Catalonia's separatist government will struggle to break stalemate with Spain

The new Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, may want independence but he has major obstacles to overcome

Catalonia has a separatist government. It took months of negotiating and a deal that was sealed only hours before the deadline for fresh elections, but the new president, Carles Puigdemont, finally won the support of parliament late on Sunday. The aim is to make Catalonia the next new state in the EU. If only it were that simple.

Puigdemont, the former mayor of Girona and a man few outside Catalonia have ever heard of, belongs to the most boldly separatist wing of the outgoing president Artur Mas’s Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), which has run the wealthy, north-eastern region of Spain for most of the past four decades. He emerged as a last-minute compromise candidate only after the radical Popular United Candidacy (CUP) refused point-blank to support Mas, who has overseen years of austerity. “We have consigned Mas to the dustbin of history,” a CUP deputy, Benet Salellas, gleefully announced.

It is a strange alliance. Puigdemont’s CDC, which led a separatist coalition called Together for Yes into regional elections on 27 September, is variously described as liberal, business-friendly or, at its most leftwing, social democrat. CUP is avowedly anti-capitalist. There could be nothing more dissimilar than the disciplined if corruption-prone party machinery of the CDC and the open, disputatious assemblies and rotating leadership of the CUP.

Only one thing could possibly bring such strange bed-companions together, and that is the push towards Catalan independence, with a stated target of 18 months.

Yet things are not black and white. Puigdemont says his government will be a “pre-independence” one, which will follow an agreed roadmap to set up independent Catalan institutions that might eventually take over from state institutions. The road is fraught with obstacles, some of them seemingly unsurmountable.

First and foremost is the constitution, which states that Spain is indivisible and makes the armed forces the guarantors of its territorial integrity. In theory, this means that should Catalonia ever unilaterally declare itself independent, as some want, a central Spanish government could send tanks trundling down Barcelona’s tree-lined central avenue, the Ramblas.

No one seriously imagines events would ever go that far. More likely is that the constitutional court would use its recently beefed-up powers to deal with separatists if they were to assume powers that the constitution does not allow them. Central government can also, if necessary, suspend the region’s self-government.

Separatists can be expected to test the limits continually, hoping that dramatic moves against them will boost support and bolster their argument that Catalonia is a victim of Spanish high-handedness. Some may even be prepared to seek political martyrdom, being taken to court or banned from public office.

All of this could be avoided if Spain’s acting prime minister, Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People’s party (PP), agreed to talk to Puigdemont about a referendum. Rajoy, however, has spent four years refusing to consider the idea. Having lost a third of his seats in parliament in elections on 20 December, he now leads a provisional government.

The fractured new parliament in Madrid, with insurgents Podemos and Ciudadanos taking a third of the seats, makes forming a new government either complex or impossible. Fresh elections may be needed in May. In the meantime, Rajoy plans to maintain a hardline anti-referendum stance that gains votes elsewhere in Spain.

A final question is about the degree of support for independence. The roadmap separatists, including the CUP, won 48% of the vote at a regional election that they billed as a de facto referendum. Under the Catalan electoral system that was enough to win a majority of seats, but even within separatist ranks there is concern that it is not enough support for a confrontation with the Spanish state. Some are worried too that the CUP will frighten off cautious, middle-class converts to the cause.

Separatists are playing a long game, with the support of younger generations key to the movement’s future. There are many halfway solutions that could dampen support for a split – from a simple in-out referendum to new tax-gathering rules, a properly federal Spain or a confederation between Catalonia and the rest of the country.

All of these require political dexterity. Socialists propose some kind of federalisation while Podemos wants a referendum. Rajoy has limited himself to vague talk about studying constitutional reform and, even if his PP loses control of the government, he has enough parliamentary seats to block it. The standoff continues.


Giles Tremlett in Madrid

The GuardianTramp

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