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is set to address the regional parliament in Barcelona at 5:00 p.m. London time and speculation is mounting that he could declare independence, despite increasing political and economic pressure being placed on the wealthy northeastern region of Spain.

All eyes are on Catalonia to see whether the region's leader and its parliament could declare a unilateral declaration of independence when it meets on Tuesday afternoon.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is set to address the regional parliament in Barcelona at 5:00 p.m. London time and speculation is mounting that he could declare independence, despite increasing political and economic pressure being placed on the wealthy northeastern region of Spain.

Puigdemont has been threatened with arrest if he does declare independence, as he has previously said he would do once all the results from the symbolic referendum vote, held a week ago on Sunday, were counted and the results presented to parliament. This assembly was meant to take place on Monday but Spain's Constitutional Court suspended the session.

The potential risks of such a move are great with political and economic isolation a big threat to the prosperous region. A number of high-profile businesses and banks Caixabank and Sabadell have said they would relocate their headquarters out of Catalonia, fearing that any declaration of independence would leave the region isolated, outside of both Spain and the European Union.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of anti-independence protesters marched through Barcelona at the weekend, showing strong support for remaining a part of Spain. Meanwhile on Monday, France said it would not recognize an independent Catalonia and Germany has stressed its support for Spanish unity, adding to criticism of the separatists from other European leaders.

For its part, the EU has said an independent Catalonia would find itself outside the economic and political bloc and has so far declined to mediate in the dispute.

Saving face

Despite these growing pressures, Catalonia's political leaders find themselves in a tough position given the strong separatist sentiment and their bullish rhetoric on the subject (Catalan President Puigdemont said last week that a declaration of independence would be made in a "matter of days").

More so, the pressure is on for some kind of action after a symbolic referendum on independence was held on October 1. Ninety percent of the 2.26 million people that went to the polls, despite a police crackdown, voted for independence. There are also pressures coming from more radical separatists within the independence movement in Catalonia, those who want to go it alone come what may.

: Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont speaks to the medai after failing to vote in the referendum becau
David Ramos/Getty Images
: Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont speaks to the medai after failing to vote in the referendum becau

Federico Santi, Europe analyst at Eurasia Group, said in a note on Monday that a "symbolic" declaration of independence could come on Tuesday or later this week. "It is likely that Puigdemont will make some declaration of independence (Tuesday), but stop short of immediately declaring unilateral independence," Santi said in an analysis note.

"He may stress the symbolic nature of such (a) declaration, and could make actual independence contingent on further steps," Santi noted, including a "roadmap" to independence which would see more regional elections to appoint an assembly charged with drafting a new Catalan constitution.

"Independentist parties losing such election would inevitably stop the process in its tracks," Santi said but "if successful, the new constitution is then meant to be approved in a second referendum, within twelve months," he added.

Tempered response

The national government in Madrid has threatened to revoke all of Catalonia's regional government's power (by invoking the now infamous Article 155 in Spain's Constitution) should a declaration of independence be made on Tuesday.

Should a "soft" declaration of independence be made on Tuesday, Santi believes Madrid would try to temper its response in order to not inflame tensions further following the violent crackdown on Catalan voters, which left hundreds of people injured.

"While using article 155 of the constitution to forcibly remove the regional government and parliament from office is still an option, this is now less likely," he said. "Instead, Madrid may keep article 155 as a last resort, opting instead for less drastic measures, such as trying to take over select competences or branches of the regional government, further restricting Catalonia's public finances, and doubling down on the judicial front."

While Santi noted that the risk of a very rapid escalation in tensions resulting in more unrest has now declined, he believes that acrimony between the Catalan government and Madrid would increase and remain elevated following any declaration out of Barcelona.

"Any attempt to enforce Madrid's decision on the ground may still be met by large demonstrations, as would attempts to execute court orders against Catalan politicians and officials, and more outbreaks of violence in coming days and weeks certainly cannot be ruled out."