Catalonia: Crisis after referendum

The people of Catalonia have voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Spain. On Sunday, Catalan leaders held a referendum to solicit public endorsement for the region’s independence. On the face of it, Catalonians responded with a resounding ‘yes’ vote. According to the Catalan government, 90% of those who voted favoured independence. Although this overwhelming ‘yes’ vote indicates a massive pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia, the verdict is not unambiguous. Only 42% of the restive region’s 5.3 million eligible voters participated in the referendum. The preference of the majority is still unclear. Those who stayed away from voting on Sunday may have done so because they opposed independence, did not support a referendum or feared violence at polling booths. Voting in the referendum was hardly free and fair. Indeed, it was chaotic. Still, it is hard to ignore the deep pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia. Polarisation has touched unprecedented levels in the wake of the referendum and the result.

The Spanish government has only itself to blame for the dramatic events unfolding in Catalonia. Its opposition to the holding of the referendum is understandable. After all, national unity is important to any government. Not only does an independent Catalonia threaten the existence of Spain, it could also trigger secessionist movements and similar referendums in the Basque region, Andalusia, etc. In a bid to prevent the Catalan referendum, the Spanish government declared it illegal and cracked down on Catalonian nationalists. However, it committed a blunder in using excessive force on the Catalonians. The terrible violence unleashed in Barcelona and other Catalan cities in the run-up to and during the vote has deepened anti-Spain sentiments in Catalonia and strengthened Catalan resolve to move towards independence.

Although the referendum vote has laid bare the deep pro-independence mood in Catalonia, it raises more questions than it answers. What happens next? Will the Catalan government declare independence? How will Spain respond to that? Importantly, how will the European Union respond? Spanish leaders and Catalonian nationalists need to pull back from the brink. The Spanish government must initiate unconditional dialogue with the Catalonian political parties immediately. It could offer Catalonia greater regional autonomy. As for the Catalonians, calls for ‘independence’ are exhilarating, but do they have a vision of what an independent Catalonian state will look like? Do they have a clear programme for the future? People and parties in other restive regions will be keenly watching the unfolding drama in Spain. They will draw ideas and inspiration from the Catalan referendum. The situation in Spain is becoming a crisis. Should it escalate, it could become a turning point in European politics.
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