To judge by the Catalan government’s account, Sunday’s referendum on independence from Spain was an unequivocal triumph for the separatist cause. On Sunday night, regional authorities claimed that 2.3 million residents had turned out for the unsanctioned referendum, with over 90% favoring independence. And though the national government did its best to disrupt the vote—with security forces confiscating ballot boxes, shutting down polling stations and engaging in sometimes violent clashes with voters—those heavy-handed tactics seemed to backfire, generating international goodwill for the secessionists’ cause and criticism of the Spanish government for suppressing the vote.
But that apparent victory is by no means clear-cut. Even as Catalan President Carles Puigdemont signaled that Catalonia would soon unilaterally declare independence, he also anxiously entreated the EU to mediate with Madrid, in a sign of his own lack of leverage. And he cannot have been pleased with Brussels’s response. Per FT:
In its first public comments on Sunday’s vote — during which more than 800 people were injured — the European Commission said the Catalan question was an “internal matter for Spain”, adding that “violence can never be an instrument in politics”.
It also said that Catalonia would no longer be an EU member if it were to vote for independence after a legal referendum.
The spokesman for Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, said on Monday: “The commission believes these are times for unity and stability, not divisiveness and fragmentation. We call on all relevant players to move from confrontation to dialogue. We trust the leadership of Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process in light with Spanish constitution.”
As Europe’s response shows, Sunday’s vote may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the secessionists. Notwithstanding its mild criticisms of Madrid, Brussels shows no signs of budging from its existing policy of backing Rajoy, and it will be loath to grant legitimacy to the separatists by negotiating directly with them. If Catalonia declares independence, Madrid may well trigger Article 155 of the Spanish constitution to suspend the region’s autonomy and take full charge—and the EU will be happy to look the other way.
Indeed, Puigdemont would be naive to expect recognition from the EU; by any conceivable standard, the referendum was illegitimate and illegal, carried out in open defiance of Spain’s constitutional authorities. Outrage over Madrid’s heavy-handed tactics and sympathy for those hurt has tended to obscure this simple fact, as well as the serious flaws of the voting process itself. Most Catalans who oppose independence boycotted the referendum on principle, resulting in a highly skewed turnout favoring the secessionists (whom recent polls suggest represent barely 40% of the populace). And the voting process relied heavily on print-at-home ballots and permitted residents to vote at whatever polling place they liked, allowing for easy repeat voting. In short, a result of 90% support for independence under such circumstances is not a remotely accurate reflection of the popular will.
That said, Madrid cannot claim any kind of victory either. Rajoy’s approach to the referendum was in some respects the worst of both worlds: insufficient to prevent the vote in the first place, but heavy-handed enough to draw international scorn and fuel the secessionist fire. The hundreds of mayors and thousands of Catalan police who enabled the vote have already proven that they have little respect for Madrid’s edicts or its invocation of the “rule of law.” The situation is unlikely to improve after Sunday; widely circulated images of police brutality and bloodied civilians will only harden separatist sentiment and could motivate those on the fence to support independence.
Perhaps the prospect of an officially sanctioned referendum, held down the line under less chaotic circumstances and with mutually agreed ground rules, would lower temperatures in both Madrid and Barcelona. But it is difficult to see the stars aligning to avert constitutional crisis any time soon.
In the days to come, Puigdemont and the separatists will likely declare independence, and continue their appeals to sympathetic foreign publics and European officials. Madrid, meanwhile, will then be pressured to back up its red lines, give no ground, and impose heavier controls on Catalonia. Throughout this, the EU will issue mealy-mouthed statements supporting Spain’s constitution, urging dialogue, and reprimanding any violence, while trying to keep its hands clean. And the underlying issues that have triggered the crisis will be no closer to resolution.