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Fernando Betancor


Catalonia and Spain: End Game Scenarios

I’ve written a number of times[i] on the increasingly tense situation in Catalonia, Spain’s prickliest province that also wants to become Europe’s newest independent state. On April 8th another act in the unfolding drama was completed: three representatives of the pro-separatist elements in the Catalan Parlament visited Madrid to officially request the authority to hold a referendum on Catalonian independence. It was a foregone conclusion that Madrid would say “no” – a very definitive “no” on the part of Mr. Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister; with other parties joining the chorus in more or less vituperative fashion depending on their ideology and relationship with the governing Partido Popular.

The Catalans returned home dissatisfied, but undissuaded. Before departing the capital, the three legislators expressed their disappointment and their determination, declaring that a referendum would still be held, for the Catalan people were on a “one way path” to self-determination[ii]. Artur Mas, President of the Catalan Generalitat, who had not bothered to make the trip and meet with abuse, reaffirmed this stance. He was excoriated in absentia nonetheless.

What is evident is that the Catalans understood the necessity of making the gesture: the Spanish government had to at least be offered this one last time the chance to become a participant in the Catalan drive to a referendum. This was a calculated risk: if the government had agreed to the referendum, they would have had the opportunity to set conditions that would have ensured a favorable outcome for Madrid[iii].  A calculated risk, but one that Mr. Mas knew he was never in real danger of losing. Mr. Rajoy already faces a rebellion from the right-wing of his own party, and hardline elements would never countenance the legitimacy that a referendum would give to Catalan separatism, regardless of the government strategy behind it.

Now that Catalans can declare to the world what they have been saying all along: that their peaceful, democratic aspirations are being stifled by an oppressive Castilian clique in Madrid that is determined not only to force Catalans to accept a modus vivendi that they find intolerable, but that is actively engaged in ruining the Catalan economy and stamping out the unique culture and identity of the Catalan people. Castilians obviously have their counterarguments, and I do not propose to enter into a discussion of the merits of one or the other. There are plenty of articles[iv] for the interested reader.

Catalans are now preparing their next steps. The Generalitat indicates that they intend to go ahead with the referendum planned for November 9th whether Madrid approves of it or not, but there are, in fact numerous scenarios that could play out. By closing the door to a legal referendum, Mr. Rajoy has opened other potentialities for the Catalans to explore.

End Game Scenarios

There are five potential paths for the Catalan independence movement at this point. I have attempted to chart out the most likely progression for each of these scenarios, using a move-countermove framework involving the government of Catalonia, Spain and the potential involvement of the European Union. At each step, when options have presented themselves, I have assigned a probability for that outcome based purely on my personal experience and judgment.

The first chart shows the current position: Catalan representatives have requested authority to hold a referendum and they have been rebuffed. They now have five options:

  1. End the referendum process and accept the status quo (the “Collaborationist Option”);

  2. Hold an unofficial referendum (the “Veneto Option”);

  3. Hold an unauthorized referendum (the “Crimea Option”);

  4. Call for elections on a single platform of separation, which would serve as a de facto referendum;

  5. Unilaterally declare independence without further ado (the “Jefferson Option”).

Some of these options are so improbable as to be beyond the realm of possibility, but I will present each of them in turn. Since I am as fallible as the next man, take these estimations for what they are worth[v].

The “Collaborationist Option”

There is always the possibility that Mr. Mas and the CiU leadership will get cold feet between now and November; or that they may be made “on offer they can’t refuse” by Madrid. In such a case, they would attempt to call off the referendum process and put the best face on it they can:

Option 1: End the Process:

Unfortunately for Mr. Mas, his government rests on a coalition with the far more separatist ERC. These are hard-core advocates of independence: it is unlikely that they will be satisfied with any sub rosa douceur that Mr. Rajoy might offer the more moderate CiU leadership. Furthermore, they would exploit the weakness of Mr. Mas’ position: he and his party would be wide open to the charges of being collaborationist stooges and having sold out the Catalan people. ERC would have only to withdraw its support from Mr. Mas for the government to fall (Cat 3).

Mr. Mas would have two choices: he could call a snap election, or he could attempt to form a new government coalition. Without the pro-separatist parties (ERC, ICV and CUP), CiU could form a government with just the Catalan Socialists (PSC) or an even more unlikely coalition with the local Partido Popular. The former deal might give the new coalition a certain amount of stability, but an alliance with the PP would only confirm the worst suspicions of “collaborationism”.

In either event, this is an unstable equilibrium. As soon as elections are called, whether immediately or after some time of coalition rule, the most likely result is a resounding triumph for pro-separatist parties. Indeed, the ERC might win an outright majority if CiU supporters flock to them en masse. The new government would find itself back in the original position, but with only 4 options to choose from.

Whether or not Mr. Mas is a heart-felt separatist is open to discussion, but no one denies that he is an experienced politician. He can see the results of “collaboration” as easily as anyone else: the political equivalent of cutting his own throat. For that reason, I give this option a 0% probability of occurring.

The “Veneto Option”

An intermediate step between capitulation and holding an unauthorized referendum would be to hold an “unofficial” referendum, similar to the one recently celebrated in the Italian province of Veneto[vi]. An “unofficial” referendum would not use the machinery of the state; it would not be supported by an act of the Catalan Parlament; it would not be considered binding, even by the Catalans. In Venice, for example, the voting occurred online over a five day period between the 16th and 21st of March.

The purpose of such an occasion would be to increase the pressure on Madrid without actually committing to an official and binding, though unauthorized and therefore illegal, referendum. The Generalitat could point to the turnout and results and proclaim: “See! The people of Catalonia really do support independence by a substantial margin! But Rajoy refuses to negotiate and seeks to suppress the will of the people!!” Wrapped in the flag of democracy, self-determination and non-violence, the Catalans would attempt to either have the government buckle or have the international community pressure Madrid into achieving the same result:

Option 2: Unofficial Referendum:

Madrid will immediately dispute any result of an unofficial referendum that did not favor the government. They would claim the voting was unsupervised and tampered with, regardless of any precautions the organizers might take. There is no realistic scenario of Madrid agreeing to authorize a formal referendum on the basis of an informal one, especially if the results indicate a likely victory for the separatists.

In the end, the Catalan government would find itself back where it started, now with three remaining options. That being said, there is a small probability of an unofficial referendum being held just to “check the box.” It could be seen as a safe option, as Madrid is not likely to intervene in what amounts to an especially large poll. It might also be a stop-gap measure to appease hardline separatists if the Catalan government is not confident in the results of an unauthorized referendum or if other circumstances prevent it from going forward, such as an overwhelming pro-union vote in Scotland.

The “Crimea Option”

Spain’s Foreign Minister at one point in February pronounced the situation in Crimea as akin to that in Catalonia[vii]. This was prior to the Russian Duma’s annexation of the break-away province. It was, nonetheless, one of the more imbecilic pronouncements from a government that has strived to exceed itself in banality, corruption and apathy. So when I name the unauthorized referendum as “the Crimea Option” it is thanks to Mr. Margallo’s oracular abilities.

The unauthorized referendum appears to be the mechanism preferred by Mr. Mas to express the wishes of the Catalan people. One of its advantages is that referendums have the support of historical and legal precedents: popular referendums are far and away the most common form of successfully seceding from an existing state. There are some generally agreed upon formulae for submitting a motion to a referendum and for setting the minimum bars to carry that motion. A referendum can be monitored by international inspectors. And a popular referendum finds support on the principle of self-determination enshrined in the U.N. Charter, the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the International Declaration of Civil and Political Rights, and other international agreements[viii].

There are disadvantages too. It is difficult to claim any legal protection for the results of a referendum that, from the beginning, was illegal. The fact that it is illegal facilitates the national government’s efforts to dispute and discredit the results, since no one from Madrid is going to participate in any way. Furthermore, the very act of organizing an unauthorized referendum exposes the Catalan government to a series of legal sanctions that could be applied either before the date of the plebiscite, in order to prevent voting; or else afterwards, in order to prevent any action being taken on the results of the same.

Despite all of these handicaps, this is the avenue most likely to be pursued by Catalonia, and it has received the fullest treatment:

Option 3: Unauthorized Referendum:

After the Catalan Parlament authorizes the organization of the unauthorized referendum, the Spanish government will illegalize the act of the Parlament and order the Catalans to desist from any actions authorized by this measure. Consequences may be threatened or implicit. The Generalitat must decide whether to proceed under threat: acquiescence to the status quo under duress will likely lead to the fall of the governing coalition. Vastly more likely is that Barcelona will call Madrid and see if it is all bluff. They will continue to organize the referendum.

The Spanish government has a wide range of options available to it to impose its will on the recalcitrant Catalans. The three most likely to be used – either singly or in combination – are:

  1. The dissolution of the Catalan Parlament and a call for new elections, coupled with the banning of certain pro-secession parties;

  2. The suspension of Catalonia’s charter of autonomy and the imposition of direct rule from Madrid;

  3. The issuance of arrest warrants for some of the pro-secession members of the Catalan government and legislature on charges of sedition, planning secession, and perhaps various other charges[ix].

In the cases of the dissolution of the government or the suspension of the Catalan charters, the Catalans could choose to ignore Madrid and to continue to function illegally. This choice, or if Madrid immediately plays hardball by issuing warrants, would precipitate the fundamental crisis: because the Catalan government is already up-and-running, it doesn’t need to do anything to continue in operation. The onus falls on the Spanish government to re-impose its flouted authority, as well as the responsibility for initiating a course of action that could result in fatalities. Of course, Spain will argue that it is the Generalitat that bears the moral burden of any deaths resulting from their illegal secessionist activities: but at the end of the day, it is Spain that will have to send in armed men to regain control of the situation.

There is also the slight possibility of letting the referendum go ahead and of recognizing the results. This would lead to the “amicable divorce” outcome in which Catalonia goes its own way peacefully and negotiates all outstanding issues with Spain: treatment of the national debt, sharing of the social security fund, disposition of public property, support for immediate admittance into the EU and Euro, etc… This is a long shot, for a number of weighty reasons:

  • Mr. Rajoy would be a dead man walking politically;

  • Mr. Rajoy might not even be able to get a majority of his party to go along with his decision in the national legislature, or there might be a mass desertion of PP backbenchers to Vox, for example. Either way, the government would fall;

  • If Catalonia left peacefully, the Basque Country would go the next day – that is another 6% of GDP, a substantial portion of Spain’s remaining industrial capacity, and the other main land links to France (the primary go through Catalonia);

  • If both Catalonia and the Basque Country leave, it is not inconceivable that Galicia might wish to break off, or that Andalucía would see itself a beneficiary of far greater European Regional Development Funds on her own than in the rump of Spain. The country could literally fall apart.

For all these reasons, I find it difficult though not impossible to believe that Mr. Rajoy would wish to or be allowed to acquiesce to an “amicable divorce” scenario with the Catalans.

Option 3: Unauthorized Referendum – page 2

Regardless of whether Madrid decides on a police action before or after the Generalitat shows its defiance, the first move will be to order the Mossos d’Escuadra, Catalonia’s autonomous police force, to execute the warrants. This will be a critical test: will the Mossos fulfill their duty to the Spanish state, or will they remain loyal to the Generalitat? The degree of violence that is likely to ensue largely hinges on their choice, for if the Catalan police refuses its duty, Spain’s recourse will be to send in the Guardia Civil. At this point, you will have to large bodies of armed men and women in close proximity, in a city of several million people, most of them hostile to the Guardias. The potential for disastrous escalation is self-evident.

If the Mossos remain obedient to the national government, then I estimate the probabilities of violence are significantly reduced. Catalans repressing Catalans is hardly a pleasant scenario to consider, but it would ease the government’s task considerably and totally negate the “ethnic angle”: police action could no longer be viewed as some sort of Castilian attack on Catalans; and Madrid would undoubtedly be delighted to exploit any evident divisions in Catalan society.

A police crackdown would put the ball back in the Generalitat’s court. One option would be compliance: the Catalan politicians would let themselves be arrested and have their day in court. A public trial might be good publicity if the Spanish government mishandled it: international opinion could actually look more favorably on the “democratic” underdog than on a strong-arm government. It is doubtful whether any of them would spend much time in jail; but Gandhi did and came out the stronger for it[x].

Catalonia would then have to be administered directly from Madrid, or with some combination of a rump Parlament of pro-union legislators and officials sent from the capital. In either case, the majority of Catalans would be outraged by a perceived gross violation of their rights and would consider the de facto government as nothing less than a fascist takeover and wholly illegitimate. A probable outcome would be passive resistance; perhaps spontaneous, but possibly planned in advance for such an eventuality. The Spanish government would find itself with political martyrs in Madrid and a non-stop wave of strikes, demonstrations, marches and rallies throughout a region that represents 20% of Spain’s economy.  Passive resistance would seek to impose so high an economic and political cost on Madrid that the government would be forced to negotiate an end to direct administration of the province.

Although every single Catalan politician and leader is on the record stating that the independence movement is committed to non-violence and peaceful, democratic means, there is a non-negligible chance of violence breaking out. Whether caused by excessive use of force on the part of police or by radicalized civilian protesters, once violence breaks out it could become generalized. Bricks and steel pipes are ubiquitous in any city, and making Molotov cocktails is child’s play. As the crises in Kiev and Caracas have demonstrated, a determined group of civilians can effectively resist police forces in an urban environment, especially if the officers are not even locals. The Spanish government would be very hard pressed to put a good face on a situation with potentially hundreds injured, hospitals overflowing and large sections of the major Catalan cities in anarchy.

Option 3: Unauthorized Referendum – page 3

Violence, at least of the sustained, organized kind, remains a remote possibility, but one that cannot be ruled out. There are hotheads and violent radicals in every country and political movement. Indeed, the use of agents provocateurs cannot be ruled out, either by the government or by extremists in Spain’s own ultra-nationalist movements. The former would see a benefit in discrediting the “non-violent, democratic” character of the Catalan independence movement, especially if some prominent pro-union Catalan politician were violently assaulted.

The latter would deliberately seek an escalation in the crisis in order to achieve their goals of military intervention in the province and a permanent suspension of the Catalan charter of autonomy, rather than a temporary one. The bloodier the “uprising” is, and the longer it goes on, the more likely the ultras are to achieve their objective. These radical sectors, which include the openly fascist New Falange, seek to preserve the unity of the Spanish state, but that is not enough: for some, it has become a matter of punishing the Catalans for their temerity in questioning the superiority of Spanish nationalism and culture with their own “false history of lies and deceits”. The most radical of these elements go so far as to reject the current Constitution as being too weak, liberal and federalist, and would like to replace it with a much stronger charter for a strong, unitary state ruled from Madrid and with the complete dissolution of the “autonomous communities” as recognized political entities within it.

Fortunately for both sides, the extreme right is almost unrepresented in Spanish politics and in no position of authority to dictate policy. That should be little cause for celebration: Gavrilo Princip was also in a tiny minority when he set the world on fire[xi]. However, we already see a ratcheting up of the rhetoric, with some mainstream conservative politicians[xii] calling for measures that could have come out of a right-wing manifesto, such as sending a Brigadier-General of the Spanish Army to take-over theMossos d’Escuadra and “end the separatist trend once and for all.” The Spanish police[xiii] and Armed Forces[xiv] also have their hotheads, some of whom might be discreet enough to keep their opinions to themselves – for now.

Active resistance on the part of the Catalan population would make the job of the Spanish government extremely difficult. It would also provoke necessary police measures that, on camera at least, would look extremely brutal, such as clearing streets with water cannon, tear gas, and riot police charges. As casualties mounted on both sides, the actions would become brutal – that is the inevitable nature of escalation in these matters. At some point, if police measures are ineffective, the Spanish government could declare Catalonia to be in a state of insurrection and call in the military. How much more effective that will be than using law enforcement alone is unclear to me: soldiers are trained to kill the enemy, not pacify their own people. When troops are used, then the civilians inevitably become “the enemy” and are usually killed.

Yet the government might be forced into this desperate act for lack of better options. In a scenario where violence continues unabated or escalates, when economic and political damage to Spain becomes widespread, and with immense pressure coming from the hardline elements to the right of the Partido Popular, Mr. Rajoy may be pressured into giving that order. It is unlikely to be successful in quelling unrest; it is certain to fail in making the Catalans love their Spanish neighbors; but it is the sort of desperation ploy that politicians and generals often make when they are in a bad fix and don’t know what else to do. Mr. Rajoy may even find himself without any say in the matter: any “weakness” on his part, evidenced by a desire to negotiate or even let Catalonia go, might be met with an ultimatum from within his party. It is not impossible to imagine Mr. Rajoy being invited to become “temporarily ill” while people with stronger nerves handle the situation. Nothing so Third World as a coup, mind you….

Option 3: Unauthorized Referendum – page 4

The mediation of the European Union appears to me to be unlikely prior to any violence in Catalonia. For one thing, the EU is not going to want to appear to be interfering in the internal affairs of a member state, and Spain will resent and resist anything that smacks of it. The current EU position is that any secession from a member state would result in the new state having to reapply to EU and Eurozone membership from scratch: a multi-year process. This is pure rhetoric, uttered in the hopes of deterring the eventuality and thus dodging the bullet. But in fact, it is a purely political decision whether Brussels wishes to give automatic admission to Scotland, Catalonia or Veneto. For the time being, the politics are all on the sides of the big countries, namely the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy.

The politics may change rapidly in a situation where civil war and major economic disruption appear to threaten. It is therefore highly likely as soon as the situation escalates into one of police action; it is certain in the case of the imposition of martial law. If it looks like the Spanish handling, or mishandling, of the Catalan situation is likely to create a financial and economic crisis for the rest of Europe, you can believe that EU Ministers will be shuttling daily between Brussels, Frankfurt and Madrid. It is an open question whether even under these circumstances the EU has sufficient leverage to force Madrid into allowing a peaceful Catalan separation:

  • It would amount to political suicide for the Prime Minister and his party;

  • There is no mechanism for expelling a Member State from either the EU or the Euro;

  • While Spain owes the ECB a very great deal of money that is also a two-edged sword – the ECB could threaten to stop financing Spanish banks and through them the Spanish deficit, but Spain could threaten to not pay back what they already owe. Mutually assured destruction of a financial version;

  • The EU could perhaps threaten to bring cases against individual Spanish officials and officers in the event of gross human rights abuses in the ICJ, but I find it very difficult to believe that they would do so.

In the end, the EU would most likely issue a public rebuke to the Spanish government and very little else. The Spaniards will suffer it: under the influence of nationalistic, patriotic fervor and with their proverbial pride, they are not going to let a parcel of foreigners interfere in the holy unity of Spain. I give the chances of a successful EU mediation a very low probability of success; and the longer the EU waits to make its presence felt, the less likely it is to have any impact whatsoever.

At this point (Cat 10), it becomes impossible to explore this scenario further. Catalonia and Spain will be locked in a race to the bottom, pitting civilian protesters against Spanish law enforcement or possibly military personnel. Which gives way first will be a question of stamina and will: either sufficient numbers of separatists will be jailed, hospitalized or knocked on the head for the rest to stay home; or else the economic losses to the Spanish economy, a skyrocketing risk premium, the outflow of foreign capital, and the effects of international pariah status to “Brand Spain” convince Spanish political and business elites (the only ones who matter) that it is time to cut their losses. It is impossible to predict which will come first, only that the long-term human cost would be dire.

Regional Elections As A Substitute Referendum

Blocked from holding an official referendum, and wishing to avoid the consequences of illegally organizing an outlawed plebiscite, the Catalan government does have a perfectly legal fallback option. The Spanish Constitution grants to the autonomous communities full powers to call for and organize their own regional elections. The Spanish government has no say in the matter. If they so desired, the CiU and ERC could agree to provoke a government crisis by ending their coalition; the CiU would, rather than seek another partner, call for early elections; these elections would then be organized on the single platform of independence for Catalonia. A de facto referendum.

This approach has drawbacks as well: perhaps most importantly, however much the campaign revolves around separation, it still lacks the full legal potency of a single issue referendum submitted to public vote, and it would not be recognized as such by international organizations or other states. Additionally, while Spain could not legally stop the election from happening, the national authorities could still intervene by a judicial process of banning certain parties from participating on the grounds of fomenting secession: a process similar to that experienced by numerous Basque parties with ties too close to ETA for comfort.

Despite its disadvantages, this remains the second most likely scenario behind the unauthorized referendum:

Option 4: “de Facto” Referendum

Whether the national authorities attempt to meddle or not seems somewhat irrelevant, in that these efforts are unlikely to be successful. There are sufficient pro-separation parties in Catalonia that the suppression of one will only have voters switch to another, assuming that the banned party is not merely reconstituted in another guise. An attempt to ban all of the pro-independence parties, besides make a farce of the constitution and charters of autonomy, would only result in the Generalitat calling off the elections and proceeding to either option 3, the unauthorized referendum, or option 5, a unilateral declaration of independence. Any interference by Spain in the election would be far more likely to garner additional support for the separatists, rather than undermine: Madrid would be shooting itself in the foot.

Even assuming no direct interference, the election would play out in an atmosphere of fear and hysteria: pro-union parties would be predicting a Catalan economic and political apocalypse in the event of a separatist victory, while pro-independence groups would be predicting the end of Catalan autonomy and the snuffing out of their language and culture should the unionists win. There would be no displays of moderation: both sides would be pulling out all the stops with so much on the line.

Based on the most recent electoral results[xv] and on polls[xvi] since then, I predict a high probability of a separatist victory. In other words, the sum of separatist parties’ seats in the Parlament will equal or exceed the 67% they won in the last elections. If one of the pro-independence parties won an absolute majority – unlikely, but not impossible – it could conceivably form a government by itself; or it might choose to form a “national unity” coalition that includes representatives of all the pro-independence parties. This would be a smart move even were it not made necessary by the electoral dynamics.

The national authorities would have another opportunity to intervene prior to the formation of a government. They could attempt to exploit any irregularities to order a recount or to nullify the elections. The former would be unlikely to do more than delay the inevitable, while the latter would lack any legal basis and ought to be defeated in the courts. I think intervention at this point would be unlikely: if Madrid planned intervention, they would want a clear and undeniable justification, which is precisely what the Catalans would be about to give them.

Once the new government was formed, it would petition the Parlament to vote on a declaration of independence from Spain, justified by the results of the election. The first challenge would come from the pro-union parliamentarians, who would likely resign en masse. This in itself would be unlikely to stop the debate, as the parliamentary regulations of Catalonia[xvii] require only a simple majority of legislators to be present for the session to meet its quorum requirement. The unionists would be unlikely to have more than 35% of the members on their side, and not all of them would necessarily go along with such an order. Certainly the Partido Popular members would; probably those of Ciutadens; but the PSC members have shown a degree of party disobedience on the subject of separation which is undoubtedly disturbing to the PSOE in Calle Ferraz[xviii]. Still, a mass walk-out would not look good internationally.

It is at this point that the national authorities are most likely to intervene: after the presentation of the bill, but before any debate or voting has occurred. Madrid would want to take its measures prior to having the Catalan legislature vote the measure into law (even though it would be immediately and automatically nullified in Madrid’s eyes). Mr. Rajoy would have the same options we considered in the previous section: dissolution of the government, nullification of the charter of autonomy, arrest of separatist politicians, or all of the preceding.

The rest of this scenario plays out like the one before it. Unless Madrid is willing to let Catalonia go its own way in an amicable divorce, the options remain police intervention, martial law, direct administration of Catalonia and her 8 million inhabitants.

Option 4: “de Facto” Referendum – page 2

The “Jefferson Option”[xix]

The final scenario plays out with a unilateral declaration of Catalan independence from Spain without the preliminaries of a referendum or even a regional election to give political cover to the Parlament. This is highly unlikely to be the first option selected for the obvious reasons: it is the most extreme option and the one most likely to meet with stern international disapproval. Given how important international recognition and support are for the Catalans, they are not going to risk it without very great provocation.

It cannot be ruled out, however. Should every other avenue of democratic advance be successfully blocked by the national authorities, the Catalans may decide that this remains their only alternative to astatus quo that the majority of their citizens would consider intolerable. If Madrid is able to block both the unauthorized referendum and intervene in regional elections, the writing will be on the wall for the Catalans: declare independence or acquiesce permanently. Prior to accepting the latter, I believe the majority of voters and legislators would opt for the former. Even more would support independence than do now, given the ill-feeling that would undoubtedly be engendered by such blatant interference from Madrid and the political capital that separatists would make of it.

Option 5: Unilateral Declaration of Independence

This scenario plays out like the previous two, only the starting probabilities vary somewhat.

Predicted Outcomes

In all scenarios, the probability of an amicable divorce between Spain and Catalonia is less than 20%; even that may be overestimated. The best option for achieving this result remains the referendum: even though unauthorized, it grants a greater degree of international legitimacy than any other option, and is most likely to receive Spanish recognition, no matter how reluctant or grudging. Next comes the “de facto” referendum, with a slightly better than 10% probability of achieving the sought for “amicable divorce”. It These results presuppose that “cooler heads prevail” in Madrid; a supposition which flies in the face of all evidence from two hundred years of nationalism and more than 600 years of Spanish history[xx]. Option 5, unilateral independence, is the least likely to end well, and only after an EU intervention does this become likely at all.

Scenario 4 also has the highest probability of a termination to the process, should the pro-separation parties fail to win their absolute majority in the Parlament: a slim chance at 9.6%, but one that should not be ignored. This is the only scenario that plays out in which Catalonia accepts a continuation of thestatus quo without conflict. This is largely due to the complete lack of dialogue between the two sides: they talk, but they talk around each other, each addressing their own most radical elements in the public discourse. Of course, there may be backchannel communications which I am not aware of, but I think the process has gone too far for even these to work: neither side can appear to appease the other without suffering an enormous, perhaps unbearable, political cost.

The most likely outcome is that of passive resistance to a solution imposed from Madrid, with probabilities between 55% and 65% in every scenario. This involves the dissolution of the Catalan government and a suspension of the charter of autonomy, followed by passive resistance. In greater than 1 of 3 of these endgames, there is either a police crackdown or military intervention. There is a small chance of the Catalans buckling under the pressure immediately, on average a 6% or 7% probability. It seems unlikely to me, however, that the Catalan people would be willing to fold without some demonstration of resistance, passive or otherwise. This last outcome, active resistance, occurs in 16% of outcomes on average.

It is impossible to foretell which side would be able to impose its will upon the other in this eventuality: what is certain is that there would be no winner. Both sides would inflict a terrible cost on the other: a large and critical piece of the Spanish economy would suffer long-term damage; Spain’s international reputation would plummet even as its borrowing costs soared; and there would be an outflow of foreign investment and capital from Catalonia, one of the primary regions for attracting FDI. Spanish politicians, and many ordinary Spaniards, would be willing to pay this price in order to preserve the territorial integrity of their state; though relations with their Catalan brothers and sisters would be poisoned for another 100 years. It would be even worse in the event of sustained law enforcement oppression or the imposition of martial law.

It is my impression that the situation in Spain is more akin to that of the UK in 1914 than in 2014. Today, the Scots will have their chance at peaceful, democratic self-determination. Back then, Irish Home Rule was on the table, but was put away due to the outbreak of the Great War; Ireland rose in bloody revolt two years later and eventually won her independence after great sacrifice in blood and treasure. Whether Catalonia will gain her independence or not remains in doubt; but I am convinced that the Catalan leadership really has embarked on a course of no return, even if they wanted to: at this point, the dynamics of nationalism and radicalization of the masses has taken hold. They now hold the tiger’s tail and cannot let go.

The ball will soon be back in Mr. Rajoy’s court, to decide if he will accept Catalonia’s decision or embark upon a process that will very likely end in repression and bloodshed. In either case, the costs will be high for him personally, for his party, for his nation and for the future of European integration.


Sources and Notes


[i] “The Bloody Flag”; “The Most Important Election”, “War of the Words”, “Die Lüge: Ever Closer Union”, “La Serenissima”, “Spain: Horns of a Dilemma”

[ii] Daniel G. Sastre, “Los enviados del Parlament: 'Cataluña ha iniciado un camino sin retorno,'” El Mundo, 08 April 2014 (in Spanish)

[iii] By setting exceedingly high conditions for the measure to pass, and by splitting the vote over a number of options, the government could almost certainly ensure that an insufficient number of Catalans would vote The for outright independence to clear the hurdle. Such an outcome would settle the “Catalan question” for at least a generation.

[iv] For the Catalan position, visit the website of the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC). For the Castilian position, read the article published by the Fundación para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales AES (FAES) the think-tank established by former Prime Minister and Partido Popular leader, José María Aznar.

[v] I have no special insight or contacts into the principals within the Catalan and Spanish government.

[vi] Tom Kingston, “Veneto residents support leaving Italy in unofficial referendum,” The Telegraph, 24 March 2014

[vii] Guy Hedgecoe, “Catalonia’s Unwanted Crimea Comparisons,” The Irish Times, 19 March 2014

[viii] There has never been an internationally accepted legal reconciliation between the contradictions inherent in the right to self-determination and the right to territorial integrity of a recognized nation-state. The balance has depended on time, circumstances and the relative power of all the interested parties, not just those in the state threatened with separatism.

[ix] Such as the misuse of public funds and their diversion to illegal activities. Whatever will stick.

[x] I am not comparing Artur Mas to Mohandas Gandhi, only remarking that repression, even when legal, may rebound upon the authorities in a manner they did not intend.

[xi] Gavrilo Princip was the only one of the six Bosnian conspirators who kept his courage and carried out the planned assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, leading directly to the First World War.

[xii] “Vidal-Quadras pide intervenir Cataluña con la Guardia Civil,” La Vanguardia, 28 September 2012 (Spanish only)

[xiii] “Cataluña siempre será España, por lo civil o por lo militar,” Nació Digital, 26 February 2014 (In Catalan and Spanish)

[xiv] Solé, Richard, “Francisco Alamán, coronel del Ejército español: ‘La independencia de Cataluña? Por encima de mi cadáver,” Alerta Digital, 31 August 2012 (Spanish only)

[xv] Ortiz, Fiona and Phillips, Branden, “Separatist parties win Catalonia election in Spain,” Reuters, 26 November 2012

[xvi] Jack Pitts, “Poll finds that 60% of Catalans want independence,”  The Independent, 21 March 2014

[xvii] Section 4, Article 80, part 1, “Quorum for the  Adoption of Measures,” Catalan Parliamentary Regulations

[xviii] The PSOE headquarters are in the Calle Ferraz in Madrid.

[xix] In honor, of course, of Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence.

[xx] The sole exception being the ill-fated and brief union of Spain and Portugal under Philip II, which was ended by force of arms in 1668 with revolt begun under the reign of Philip III for his attempts to convert Portugal from separate kingdom united under a single crown, into merely another Spanish province. This coincided with a revolt in Catalonia and Spanish involvement in the Thirty Year’s War, which had drained the country of troops. John of Braganza became King Joao IV of Portugal with almost universal support from all sectors of the population.

Originally published on Common Sense, and republished with permission of the author.