By Jack Parker
The Spanish government has stripped Catalonia of its autonomy after one of the most dramatic days in recent European history. The move came just hours after Catalonia’s regional government emphatically voted to declare independence from the Spanish state, following a controversial referendum earlier this month.
In a bid to prevent Catalonia from declaring independence, Spain’s Prime Minister, conservative Mariano Rajoy, had for weeks threatened to remove the region’s autonomy by invoking Article 155 of the country’s constitution, which has been described as the ‘nuclear option’. Addressing the Spanish Senate earlier on Friday, Mr Rajoy argued that Article 155 was the only way for “law, democracy, stability and tolerance” to return to Catalonia.
The recent rapid escalation in tensions came after the disputed independence referendum on October 1, held by Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont in defiance of a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court, which had declared any referendum illegal. Catalonia and Spain have been at diplomatic loggerheads ever since.
Alongside removing its autonomy, Mr Rajoy dismissed the entire regional government and fired senior Catalan police officials, calling regional elections for December 21st. This means that while Catalonia is currently under direct Spanish control, at the hands of the Deputy Prime Minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Madrid’s direct rule is not indefinite.
Earlier in the week, Mr Puigdemont had been rumoured to be dissolving parliament and calling elections for himself in an attempt to stop the Spanish government from triggering Article 155. However, after an outcry from pro-independence supports, Mr Puigdemont appeared to change his mind behind closed doors.
On Friday afternoon, a motion to declare independence was passed by 70 votes to 10 in the region’s 135-seat parliament, with opposition MPs snubbing the vote. Amongst the growing crowds arriving in squares across the region, every vote for independence was rapturously cheered; every vote against was met with scathing boos. Shortly after the vote, separatists inside and outside parliament broke into a rendition of the Catalan national anthem, while Spanish and EU flags were torn down from government buildings.
The international response to Catalonia’s declaration of independence has been almost unanimous – governments across the world, Downing Street included, refused to recognise an independent Catalonia. Scotland’s parliament was one of the few to support the decision, with one Scottish cabinet minister quoted as saying “the people of Catalonia must have the ability to determine their own future”.
Despite his sacking, Mr Puigdemont has publicly urged supporters to peacefully “maintain the momentum”, while Spain’s public prosecutor responded on Saturday morning by announcing that he would be filing charges of rebellion against him, an offence which carries a sentence of up to 30 years.
The issue of Catalan independence is deeply rooted in Spanish history. The pro-independence movement can be traced back to the mid-19th century, but has come to a head in recent years, particularly while the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and Mariano Rajoy have been in government. But this month’s events in the independence debate has sparked bitter divisions at home and abroad.
Those in favour of independence believe that the 90% support for an independent Catalonia in October’s referendum means a united Spain is unjustifiable. The Spanish parliament, united against independence in an uncharacteristic example of cross-party support, maintains that the referendum itself was illegal and therefore non-binding, and chooses to highlight the low turnout figure of 43% as evidence that many Catalans are indifferent towards change from the status quo.
No matter what stance you take on Catalan independence, these are challenging and unprecedented times for the people of Spain and Catalonia.
The information in this article was accurate as Saturday 28th October.
Image: Yu Ting Huang via Flickr Creative Commons