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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Catalonia's future unclear post-referendum, but tensions with Madrid sure to remain

Both sides have said they are willing to talk after Sunday's vote - but neither has shown any desire for compromise

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont gestures while visiting the polling station where he was expected to vote, in Sant Julia de Ramis on October 1, 2017. Albert Gea / Reuters
Catalan president Carles Puigdemont gestures while visiting the polling station where he was expected to vote, in Sant Julia de Ramis on October 1, 2017. Albert Gea / Reuters

One voter at Sunday’s referendum on Catalan independence described the Spanish government’s response to the ballot as “stupid”.

As pictures of bloodied old women and terrified voters were broadcast across the world after scuffles with police, it seemed that prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government did indeed have a public relations problem.

Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont was having problems of his own, however, with the referendum having been declared illegal by the Spanish courts because it violated the constitution.

Neither leader's problems looked set to go away once polls closed on Sunday, however, with both sides showing little desire for compromise.

Catalans are split on the vote, with the most recent opinion poll giving the "Yes" vote a slender six-point lead over "No". The Spanish government’s clampdown on voting was expected to affect turnout, however, and Catalan officials said they would view a turnout of one million as a success, despite Catalonia having about five million registered voters. Turnout could affect the result: the Guardian reported last month that a poll had found the "Yes" vote would likely increase if turnout was just 50 per cent.

Mr Puigdemont has vowed to unilaterally declare independence within 48 hours in the event of a victory for the "Yes" vote, while Spain’s attorney general has refused to rule out charging the Catalan leader over the alleged misuse of state funds towards the referendum.

With the vote heavily disrupted by national authorities who confiscated ballots, shut down secessionist websites and raided voting stations, Mr Puigdemont and his supporters have been quick to criticise the government for being undemocratic.

Spanish politicians, meanwhile, have accused Catalonia’s leadership of being intransigent. Both the governing Popular Party and opposition Socialist Party said last week they were willing to hold talks with the Catalans — though only if Mr Puigdemont agreed to cancel the referendum.

The Socialist Party also tabled a proposal in Congress in which it recommended reforming the current regional model for autonomy, according to Spanish newspaper El Pais, to provide regions with more powers of autonomy. Catalan parties refused to participate.

Many voters at the polls on Sunday said they hoped the referendum would result in dialogue with Madrid.

Mr Puigdemont said on Saturday that in the event of a "Yes" vote the two sides would have to hold talks during a “transitional phase”, while the government, despite opposing the referendum, has said talks must begin immediately after the poll.

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“On [October] 2 we will talk, and the dynamic will lead us to seek solutions because the plan for Spaniards to live side-by-side must continue in Spain,” government spokesperson Íñigo Méndez de Vigo told the Onda Cero radio network last week.

But although the two sides may agree upon the need for holding talks, analysts warn that negotiations will be complex.

“Most Spanish politicians, political parties and people in general oppose independence, and the constitution specifically prohibits it. It’s hard to see how these two sides can be reconciled, and the more heated the debate becomes, the harder it will be to reach the kind of negotiated compromise which would involve greater levels of autonomy and funding for the region,” said Dr David Brydan, lecturer in modern European history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Pro-secession unions, meanwhile, have already planned the next phase of their push for independence — whatever the outcome of the vote — with a call for a general strike in Barcelona on Tuesday.

The difficult situation the Mossos d'Esquadra, or Catalan police force, has found itself in has highlighted the institutional issues that both the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia and Spain face, however.

Though the Mossos is responsible for enforcing Spanish law, it falls under the authority of the Catalan government, and the force took little action following orders from Madrid to stop the referendum.

“Mossos told people the referendum is illegal. That’s it. They didn’t stop people,” said a local official in Barcelona on Sunday.

With an advanced economy and its own institutions of state, Catalonia feels it has all the ingredients to be an independent country.

But although the region has become a hub for foreign companies in recent years, there are indications that the referendum may disrupt its economic growth: according to El Pais, law firms have seen a surge in requests from businesses who are concerned about the risks of investing in the region.

Post-referendum uncertainties also lie ahead for Madrid, with Sunday's vote prompting the ministry of finance to cancel its presentation of the country’s 2018 budget, which had been scheduled to take place on Friday last week.