Catalonia: Autonomy at Risk as Madrid Threatens Direct Rule

By Madison Feser
Staff Writer

Thousands of police officers are patrolling the streets, Spain is threatening direct rule, businesses are relocating outside of the region, and internal opposition divides the people—this is life inside post-referendum Catalonia.

According to Al Jazeera, Spain has officially dissolved Catalonia’s regional government and will be hosting new elections on December 21.

BBC reports that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently announced that Article 155 of the Constitution, which allows Madrid to exercise direct control over a region in a time of crisis, will be invoked for Catalonia. Effectively, this move has led to the dismantling of the regional government. Additionally, it will strip Catalonia of its autonomy. Spain’s National Courts also plan to investigate independence supporters on possible charges of sedition.

The October 1 referendum was a vote, deemed illegal by Spanish officials, held to determine if Catalonia would secede from Spain. Despite attempts by the police to prevent the vote by seizing ballot boxes, closing polling stations, and forcibly preventing citizens from casting ballots, Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont signed a document officially declaring independence for the autonomous region on October 10, reports BBC. While Puigdemont withheld immediate implementation of the document to allow for negotiation with Madrid, he refused to revoke the declaration by the October 19 deadline set by Spanish officials amid pressure from the CUP party. The pro-Catalan independence group threatened to withdraw support for Puigdemont’s administration and host new elections if he wavered from definitive affirmation of the region’s independence, according to The Star.

Theo Francken, the Belgian minister of asylum and migration, has said, “”Catalans that fear they might be prosecuted in Spain can ask for political asylum in Belgium. And that includes Prime Minister [Carles] Puigdemont”, according to Al Jazeera. While no one from Catalonia has applied for political asylum, Basque people have applied for it before.

With negotiation talks off the table and Catalonia’s independence firmly declared, Spain is desperately trying to regain control of the region that accounts for one-fifth of the country’s economy. An increased police presence of 26,000 officers are stationed in Catalonia to prevent protests and discourage further displays of independence, NBC reports. However, an increased police presence is the least of Catalonia’s worries.

Ramon Maiz, a professor of political science at the University of Santiago de Compostela, told NBC the government’s response has been appropriate given the situation.

“The reason the [Spanish] government has responded is that there has been a completely illegal process,” he said. “You would expect if a region anywhere in the world, whether it is Texas or Hamburg, tries to become independent, the central government will take steps to prevent this.”

In response, CUP leaders say they will defy implementation of Article 155, set to begin October 27, and refuse to recognize Spanish authority in the region. Reuters reports that several hundred Catalan municipalities, teachers’ unions, and firefighters are among those who have voiced their opposition to direct rule. Although a majority of Catalans are against direct rule, many do not want to break from Spain either.

The results of the October 1 referendum are widely disputed as the 92 percent vote in favor of secession was based  a  turnout of 43 percent, with a majority of anti-independence Catalans staying home, according to The Independent. Although lack of voter turnout can also be attributed to the forced closure of polling stations and widespread police crackdown, polls taken prior to the referendum show that over half of the 7.5 million Catalans wanted to remain part of Spain, CBC News reports.

Although no country has expressed support for Catalan independence, the Scottish government voiced its concerns over Spain’s growing involvement in Catalonia. In a letter to Spanish authorities, NBC News reports, Scotland warns that ousting and arresting democratically elected leaders violates European democratic ideals.

The European Union told Catalonian officials that an independent Catalonian republic will not be considered a member of the EU according to NBC News. Should they seek EU membership, Catalonia will have to reapply. In response, hundreds of businesses within Catalonia have relocated to other parts of Spain to avoid losing access to the European common markets.

The loss of Catalonia would be a blow to the Spanish economy, but the nation has resources to recover. Catalonia, however, with main contributors to its economy leaving the region, along with lack of EU and international support, faces major obstacles as leaders try to establish their newly declared independence.

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