David Zeger, JHU
Catalan President Carles Puidgemont finds himself interminably stuck between a rock and a hard place. Battling extreme opposition from both sides of his governing coalition, Puidgemont is now being pushed to clarify the declaration of independence that a referendum on October 1, 2017 had seemingly approved.
Puidgemont spoke last Tuesday at a stiflingly full assembly of the Catalan Parliament. In a speech that many expected to include a firm declaration of Catalan independence, the former journalist-turned-politician balked.
“I assume the mandate of the people for Catalonia to become an independent republic,” stated Puidgemont. Moments later, he asked the assembled parliament to “suspend the effects of the independence declaration to initiate dialogue in the coming weeks.”
It was a move that befuddled many in the room, including Carles Riera, a senior member of the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy party, which supports an unequivocal declaration of independence from Spain.
“We are annoyed, we are hurt, we are angry because he came up with a strategic change one hour before the parliamentary session,” said Riera to reporters immediately following Piedgemonts remarks. The CUP holds a meagre 10 seats of the 135 that compromise the Catalan parliament, yet their size in no way reflects the party’s political clout. As the final piece of Puidgemont’s coalition, the loss of their unwavering support would leave the Catalan leader floating powerless within his own government, unable to garner the majority vote needed to pass legislation.
The CUP is no stranger to such power, as it was instrumental in the ousting of Pudgemonts predecessor, Artur Mas. During the 2015 parliamentary elections, the CUP spent three months rejecting the presidency of Mas, until finally agreeing to form the final part of his party’s coalition with a new leader, Carles Puidgemont. Given their precedent of harshly rejecting compromise on the subject of Catalan independence, President Puidgemont may be losing his grip on their support and thus his ability to govern.
Despite intense pressure from the left-most faction of his coalition, Puidgemonts most immediate threat comes from Madrid. In a nationally televised address, Mariano Rajoy, the leader of the Peoples Party and current prime minister of Spain, issued a foreboding ultimatum; drop the bid for independence, or face the music. The Prime Minister has given the Catalan Government until Monday, October 16th to clarify their ambiguous declaration. Rajoy has even intimated at the potential consequences awaiting Puidgemont and Catalonia, should they choose to push forward with their bid for independence.
Article 155 of the Spanish constitution grants the central government authority to revoke the political autonomy of any self-governing region, should it cease to meet its responsibilities to the Spanish state. The so-called Spanish “Nuclear Option” has never before been invoked, and the procedure surrounding it remains unclear, but one thing is for certain: the successful invocation of article 155 would mean the immediate suspension of political autonomy in Catalonia. Puidgemont’s government would be scrapped, and a state-sponsored election would follow shortly thereafter.
The Catalan independence movement begs another important question: Is independence worth the consequences? Catalonia is far and away the most prosperous region in a Spanish economy that is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Despite a population of just 7.5 million, Catalonia boasts a GDP of roughly 260 billion Euro, which would place it firmly in the top half of sovereign European nations. Provided an effective break from Spain, Catalonia would likely be required to take on a significant portion of Spanish sovereign debt in order to remain affiliated with the EU. Spain’s debt to GDP ratio currently stands at about 100%, while that of Catalonia pales in comparison, resting at a mere 35%.
The EU has been ambiguous regarding their stance on the Catalan battle for independence. Acceptance into the EU would be a prolonged process and would only come on the condition that Catalonia accept a much larger portion of Spanish debt. Regrettably for Catalonia, they are reliant upon trade with the European Union for 65% of their GDP, making a hard split from the EU effectively unfeasible.
Speculation regarding the implications of independence abound, yet many believe that it is all for naught. The Catalan Independence Movement has allowed Rajoy to score an easy political victory. With the vast majority of Spanish parliament vehemently opposed to secession and the constitutional “Nuclear Option,” Rajoy is under no pressure negotiate further with Puidgemont’s government.
Puidgemont, on the other hand, faces a no-win situation. Rajoy has called his bluff and left the Catalan leader holding nothing. Puidgemont must now push forward with independence and cause his own sacking, or back down and lose the support of the CUP and the far-left of his coalition. Catalonia’s days as a part of Spain are not numbered, though its leader’s days almost certainly are.