BARCELONA—It was the season finale of Catalonia’s telenovela—the day that the idea of a united independent Catalonia crashed headlong into reality.
The region’s President Carles Puigdemont backed away from an outright declaration that Catalonia would become a breakaway state of its own, a move that would cause even greater tension in a region rife with political division and increasing animosity.
While Puigdemont declared independence for Catalonia, he also suspended it. He proposed "to start dialogue, to arrive at an agreed solution to advance with the demands of the people of Catalonia."
"With the results of October 1, Catalonia has won the right to be an independent state," he said, referring to the contested referendum in which the central government tried, in some cases with shocking violence, to prevent voting. In the event, more than 40 percent of the electorate cast ballots, and of those more than 90 percent voted for independence. "If everyone acts responsibly, the conflict can be resolved with calm," said Puigdemont.
The last time Spain saw a crisis that threatened the very fabric of the state was in 1981, when the country’s Guardia Civil had attempted a coup d’état by storming the Congress of Deputies during a vote to elect a socialist prime minister. At the time, then-King Juan Carlos denounced the coup and the issue was settled by the following day.
This time around it was clear that the crisis would not be solved so quickly or with ease.
“In the short term the worst case scenario may have been avoided with this ambiguous declaration,” said Jose Javier Olivas Osuna, professor of Spanish politics at the London School of Economics. “But it will take years to rebuild the burned bridges in Catalan society and Spanish politics.”
The announcement followed a fast-moving week in which various factions in Catalonia’s independence dispute made their voices heard loud and clear. Waves of protests, both pro-independence and pro-unionist crashed onto the city streets. Meanwhile political fragmentation was rupturing both the pro-separatists and the pro-unionist side of the debate. The looming prospect of a massive exodus of the region’s leading businesses meanwhile threatened to break the Catalan economy, which is roughly the size of Portugal’s.
The Puigdemont speech was postponed for an hour as the various parties supporting independence argued among themselves about whether or not to immediately declare a breakaway state.
The international community has also played its role in attempting to mediate the conflict. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has called for the dispute to be resolved with dialogue. In the meantime, France, which would likely be Catalonia’s principal trading partner, said that it would not recognize an independent Catalan state.
During his speech, Puigdemont was not exactly clear as to who would mediate any potential negotiation with the Rajoy government in Madrid, although he noted that the Elders, a group of statesmen that includes Desmond Tutu and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had called for a mediated settlement of the dispute.
This was likely welcome news to the many in Catalonia who prefer a negotiated solution. “It's not the time for a train wreck,” said Ada Colau, 42, Barcelona’s first woman mayor, who implored all sides to mediate their differences. “It’s time for dialogue, to imagine new roads.”
Last Saturday, thousands of protesters took the the streets, but they waved the Catalan flag nor the Spanish one. Instead they wore white and carried banners saying “Parlem” which translated from Catalan means “Let’s Talk.”
A week ago, independentistas were certain they would declare a new state. Since the government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had vowed not to allow the voting to take place, they were jubilant at a 90 percent result in their favor. When police violence marred the voting, the separatists garnered both regional and international outrage at images of ordinary people being beaten up, and at least one old woman bloodied.
"With this day of hope and suffering, the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic," Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced on television after the voting.
The day afterwards, independentista politicians portrayed the vote as Exhibit A for a region supposedly united in its desire to separate from Spain. Independence in their view was a foregone conclusion. “We will declare independence,” one senior member of the independentista party PDeCat told me. “That is a certainty.”
But as the week wore on, it became clear that Catalonia is a deeply divided society with starkly different opinions on the thorny question of independence. The independentistas for the most part feed off of Madrid’s rage. They tend to do poorly, however, when reality sets in.
If the plan at the beginning of the week was to goad Madrid into polarizing the dispute it was working. Two days after the vote, an enraged King Felipe VI made his own unscheduled speech filled with vitriol. Making no mention of the violence of the previous days he accused Catalan authorities of “unacceptable disloyalty.” The words served to stiffen the resolve of those opposed to independence. But there was no call for mediation, much less an acknowledgement that roughly two million Catalans had sent a message favoring independence not two days earlier.
By last Friday it was clear that the economic impact on the region would be severe, should it choose independence. CaixaBank, the largest in the region and the third largest in Spain, had decided to move its headquarters. The government in Madrid issued a decree allowing business of all sorts to expedite a change in the venue of their headquarters. A new app was even being developed that would allow anyone who wanted to boycott Catalan businesses and products to do so.
By Sunday, a week after the elections, the unionists had organized themselves and literally flooded the streets of Barcelona, virtually every part of the central city, waving the Spanish flag and singing patriotic songs. These were not polite independentistas. Copious amounts of beer flowed. People wore national police t-shirts. “Viva España,” they shouted. “Viva La Policia Nacional. Viva La Guardia Civil.” There were times in which the moment felt more like a soccer rally than a political debate. Still the protests were entirely non-violent.
Anarchist pretense aside, independentistas are for the most part a white-gloved lot. According to Catalonia’s government-funded Centre Estudis d'Opinio, more than 65 percent of Catalans with incomes between 900-and-1,200 euros per month are opposed to separation. Similarly, some 54 percent of those living on less than 900 euro oppose independence.
At the same time, a majority of the middle-to-upper middle class favor independence. Some 55 percent of residents with incomes of between 2,400-and-4,000 euro monthly support independence. So to do the majority (some 54 percent) of those who earn more than 4000 euros monthly.
On the streets of Barcelona, where crowds of expectant independentistas had gathered to witness the birth of a new country, the mood was somber. “We feel deceived,” said Carlos Gomez of Tarragona, who had travelled 102 kilometers to witness a declaration of independence that never happened. “But we still try to believe in our government.”
In the past, Rajoy has stated that he would invoke Article 155, Spain's equivalent of a political atomic bomb, if Puigdemont made a unilateral declaration of Independence. The article calls for the central government takeover of Catalan political institutions and the arrest of politicians deemed seditious.
Thus far that hasn’t happened. But the crisis is not over yet.