Catalonia will hold its independence referendum on Sunday. It’s currently uncertain exactly how it will happen, but it seems clear that the Catalan government has prepared for all eventualities, so I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t go ahead in some form or other.
The referendum is illegal according to the Spanish constitution, so Spain is entirely entitled to ignore the result. Confiscating ballot boxes, raiding printing offices and prosecuting people is not a pretty sight in a democracy, however.
The European Union now has a problem similar to the ones it is facing in Hungary and Poland, namely that these member states aren’t living up to the democratic ideals of the Union. It has taken the EU a long time to start being tough on Hungary and Poland, so it’s no surprise that the speed the Catalan situation is developing at has left a lot of people in Brussels and in the capitals of the member states unprepared and struggling to find a good answer. However, the Spanish state is clamping down on a democratic process in a way that cannot be ignored for long.
My best guess is that Spain will manage to prevent the referendum from going ahead in many places (but by no means all of them), and that the results from the ones that do manage to stay open will be close to 100% Sí. I therefore expect the Catalan Government to declare independence within the next week.
It’s clear that Spain won’t recognise this independence declaration, and neither will any of the EU member states at first. I guess Russia might recognise it, and perhaps a few of the countries that Spain has refused to recognise over the years, such as Kosova.
What will Spain do then? Will they pretend nothing has happened (apart from trying to arrest a lot of Catalan independentistas)? If so, they cannot close the borders or stop the block grants. Or will they treat Catalonia as an rogue independent country, shutting the borders and freezing Catalan assets in Spain? Or will they do something in between?
Many observers seem to think the Catalan government will back down if they’re offered a few more powers. I don’t think so. It’s my impression that they have been immensely frustrated by the Spanish refusal to discuss independence in the past, and they’re now going to go ahead, no matter how difficult it turns out to be.
The EU – as well as all European countries and individuals – will therefore need to work out what to do if the situation doesn’t resolve itself. Telling the Catalans to get back into their box is unlikely to work, and it could create a lot of bad blood.
Personally I don’t think a democratic state should be able to declare that any question lies beyond the reach of democracy. If a controversial goal such as independence cannot be achieved democratically, frustrated individuals will eventually start using violence to achieve it. If Spain won’t accept a Catalan independence referendum, they need to specify another realistic way for the Catalans to achieve it – telling them that the constitution doesn’t allow it and that there’s nothing they can do about it simply isn’t good enough.
Finally, we need to talk about Russia. There are signs that they’re supporting the Catalans behind the scenes, just like they supported Trump, Brexit, AfD and Front National recently. (The Scottish independence referendum probably happened a bit too early, or the Russian influence would have been felt strongly here, too.) I’m sensing that some people are thus concluding that Catalan independence must be a bad thing, too.
However, what’s happening seems to be that the Russians are supporting anything that upsets the status quo – they’re clearly assuming that any sort of instability in the West will benefit Russia.
It’s therefore wrong to infer anything about the merits of Catalan independence on the basis of Russian support, apart from the obvious fact that it will be disruptive to a large EU country.
We have to make up our own minds about the political questions that face us. Simply taking the opposite position to Russia would be facile and potentially wrong.
In this case, I believe the Catalans must be allowed to decide their own future, and if they collectively decide they want to go for independence in Europe, we should all support them. What Spain currently is doing is a democratic outrage.