Friday 23 March 2018

Catalonia independence explainer: What happens next? A guide to the chaos unfolding in Spain

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Photo: REUTERS/Juan Medina
Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Photo: REUTERS/Juan Medina

Jon Stone

Catalonia’s parliament has declared independence from Spain in a vote on Friday. Here’s what happens next.

How did Spain react?

The Madrid government sacked Catalonia's president and dismissed its parliament on Friday, hours after the region declared itself an independent nation in Spain's gravest political crisis since the return of democracy four decades ago.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy sacked Catalonia's government including regional president Carles Puigdemont and his deputy Oriol Junqueras and assumed direct control over the region.

Central government ministries will assume directly the powers of the Catalan administration until a regional election takes place on 21 December.

The Economy Ministry has already increased its control over regional finances, to block the use of state funds to organise the secession bid, and started paying directly for essential services.

Under the new proposal, Madrid will take full financial control.

It is also possible that some pro-independence Catalans will stop paying their taxes to the Spanish treasury.

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People’s Party members applause to Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy after his speech during a plenary session to approve article 155 of the Spanish Constitution at the Spanish Senate. Photo: Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

So they’re not independent?

Ultimately this depends on how far both sides are willing to go. There will almost certainly be resistance in Catalonia to any move to impose Madrid rule over the province, and violent clashes that have rocked the region this month are likely to unfold again.

It is not clear whether a snap regional election will resolve the crisis.

An opinion poll published by the El Periodico newspaper on Sunday showed a snap election would probably have results similar to the last ballot in 2015, when a coalition of pro-independence parties formed a minority government.

Other opinion polls have shown Catalonia is almost evenly split between pro- and anti-independence supporters.

What about the European Union?

The EU has been somewhat cryptic in its responses to the situation but has consistently said it supports Spain’s constitution – effectively backing the Spanish government but without sounding overly partisan.

The European Commission hasn’t offered to mediate the situation, as has been suggested by some observers. Donald Tusk, the European Council President, said "nothing had changed" in the wake of the declaration of independence.

The head of the European Union's legislature condemned the Catalan parliament's vote said it would not be recognized in the EU.

EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani said that the Catalonian parliament's move was “a breach of the rule of law.” He added that “no one in the European Union will recognize this declaration.”

Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy

Will other countries recognise the declaration?

Britain has already said it won’t recognise the new declared Catalan state and other countries, who have their own separatist movements and do not want to set a precedent, are almost certain to follow.

Germany, France and Cyprus are among other European countries that have already made clear they back Spanish unity. The US State Department also issued a similar statement.

Mexico will also not recognize Catalonia's declaration of independence from Spain, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto wrote in a post on Twitter on Friday evening.

Pena Nieto made it clear he will stand beside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as he confronts the nation's most acute political crisis since it embraced democracy in 1978.

"Mexico will not recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of Catalonia," Pena Nieto wrote. "We hope for a political and peaceful solution."

The Department of Foreign Affairs in Ireland released a statement, reading; "We are all concerned about the crisis in Catalonia. Ireland respects the constitutional and territorial integrity of Spain and we do not accept or recognise the Catalan Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

"The resolution of the current crisis needs to be within Spain's constitutional framework and through Spain's democratic institutions. Ireland supports efforts to resolve this crisis through lawful and peaceful means."

What about the police and the threat of force?

Catalonia's main secessionist groups have called for widespread civil disobedience. They also instructed civil servants not to obey orders from Madrid and respond with peaceful resistance. It is unclear whether such calls will be followed or not.

Spain's government said it was not planning to make any arrests, but it is unclear how it will proceed if the current regional administration staff refuse to leave their offices.

A growing number of analysts fear this could lead to a physical confrontation if national police, who used heavy-handed tactics to thwart during the initial vote on independence, seek to intervene.

One of the main problems over the implementation of direct rule will relate to Catalonia's own police forces, the Mossos d'Esquadra.

Mr Rajoy has said the Mossos chief will be fired. But a group of Mossos favouring independence has already said they would not follow instructions from the central government and would not use force to remove ministers and lawmakers from power.

Several officers told Reuters they believed the 17,000-strong force was split between those who want independence and those who oppose it.

The Mossos, whose chief is under investigation on suspicion of sedition, will have to act on direct orders from their new bosses. If deemed necessary, Mossos officers may be replaced by national police.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont casts his vote for independence from Spain . Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images.

Could the Spanish government punish Catalan leaders?

Jordi Sanchez and Jordi Cuixart, the leaders of the two biggest pro-independence grassroots movements, have already been arrested and jailed by Spanish authorities.

A spokesperson for Spain's top prosecutor has said the office will seek rebellion and sedition charges against those responsible for the independence vote.

The prosecutor is currently looking into whether charges should be limited to the Catalan cabinet, including President Puigdemont and Vice President Junqueras, or if they should also include members of the parliament’s governing board and MPs.

How did it affect the markets?

European shares reached a five-month high overall on Friday, also buoyed by strong earnings. The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index rose 0.54 percent.

Spain's IBEX was the worst-performing major index on the day, losing 1.5 percent after the Catalan parliament declared its independence from Spain on Friday following a secret ballot.

Following the declaration, Spain sacked Catalonia's regional government, dissolved the Catalan parliament and called a snap election to draw a line under Spain's worst political crisis in 40 years.

Additional reporting: Reuters

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