By Britt L. Bolin
Catalonia’s independence referendum on October 1st has plunged Spain into its most serious political crisis in recent memory. Tensions have been bubbling since 2010, but now the two sides are locked into a collision course with potentially disastrous consequences. It started at the beginning of September, when Catalan separatist parties in the regional parliament pushed through a law approving an independence referendum. The Catalan government’s brinkmanship infuriated Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government, who implemented several legal measures to prevent the vote from taking place. Spanish courts declared the referendum unconstitutional under Spanish law, and before the referendum the Spanish government stepped up its efforts to prevent the vote from taking place, from arresting senior officials to blocking off polling stations. Nevertheless, 2.26 million Catalans (42% of the electorate) still managed to vote on October 1st, with 90% supporting independence. The vote was marred by police violence that injured over 800 people, and pictures of voters bleeding profusely and being shot by rubber bullets sparked outrage. Most of Barcelona shut down on October 3rd for a strike protesting the violence, and the Catalan government under President Carles Puigdemont has announced its intent to declare independence. Instead of putting an end to the referendum, the Spanish government’s heavy-handed approach played straight into the hands of the Catalan separatists and has galvanized even those Catalans who previously opposed independence. It is clear that the Spanish government needs a new strategy in order to resolve the crisis and reach a compromise with the Catalan government. Spain can find one by looking across the Atlantic: to Canada and Quebec.
Quebec has tried to declare sovereignty from Canada twice, holding referendums in 1980 and 1995. The separatist movement lost both times, but by only the slimmest of margins in 1995: 50.6% to 49.4%. The Quebecois separatist movement has since been significantly weakened due to party infighting and political defeats, but after the close call in 1995, the Canadian government did not want to chance another close referendum in the future. In 2000 the Canadian government passed the Clarity Act, which set out the conditions under which any provincial vote for secession would be handled. These include a government decision on whether the proposed referendum question is clear, what constitutes a majority (a majority of eligible voters, not just a simple majority of those who voted), and a requirement for a constitutional amendment in order to secede. The Clarity Act is intended to ensure that any future secession vote will be clear and fair, as well as to enforce a high democratic standard that must be met before a province could theoretically secede.
Canada’s Clarity Act could provide a template for Spain. As a compromise to resolve the current crisis, the Spanish government should now offer a new, legal referendum on Catalan independence, with the argument that the recent vote was both illegal and had a low turnout (only 42% of eligible voters). A new referendum is the only feasible solution. The Spanish government’s aggressive actions over the past week have only served to further inflame anti-government sentiment and add credence to the charge that the federal government is denying Catalans their democratic right to self-determination. The government’s harsh tactics have effectively closed the door to a possible constitutional compromise to grant the Catalonian region even more self-rule. Bolstered by the past week’s events, the Catalan secessionist movement is also unlikely to weaken anytime soon. A legal referendum, held under strict rules echoing Canada’s Clarity Act, would address Catalan grievances and give them a voice in deciding their future. The public agrees: although polls from before October 1st show that only 41% would support secession, at least 70% are in favor of holding a legal referendum to settle the question. In other words, although only a minority of Catalans wants to secede (at least before the most recent vote), the majority at least wants to exercise their right to be heard in a democratic referendum.
Spain should follow the lead of other countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom and allow an official referendum, but only under conditions such as those set out in Canada’s Clarity Act. This would ensure a clear question and a high minimum turnout, as well as help guarantee that the result truly represents the will of the majority of voters.
The Spanish government is quickly realizing that suppressing a democratic vote by force is not endearing Catalans to the idea of staying part of Spain. It is time for the Spanish government to try a new strategy. Spain should take Canada’s lead and grant an official referendum on Catalan independence, but on Madrid’s terms.
Britt L. Bolin is a Europe Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Britt is also a doctoral candidate in political economy at the University of Mannheim, where she earned her MA in political science.