Neither the Spanish nor Catalan government's have the mandate or the room for manoeuvre that would allow them to break the current impasse, says Michael Keating.
Catalans’ views on the proposed independence referendum differ. Some are completely in favour and will vote Yes. Others believe that Catalonia has the right to have a say on its own future but would vote No. A few support the Spanish Government’s stance, that any kind of vote on independence is out of the question.
The Spanish Government’s actions may have the effect of uniting the first and second groups.
It is going well beyond the constitution’s provisions that Spain is indivisible to say, in effect, that even debating the matter in official forums is impermissible.
Spain is not merely declaring that an independence vote would not have legal effect, but physically preventing it from happening and even clamping down in publicity on both the streets and the internet.
It is taking legal action against elected and appointed officials. While it has not suspended the elected Catalan government (which would require a parliamentary majority it does not have) it is trying to take direct control of its finances and main responsibilities.
This will worry many people in Spain, including many who regard the referendum gambit itself as unwise and provocative.
In the 1990s, Spain faced a terrorist threat from the violent Basque group, ETA and took strong action. It came under criticism, however, for clamping down not just on ETA but also on its wider entourage and associated political parties, effectively depriving radical nationalism of a democratic outlet. In the Catalan case, there is no terrorist threat but a purely political movement seeking to achieve its ends through the ballot box.
Among the ironies of all this is that, according to polls, an independence referendum would almost certainly lose and, win or lose, would more likely to lead to a compromise settlement acceptable to the Catalan mainstream than a complete rupture.
Since the transition to democracy 40 years ago, the Catalan way has been that of political negotiation and gradual advance. Now the Spanish and Catalan governments, neither with a convincing mandate, are locked into a confrontation that neither can win.