Catalan independence receded into the far distance in the last turbulent 48 hours, although both Madrid and Barcelona refrained from a violent confrontation.
Catalonia came out of the last 48 turbulent hours, that were triggered by its parliament’s declaration of independence under the baton of President Carles Puigdemont, worse off than before. By Saturday, Oct. 28, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy had moved to strip the region of its hard-won autonomy, sacked its leaders, police chief and parliament and assumed direct rule, in the person of Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. She took charge of 5.7 million Catalans as caretaker until the snap regional election on Dec. 21 that was called by Rajoy.
In his first public appearance following these measures, Puigdemont called for independence supporters to “resist Article 155” (which nullified Catalan autonomy) in a non-violent way. “We must fight without violence or insult, in a manner that respects people and their opinions,” he said. When his pre-recorded speech was aired on public regional TV Saturday afternoon, Puitdemont was seen in his home town of Girona.
Both sides to the dispute, Madrid and Barcelona, seem to be digging in for a long haul, mindful of its long history. The kings of Valencia subdued the Catalans and captured their country 303 years ago at the end of a bloody war over the Spanish succession.
The last armed battle was waged against Catalonia by the fascist dictator General Francisco Franco 79 years ago. The Catalan army was defeated in the 1938 Battle of Ebro, leaving 3,500 dead. Tens of thousands of Catalans were thrown into exile.
Today, both Madrid and Barcelona are careful to avoid letting the current Catalan drive for independence draw them into an armed clash. But there is no guarantee they will succeed.
Independent experts on the dispute forecast a majority casting their vote against separation from Spain in the December poll – roughly 48 percent to the 38-40 percent who will support independence.
But there are other factors to be taken into account. Catalonia’s rapidly growing economy is based mainly on financial services, hi-tech and tourism, along with a stable textile industry. The pace of the independence drive is set by young business leaders aged 18-25 who are confident that the region’s economy is strong enough to stand on its own feet and break away from dependence on Spain, whose economy is much weaker.
Catalonia produces $314 billion worth of goods per annum and its economy ranks as the 34th strongest in the world, ahead of Hong Kong. Its GDP is $35,000, topping South Korea, Israel and Italy. The separatists see no reason to share their wealth with Spain.
But it seems that wealth alone can’t buy independence. Not a single world government has recognized the Catalan parliament’s proclamation. In fact, the European Union and most of its member nations as well as the United States are ranged against secession and solidly support a united Spain. Therefore, an independent Catalonia condemns itself to international isolation, which would be not only political, but also hamstring its economy and its financial institutions.
Madrid has already cut off salary payments to the pro-independence Catalan leaders, but Rajoy’s next step could be to ask Washington and the EU to impose a financial boycott on the rebellious region. Even the strongest economy can’t function or survive in a vacuum into today’s world of interdependence among the international financial markets and world banking. For total independence, Catalonia would need to cut itself off from Spanish and European institutions, drop the euro and print its own currency.
But then, would the international financial markets agree to recognize the new currency and use if for transactions? There is much to consider before taking a thriving Catalan economy out to terra incognita outside the Spanish federation. In his speech Saturday, therefore, separatist leader Puigdemont was careful to advise his eager adherents to stay calm and conduct civil disobedience without violence. He was recorded standing on a podium with the official emblem of the Catalan regional government. Behind him were the Catalan and European Union flags, but not the one from Spain, although the EU has disowned his claim. The Spanish authorities have also carefully held back from arresting him for rebellion – as yet – realizing that this could be a trigger for the situation to veer out of control.
Their standoff could last for some months with possible interruptions for dialogue to resolve it, or else it could tip over into violence.