As Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont rose to speak about his region’s vote in the referendum to secede from Spain, few knew what he planned to say.
As recently as two weeks ago, Catalan secessionists faced a steep legal route to justifying independence.
However, attacks by Spanish police on unarmed participants of this region’s October 1 vote allowed Puigdemont’s secessionists to win the moral argument, shifting the debate from the referendum’s constitutionality — Spain’s supreme court had prohibited it — to whether Catalans had a fundamental right to speech, assembly and self-determination.
Puigdemont rose to speak knowing the debate was no longer over Catalonia’s right to independence. He rose knowing that Spain’s enforcement of the rule of law could — in the view of many international and also Spanish observers — be argued to have crossed the line into repression. And, he will have calculated, that a repressed people could, in the eyes of those observers, convince the world that they deserved to go their own way.
Puigdemont, only two years ago the mayor of the medium-sized Catalan city of Girona, has played his cards cannily. By declaring that Catalans have won the right to independence but that he would first call for some weeks of debate in the regional Parliament, he replaces a disputed vote with a model of democratic process.
No one debates the validity of the Catalan Parliament, and the long-missing debate of secession on its merits will occur. Pointedly, the first person to talk after Puigdemont on Tuesday evening was Inés Arrimadas, leader of the anti-secessionist Citizens party in Catalonia.
But Puigdemont knows that his side will now have to make its case for independence, rather than just the right to vote. Catalan secessionists have to face the reality that an impressive political and organizational victory won’t help them with what’s to come.
Clear constitutional problems remain with both the October 1 vote and the anticipated declaration of independence from Spain. Puigdemont hasn’t explained to Catalonia’s 8.5 million residents the sacrifices that inevitably go with nation building.
He hasn’t explained why his own business-friendly PDCAT party — while promising voters that Catalonia could weather the economic shock of independence — has failed to lock down promises from the wealthy region’s business class.
Several of the region’s largest companies threatened to abandon Catalonia in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence. And promises to stay automatically in the European Union have found little support among the actual EU leadership in Brussels, Belgium. And he’ll have to explain to Spanish citizens outside Catalonia how the loss of one of the country’s richest regions won’t doom them. Clearly, there is a lot of work for Puigdemont to do, assuming he’s not soon in jail.
For Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, a master of the politics of inaction, a bluff has also been called. Strategic passivity, waiting for the Catalan challenge to collapse under its own weight, is no longer an option.
A near decade of simply repeating that Catalan independence is illegal — and now enforcing that claim with cudgels — has brought us to today’s crisis. Rajoy has presented no plan B.
Should Rajoy agree to negotiate with the Catalans, there is now an enormous trust gap. Beyond the recent violence — not by militias, but by state security forces following government orders — Rajoy and his conservative People’s Party is associated with the failure of the last effort to find common ground between Catalan and Spanish sides.
Tuesday’s events mark the culmination of a process that began in 2010, when Rajoy and his People’s Party, then in opposition, launched a legal challenge to a pact previously struck between Barcelona and Madrid, granting Catalans greater autonomy.
And should the two sides talk, they face a difficult choice.
Madrid and Barcelona could attempt to renegotiate the 2010 pact, writing a new recipe for greater autonomy for Catalans. But it is difficult to imagine Rajoy, whose popularity rose outside Catalonia after the previous deal failed, and Puigdemont, a lifelong secessionist, negotiating such a deal.
The other harder option is a long-discussed, broader reform of the Spanish constitution, which secessionists call an unfinished document, agreed to during the turbulent years after the death of former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
Spain is not a federal state. It could be. But that is a larger, and necessarily more inclusive discussion. And it’s likely that most people in Spain would rather work out a side deal with the Catalans than put their four-decades of post-Franco democracy on trial.
However, whatever the outcome, Catalonia has shown that Spain, in some respect, is broken. Its constitution no longer strictly works in one of the country’s largest regions. In the coming days, Puigdemont will test just how broken the world believes it to be.
The Spanish left is already chafing at the sight of Spanish flags sprouting across Madrid, where for years only the Catalans waved theirs. In a global era of rising nationalism, two sides waving flags looks dangerous.
Carles Puigdemont has pressed pause and claimed the trappings of democracy. Rajoy is scheduled to speak on Wednesday. No one knows what he’s going to say, either.
Marc Herman is a foreign affairs journalist living in Barcelona. The opinions in this article belong to the author.