Catalonia location mapIf I’m being honest, the build-up to referendums bore me. The tedium of well-worn debates disrupted only by reciprocal calls of foul play, the minutiae of which then provoke another round of predictable (counter-)arguments. Scotland was bad enough but Catalonia this summer was far worse. Last year, I organised the Anglo-Catalan conference and I spend two to three months a year in Madrid, so I’m familiar with the arguments for and against independence. This summer’s novelty was the prospect of a pseudo-referendum, approved by the Catalan Parliament (where pro-independence politicians have held the majority since 2015) but declared illegal by Spain’s justice system and national parliament. Both sides were similarly intransigent. Barcelona-born filmmaker Isabel Coixet complained of how anti-separatist citizens in Catalonia were branded fascists, and as tensions escalated even pro-independence intellectuals and artists who suggested a constitutionally illegal referendum wasn’t the way forward were branded traitors. Conversely, many moderate Catalans have been swayed towards sovereignty by the condescension of the Madrid government. 

The Spanish terror attacks of 17 August provided a brief de-escalation of domestic tensions yet disgraceful statements were made on social media about the death of ‘polacos’ (‘Poles’, a derogatory term for Catalans) whilst Mariano Rajoy and King Felipe VI were booed by segments of the crowd when they led the subsequent anti-terror marches in Barcelona. The Galician-born Spanish President claims to defend the rights of all Spaniards, non-extremist Catalans included, but many non-radical inhabitants of an autonomous community which accounts for around 16% of the Spanish population and 19% of the GDP resent not having a forum to express their (dis)content with current arrangements enshrined in the Constitution. For the President, the text, signed in 1978 just three years after the death of Franco, is the guarantor of Spaniard’s democratic rights. Political start-up Podemos became a viable force in the last general elections by claiming the opposite, that the so-called ‘regime of 78’ was the greatest single obstacle to the establishment of a genuine democracy in Spain facilitating, for example, the widespread corruption that has marred the ruling Partido Popular.

Catalan flag, the estrellaRajoy is underestimated at his opponent’s perils. An ostensibly mediocre politician, often seemingly unaware of what is going on around him, he is as resilient as Rocky with a psychology and political savvy of Shakespearean proportions. How many other European heads of state have been voted into government after losing two consecutive general elections? Not particularly well-liked or admired within his own Party, he survives by frequently being seen as the lesser-of-two-evils amongst seemingly more heavyweight figures. He also sees no need to show his cards, and makes no attempt to ingratiate himself with voters he knows will not support him. His strategy for dealing with Podemos and Catalan separatists has been to dismiss them as unruly kids. In relation to the former, this strategy proved surprisingly successful: when it took Spaniards going to the polls a record three times for a government to be formed, he bided his time and let other politicians make all the moves, watching the national drama from the sidelines, before re-emerging as the Deus ex machina. He knows he can win few votes in Catalonia but that adopting a hard stance is a vote-winner amongst in Andalusia and the conservative heartlands of Castile. 

Carles PuigdemontPolitical survival is, however, a necessary but not a sufficient quality for statesmanship. Irrespective of what happens in Catalonia, the government-sanctioned actions of the Guardia Civil as they forcibly removed voters from polling stations not only raises spectres of Francoism but also constitutes a major to stability at the local, national and European levels. According to Rajoy’s world-view, the police action was akin to removing a burglar from a house by force if they refuse to emerge of their own accord. Filmed footage of middle-aged voters and firemen being attacked and young women being dragged by their hair don’t, however, accord with general preconceptions of career criminals. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont (pictured right) has already proclaimed independence citing a landslide victory in the referendum. In theory, such a claim ought to be exposed for the farce it is: most anti-separatists didn’t want to dignify the illegal referendum with their vote. The reprisals as opposed to the abstentions of Sunday 1 October are nevertheless at the forefront of many people’s minds, thereby allowing Puigdemont to claim a moral if not necessary a legal victory. Pro-independence politicians had presented Cataluña’s fast-track entry into the EU. A passivity that verges on complicity by the major European leaders in relation to the violence of the Spanish state has provided a martyred shield against admitting this deception. 

Post-Brexit, the EU simply can’t afford to risk any threat to Spanish national sovereignty. Conversely, however, if state violence escalates any further (and it may well do if Puigdemont progresses his pledge to declare an independent Catalan state, despite fudging it in his big speech on October 10th) then there will come a point where a failure to intervene will make the EU look terrible. There is a painful irony in the fact that pro-European sentiment has traditionally been one of the few common goals to unite Spaniards from across the political and geographical spectrum, but that the Catalan “issue” could well prove as big if not bigger threat to continental unity than the UK’s exit. The referendum no longer sends me to sleep, but it’s causing some sleepless nights. In what is far from a decent trade-off, the price of Rajoy’s survival may well be the future of Catalonia, Spain and even the entire European project. 

Pictures by TUBS (Map); Martorell (Catalan flag) and Generalitat de Catalunya (Carles Puigdemont) all under Wikimedia Commons.

Duncan Wheeler is Professor of Spanish at the University of Leeds. He read Spanish and Philosophy at Wadham College (2000-2004) and continued at Oxford to complete his Masters (2004-2005) at St Catherine´s College, and his doctoral thesis (2005-2009) at Wolfson College. In 2015-2016, he was Visiting Fellow at St Catherine's College.  His publications include The Cultural Politics of Spain's Transition to Democracy (Manchester University Press) and Golden Age Drama in Contemporary Spain (University of Wales Press).