On Friday, the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence from Spain. The decision was a direct response to the Spanish government seeking to invoke Article 155 of their constitution in an effort to bring the autonomous region back under control after their illegal independence referendum earlier this month. Spanish authorities have been quick to point out that this is an invalid declaration and more a symbolic gesture of defiance.
Catalan President Carles Puigdemont first declared independence earlier this month, which he himself then immediately “suspended.” This ambiguous move by Puigdemont was a gamble to improve his negotiating hand in getting more powers devolved to the region. By destabilizing the situation, Puigdemont believed he would be able to reap concessions from the Spanish government.
In the short run, the gambit seems to have failed. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was not intimidated and appears to be willing to risk civil war to keep Spain united. Upon making the decision to dissolve the Catalonia government, he spoke to the Senate:
“Exceptional measures should only be adopted when no other remedy is possible. In my opinion, there is no alternative. The only thing that can be done and should be done is to accept and comply with the law.”
An Uneasy Situation
Whether Rajoy will succeed in squashing the independence movement as a whole remains to be seen. There is a distinct possibility of civil war, but President Carles Puigdemont may have overplayed his hand. Drunk on the good results of the referendum, where a whopping 92% of the voters voted for independence, he may not have paid so much attention to the fact that the voter turnout was only 43%. It means that a majority of Catalonians felt deeply uneasy about the whole venture to the point where they chose to stay home.
This unease is in part what we see now in Catalonia. In a backlash, many Catalonians are angry at Puigdemont and his government for creating such animosity towards their region in Spain. In the Catalan capital Barcelona, some people are hanging Spanish flags from their balconies in support of national unity.
Could Puigdemont have miscalculated the popular support for his movement? Will the people of Catalonia chicken out and bow to the directives of Madrid? Or will the conflict turn violent? We will soon find out.
One thing, however, is inevitable: whatever happens, tensions will rise. Regions all over Europe will be following this process closely because they too dream of redrawing borders. One area to pay close attention to is South Tyrol in Italy, which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I. Most of the people in that region speak German; and they have a secessionist movement that wants South Tyrol to rejoin Austria.
If Catalonia can make headway in their fight for independence, others, like South Tyrol, are likely to follow suit. The situation in Western Europe is more unstable now than it has been since World War II. Is this the quiet before the storm?