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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Catalan crisis is reshaping Spain’s political landscape

With the clock ticking, all three — Catalonia, Spain and the EU — have much to lose from the current crisis that stems from Catalonia’s decision to ask its people whether they want to be an independent country

Demonstrators march through the city to protest against police violence during Sunday's illegal referendum vote in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, October 3, 2017. Angel Garcia / Bloomberg
Demonstrators march through the city to protest against police violence during Sunday's illegal referendum vote in Barcelona, Spain, on Tuesday, October 3, 2017. Angel Garcia / Bloomberg

In addition to Catalonia’s eagerness to secede, the Catalan crisis is reshaping Spain’s political landscape well before the next scheduled election while also highlighting problems for the European Union.

The Catalan premier, Carles Puigdemont, has said that the region will declare independence in a matter of days. With the clock ticking, all three — Catalonia, Spain and the EU — have much to lose from the current crisis that stems from Catalonia’s decision to ask its people whether they want to be an independent country. The Spanish government viewed the vote as illegal, pointing to a constitution that states unilateral moves towards secession are invalid.

The EU lightly chastened the Spanish government after police clashed with Catalans on the day of the referendum, saying “violence can never be an instrument of politics”. More noteworthy, and indeed damning, was how the EU statement outlined that the referendum was illegal and that Catalonia would find itself outside the union’s orbit even if it had been legal.

Amid the backdrop of tangled negotiations with the United Kingdom, EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker already has his hands full. Brexit talks are faltering but Theresa May’s government is intent on waving ciao/adios/au revoir/auf wiedersehen to the union — which will have to say goodbye to its second largest economy.

As for Spain, the EU described the referendum as "an internal matter". The country's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has been playing the waiting game after the violence on the weekend in which 900 people were injured in clashes with the Guardia Civil, or Spanish state police.

Mr Rajoy, who heads a minority government, has a reputation for being a patient strategist and it seems he has stuck with this approach since his government suffered the public relations disaster of police in body armour attacking Catalan civilians who were, in their view, merely exercising their right to vote.

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Read more: Catalan referendum 'outside the law', says Spain's king

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As expected, the Spanish prime minister, who also leads the Popular Party (PP), is an unpopular man on the streets of Barcelona.

“Rajoy is the leader of Spain but he doesn’t represent me,” said Marc Ventura, a pro-Catalan independence protester in Barcelona on Tuesday. “He’s PP and is the fifth or sixth most popular party in Catalonia.”

With the Senyera, or Catalan flag, draped over his shoulders, Mr Ventura argued that Mr Rajoy and the police had acted in an undemocratic fashion.

“It’s impossible for a referendum to be illegal in a democracy. Politicians should ask the people what they want,” he said.

Mr Puigdemont has long opposed the Madrid government’s stance towards Catalonia and wants the EU to assist with negotiations, even though the semi-autonomous region’s longing glances outward have so far failed to garner robust support. However, for Mr Rajoy, it is internal politicking that could compound the crisis.

Mr Rajoy is facing pressure from the second biggest party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, which wants him to “open up immediate negotiations” with Catalonia.

The difficulty for Mr Rajoy is that Unidos Podemos, the third most popular party in Spain, is eager to work with the Socialists in a bid to unseat him from power, according to the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

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Read more: Why do secessionist movements rarely gather international support?

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While plotting political survival, Mr Rajoy must find a way to navigate the Catalan crisis before it escalates further. With negotiations offering one solution, he does have another more extreme move: suspend Catalonia’s autonomy.

This would require the government to invoke Article 155, which is being touted by a fourth party, Ciudadanos. The article is set aside “for exceptional cases only” that may “gravely damage Spain’s general interest”. Mr Rajoy has said that all options are on the table.