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Stalemate over Catalan independence on referendum anniversary

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Quim Torra, President of the Catalan Regional Government, at the anniversary of the October 1, 2017 referendum for independence REUTERS/Jon Nazca

Pro-independence protesters on Monday obstructed major roads and a high-speed railway line in Spain's Catalonia region, on the anniversary of the referendum on secession that took place in defiance of a central government ban.


After the referendum Madrid invoked Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, imposing direct rule over Catalonia, and put some of the organisers in jail.

The first of October 2017 was a defeat for the Catalan independence movement.
Catalonia commemorates 1 year independence referendum 01/10/2018 - by Jan van der Made Listen

Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan government at the time, is now in exile in Belgium.

Madrid employed the Guardia Civil police force, who clashed with voters and tried to shut down polling stations.

In the end the Catalan government said that a massive 90.18 percent of the 2,286,217 people that voted were in favour of independence.

But critics say that registered voter turnout was only 43.03 percent, so that in fact a “yes”  for-independence vote would come down to a meagre 38 % of all Catalan voters.

Independence hopes live on

But if one listens today to the pro-independence camp, there is still hope for a separate Catalan state.

“What we have achieved in one year is that the Catalan people have shown their resilience and strength and its commitment to democracy and human rights,” says Joan Maria Pique, communications director with the Catalan government, in Barcelona.

“We endured the beating that the Spanish government used to try to avoid the referendum. And people resisted and at the end we voted in 95 percent of the polling stations.

“And in this year of Law 155, we have to suffer the reality of political prisoners and exiles and the intervention in the Catalan government. But one year after that, we are showing our commitment to the cause of the Catalan republic and we are willing, once again, to show it through a democratic referendum."

Pique was referring to Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which says that “If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution ... the Government ... may take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations ... and ... issue instructions to all the authorities of the Autonomous Communities,” relieving the existing Catalan government from real power.

Spanish government's damaging victory

“Spain as a whole has a constitution, a democratic constitution,” says Luiz Moreno Fernandez, a research professor with the Institute of Public Goods and Policies in Madrid.

“There was a coup attempt last year with this illegal referendum. And since then, I’m afraid the situation has been under strain and a difficult situation and I cannot see really now an easy way out.”

And the Catalan independence movement may not have as much popular support as its partisans suggest.

"The 1 October 2017 was a defeat for the Catalan independence movement,” says Andrew Dowling, an expert in modern Spanish history at the University of Cardiff.

“But it was also very, very damaging for the image of Spain internationally, because of those incredibly powerful images of the police hitting peaceful protesters."

Some of the Catalan independence movement's key claims have proved untrue, he believes. "It said that if Catalonia became independent, it would achieve international recognition very quickly. That has proven to be false.

"It also told the story that it be very easy to break from Spain, that has also proven to be false; it won’t be easy.

“And the third thing that has become apparent is that Catalan independence has only obtained 48 percent of the votes and in varying elections, and that is clearly not enough."

Economy still strong

On the economic front Catalonia is as strong as it ever was, in spite of initial hiccups.

“In the very short term there was an enormous increase of uncertainty and even some big companies in Catalonia decided to leave,” says Xavier Cuadras Morato, an economist with the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

“Nobody knew what the effect of the political conflict would be on the economy. But then after a year, looking at the data on economic growth, the effect has been relatively small. Catalonia is growing at a faster rate than the rest of Spain."

The region has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Spain and it has been creating employment at a faster rate, he says.

As for independence, both sides seem far away from any compromise, leaving an uneasy stalemate with no prospect of a solution for now.