Pro-independence protest in Barcelona

Catalonia Two Years After the 2017 Independence Referendum

Published: 1 October 2019
Author: Daniel Cetrà

The quest for independence was defeated in October 2017. The declaration of independence passed by the Catalan parliament did not result in a break with Spain and so was, ultimately, a symbolic gesture or perhaps even a rather empty one followed by direct rule by Madrid.

The pro-independence camp continues to be divided. The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) lead a pragmatic roadmap and are open to supporting a Socialist Government in Madrid while the Together for Catalonia (JuntsxCat) and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) still defend a unilateral path to independence. Neither party is consistent in its discourse, nor is there consistency between discourse and actions.

What brings the pro-independence camp together is the denunciation of state repression and the demand to release the twelve politicians and social activists in jail without bail accused of rebellion, sedition and misuse of public funds. The movement has been reactive to judicial blows and there is a lack of leadership to chart a new course, partly because all the main leaders are in jail or in exile.

Support for independence remains stable around 45% despite the political divisions while a negotiated referendum continues to poll at 70%. The view that it is unfair to have the Catalan leaders in jail or exile similarly polls at almost 70%.

In Spain, positions have hardened. The Spanish election in April saw the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos (C’s) battling each other to be seen as the greatest defender of state unity. The emergence of the far-right VOX, itself a partial consequence of events in Catalonia, accelerated the radicalisation of the Spanish right vis-à-vis the ‘Catalan threat’ and ‘those who want to dissolve the nation’. These parties entertain the idea of permanent direct rule by Madrid in Catalonia.

The Socialist provisional Government led by Pedro Sánchez has favoured dialogue with the Catalan Government ‘within the Constitution’ and explicitly opposes an independence referendum. They share with right-wing parties the mononational view of Spain as a single nation and only subject of sovereignty. Podemos have also toned down their defence of a referendum in Catalonia.

A fresh Spanish election has been called on 10 November, the fourth in four years. With parties in constant campaign mode, they have few incentives to soften their position on Catalonia as the territorial agenda is a salient electoral issue and a matter of party competition in Spain.

So what’s next? The verdict of the trial of the twelve pro-independence leaders is imminent and the widespread expectation is that it is going to be harsh and could result in sentences of more than 10 years.

This will result in massive protests and potential unrest in Catalonia. Politically, it remains to be seen if the ERC and the JuntsxCat can agree on a common institutional response. The former have suggested calling a snap election or the formation of a government of national unity including the pro-referendum force Catalonia in Common-We Can.

The management of the verdict and its consequences will no doubt be a burning issue in the election campaign and for the next Spanish Government. The Spanish Socialists are expected to gain seats after the election in November and a key issue will be whether they can form a majority government without the Catalan pro-independence forces.

Stay tuned.