Analysis

Spanish Premier Gives Catalan Leader a Harsh Lesson in Politics

Catalan separatists try to show it's business as usual after declaring independence, but Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refuses to blink

People celebrate after Catalonia's parliament voted to declare independence from Spain in Barcelona on October 27, 2017ץ
PAU BARRENA/AFP

BARCELONA - “Welcome to the Republic of Catalonia.” As of Saturday, people who have just arrived in Barcelona might hear this greeting from locals, though no one is saying it seriously.

Officially – at least to many Catalan separatists – the Catalan parliament’s declaration of independence on Friday has brought a new country into the world. But actually, in Barcelona it was hard to discern any real difference on Saturday in the city streets, which are controlled mainly by tourists who either don’t care or aren’t even aware of the political drama taking place around them.

The atmosphere in the Catalan government building, the Generalitat, was calm on Saturday. A day before, the crisis between Catalonia and Spain reached boiling point – the Catalan parliamentarians supported the region’s declaration of independence, and within half an hour the Senate in Madrid voted to grant the government the power to cancel Catalonian autonomy. On Saturday morning, Spain’s deputy prime minister was appointed to administer the rebellious region.

The Generalitat usually doesn’t operate on Saturday. But the Catalan media reported that the deposed president, Carles Puigdemont, was planning on making another speech to the new nation. (The media in Madrid reassured people later that this was a prerecorded announcement and Puigdemont was drinking with friends during its broadcast.)

Other than tourists, the main presence in one of the most beautiful squares in the Gothic part of Barcelona were the media, who jumped on three protesters walking around draped in the Catalan flag. One older man on a bicycle, wearing a red shirt, stopped by the entrance to the Generalitat and shouted “Viva Espagna!” and immediately got his 15 minutes of fame.

Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.
JORDI BEDMAR/AFP

A cluster of older protesters stood with signs, reminding people of the crimes of General Franco’s dictatorship. Meanwhile, the Spanish flag was still flying from the Generalitat and the municipality building across the way.

“We are still Spaniards. On the weekend, we rest. We’ll begin the revolution on Monday,” said Aitor Hernandez, a young writer passing by with his girlfriend.

In fact, this display of normalcy is intentional. The large protest groups are trying to convey business as usual. One even called on its supporters to go out and enjoy the pleasant weather, to have fun and show the Spaniards that the Catalans are not panicking over the new situation.

The crisis between Madrid and Barcelona is cultural and social, and goes back centuries.

But since the Catalan referendum on October 1, the clash has largely become a personal fight between the dull yet experienced Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and the ousted (according to Madrid) Catalan president, Puigdemont – a former journalist trying to make up for his lack of experience with his skill at making headlines and shaping the local and international discourse.

It seems Rajoy has the upper hand, at least for now. He taught his Catalan adversary an exercise in leadership. On Thursday, with time running out before officially stripping Catalonia of its autonomy, Puigdemont tried to stop the slide. He intended to announce to the media that the regional parliament was disbanded and new elections would be held.

But Rajoy refused to blink and commit that moving up the election would stop the revocation of the region’s autonomy. The Catalan president delayed his statement by an hour, in a last-ditch effort to attain agreement with Madrid. When that didn’t help, he canceled his speech and then rescheduled it for Saturday night – when the Catalan parliament would meet to decide how to respond to Madrid’s moves.

In his statement to the Generalitat, Puigdemont said he wanted to hold elections, but there was no one to talk to in Madrid, and so proceeding with independence would continue as planned.

In fact, the Catalan parliament voted for independence, with representatives who opposed the separatists mostly boycotting the vote. It took the Senate in Madrid less than 30 minutes to strip Catalonia of its autonomy, and on Friday night Rajoy called a meeting of the government to implement the decision – dismissing the Catalan government headed by Puigdemont and appointing officials from Madrid to rule the region “until the rule of law is restored.”

Madrid also decided to disperse the Catalan parliament and hold elections on December 21 – the date on which, according to leaks, Puigdemont himself had set for elections.

Rajoy thus showed that he believes he holds the winning cards, and was not afraid that Catalan voters would once again choose the separatist coalition government. Rajoy wanted to show that he doesn’t consider Puigdemont a national leader, but instead a local, lawbreaking politician. Madrid also said legal steps would be taken against Puigdemont this week.

Rajoy’s self-confidence is based on a number of factors: Though the referendum that approved independence for Catalonia did pass by a 95 percent majority, only 43 percent of eligible voters took part in it. Opinion polls show that most Catalans are not sure the referendum was sufficient legal justification for independence.

Public opinion could go further against Puigdemont once the economic damage caused by the declaration of independence becomes clear: Thousands of firms have already picked up stakes and moved out of the region. And Madrid claims tourism has fallen by 15 percent in the region since the referendum, compared to the same time last year (the Catalan government denies this). The Catalans also feel isolated, with most leaders of the international community backing Madrid.

The Catalan separatists are aware of this weakness, and are combating it by appealing – over the heads of Europe’s leaders – to the Europeans themselves. They are pinning their hopes mainly on Europeans also living in areas struggling for independence or greater autonomy.

In his speech, Puigdemont said Catalonia’s struggle was for the shared European values of freedom and human rights. The separatists’ online campaign slogan is “Help Catalonia, Save Europe,” while a YouTube video posted in English on Saturday calls on the world to recognize the new state.

The separatists are also planning a campaign of civil disobedience to disrupt Madrid’s attempts to control the region. On Monday, police are expected to appear in Catalan government offices to inform Catalan officials they have been ousted, and protests are planned in response. Puigdemont has urged followers not to resort to violence.

Meanwhile, Madrid is trying to limit conflict. Though legally speaking it has the authority to arrest all members of the Catalan government who were involved in the declaration of independence, it has not done so. Since the referendum, however, a ferry that has been anchored opposite the Barcelona coast has become a police base.

The ship seems to be no more than a veiled threat, and the Catalonians quickly nicknamed it “Tweety” after the yellow cartoon canary. But it seems Rajoy is counting on the Catalans tiring of strikes and economic damage, and voting against the separatists in the December election.

Madrid’s problem is that it’s not only Catalonia suffering from the crisis: The economic damage in this rich region can upset the economic stability of the whole country. Politically, Rajoy’s position is not great. For now, he has managed to cooperate with the socialist opposition against the separatists, but a change on the ground in Barcelona could leave Rajoy’s minority conservative government in a fragile situation.

In addition, the main tool of the Catalan national movement in recent years has been the fact that Catalans see themselves as abused victims of Madrid. From that perspective, it’s easy to question Rajoy’s hope that a worsening of the situation in Catalonia will strengthen opponents of separatism.

Another problem is that the local Catalan police, who were praised for their conduct during the terror attack in and around Barcelona in August, are split between opponents and supporters of independence. Civil disobedience by some police could present a powerful picture in the international media, something that play into the hands of the separatists.

And, of course, if Madrid’s cautious conduct does not continue, Rajoy will be tempted to try to stop the Catalan leadership and spark violence – or the Spanish police could be dragged into using excessive force. Then the streets of Barcelona will see violent clashes, just as they did on the day of the referendum.

Bloodshed in the streets of a European city could undermine all of Rajoy’s careful political plans and reshuffle the deck ahead of the elections in December, or possibly even earlier.