Time Is Running Out to Avoid a Constitutional Crisis in Spain

Mariano Rajoy vows to do “whatever is necessary” to stop Catalonia from holding an independence referendum.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy delivers a news conference in Madrid, September 7
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy delivers a news conference in Madrid, September 7 (La Moncloa)

The governments in Barcelona and Madrid continue on their collision course. Time is running out to avoid a constitutional crisis in Spain.

  • Catalonia’s regional parliament legislated this week for an independence referendum from Spain.
  • Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has vowed to do “whatever is necessary” to stop it.
  • His government challenged the legality of the referendum to the Constitutional Court, which promptly suspended the law while it considers arguments.
  • Prosecutors filed criminal charges against senior Catalan officials, including the regional president and speaker of parliament.
  • Law enforcement agencies in Catalonia have been instructed to seize ballot boxes.
  • The central government urged Catalan mayors not to assist in preparations for the referendum. The mayor of Tarragona complied. The mayors of Badalona, Girona and Sabadell have said they support the referendum. The mayor of Barcelona is undecided.

It’s not too late to step back from the brink

I still feel Spanish intransigence is ultimately to blame. A refusal to hear out Catalan demands, must less recognize their right to self-determination, has radicalized the independence movement.

Spain accuses the Catalans of breaking the law by holding their referendum, but it has refused to allow them one. What were they supposed to do?

That said, the separatists have bungled this process.

They enacted the referendum law with the smallest-possible majority: 72 out of 135 deputies, despite the far-left opposition nominally supporting Catalan self-determination. Those 72 deputies were elected in 2015 by 48 percent of voters. That’s not a strong mandate.

The law itself has many shortcomings:

  • It claims to be binding, but there is no provision for this in Catalan or Spanish law.
  • It has no minimum turnout requirement.
  • It sets the referendum for October 1, giving both proponents and opponents little time to mount a campaign.
  • The regional government is campaigning for independence, but no public funds are being made available for the “no” side.
  • In case the separatists prevail, the plan is to declare independence from Spain within two days. What’s the rush?

What’s next?

Monday is the National Day of Catalonia. Expect a show of force from the separatists. In previous years, hundreds of thousands of Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona to demonstrate for self-determination.