Once Upon a Time in Catalonia…

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The year 2025 was a turning point in the never-ending Catalan saga. A new Spanish Government, wanting to reach ‘Once and For All Closure’, agreed to endorse a referendum in Catalonia – believing the Remainers would win. They took all necessary constitutional steps to allow the referendum to go ahead.

A fierce but orderly campaign ensued. It was, however, the Independence vote, with a small majority, which eventually prevailed: 51-49 per cent. Catalonia emerged as an independent state. A new Constitution, declaring Catalonia ‘…eternally sovereign and indivisible’, was drafted, and was approved by a small majority in the new legislature as well as in a subsequent referendum which replicated the secession result. The Constitution could be amended by a similar two-step process.

The social divisions produced by the process were keenly felt, not least by the large number of Catalan citizens of Castilian origin, but also by Catalan Remainers who were dubbed sometimes as ‘traitors’. In the referendum there was a sizeable number of towns and villages with a majority of Remainers.

Independence was uneventful, though not quite the ‘bed of roses’ that had been promised during the referendum campaign. Negotiations for entry into the European Union dragged on – several Member States weary of the Catalan secession precedent put up a variety of obstacles and delaying tactics. Admission to the Union requires unanimity. Direct foreign investment continued but at a markedly reduced pace than before, especially given the uncertain status of Catalonia in the Union.

Social tensions deepened, predictably around issues of language, education and culture, the government firmly rejecting any autonomy on these issues to those municipalities with a majority of Remainers. A new issue, migration of Castilians to Catalonia, emerged with quite strict requirements for obtaining Catalan citizenship, notably mastery of language, the fear being a reversal of the slim majority of secessionists. In short order, a new movement, the Unionists, emerged, calling for a reversal of the referendum result and a return to union with Spain. Campaigning with the slogan, ‘Better Together’, they pointed to the several examples within the Union of a ‘second referendum’ called to reverse the result of a previous one.

The Catalan government and legislature – the Catalan Constitutionalists – roundly rejected a call for a new referendum to reverse independence, claiming this would violate the ‘Eternal Sovereign’ clause of the Catalan Constitution. They pointed to the irreversibility of the German Eternal clause as precedent. And although all opinion polls indicated that the Unionists might prevail in a referendum, the necessary majority in the legislature for a constitutional change did not exist.

In a meeting of mayors of those municipalities with a majority of Remainers (now called Unionists) a decision was taken to organize an unofficial referendum, a decision endorsed by the councils of those municipalities.

The Government was firm in declaring such a referendum illegal, in violation of the Constitution and Catalan criminal law (which by and large replicated Spanish criminal law). A petition by the Unionists to the Catalan supreme judicial authorities was unsuccessful – the Courts affirmed the illegality and unconstitutionality of such an unauthorized referendum, the grave threat to the rule of law, and warned of criminal liability for the organizers.

The Government of Spain also declared its displeasure with such an illegal referendum, but widespread populist voices in Spain demonstrated in support.

Eventually, the Unionist movement in Catalonia announced their intention to hold such a referendum on 1 October 2027. The Catalan General Prosecutor, in a terse statement, announced that the law would require her to bring criminal charges against the organizers should concrete moves be taken to realize such a plan. Any involvement of public officials would open them to criminal liability for aggravated misuse of public funds, aggravated instigation of public disorder and might even amount to sedition. The General Prosecutor warned that under Catalan law no discretion lay in her hands and that arrest warrants would be issued swiftly and automatically.

This warning notwithstanding, the Unionist organizers proceeded with their plan. In those municipalities with a Unionist majority the mayors contrived to hold the referendum, setting up voting booths and providing referendum ballot papers. The incensed government attempted to confiscate them on the day. By and large they managed such with little violence, though a photograph – some claiming it to be fake – of a blood-covered face, was published around the world. Participation was patchy, but over a million votes were counted.

True to her word and the law, the General Prosecutor issued arrest warrants for the principal organizers on charges of misuse of public funds and public disorder and announced that the issue of sedition was being studied further, thus avoiding the expected negative international reaction to such a charge. One of the organizers escaped to Paris. The General Prosecutor steadfastly refused to seek his extradition, commenting dryly: ‘He’s better in Paris than Barcelona; let him enjoy fine French cuisine whilst his fellow criminals enjoy our prison food.’

At the ensuing trial the General Prosecutor requested the maximum penalties, given the deliberate disregard to the judicial orders of the Catalan courts. The trial was swift and the organizers were sentenced to jail terms of three to nine years.

Violent demonstrations erupted in Madrid.

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Joan Serra says

April 18, 2020

Very strange to attack Catalan independence with the argument that it could do what Spain is actually doing against them.

Sadly, it is not the first time Mr. Weiler sounds off about Catalonia, see https://www.ejiltalk.org/catalonias-indepence-a-reply-to-joseph-weiler/

Nico Krisch says

April 18, 2020

This is quite a dystopia of an independent Catalonia, based on a strange, dark view of human nature that seems bound to replicate the ills of the past indefinitely. But why would a new Catalan state be as repressive as the Spanish one, with all its authoritarian legacy? Why would it not rather follow a liberal and inclusive model like Canada? Why would it not respect human rights like other countries do? I have spoken to many people in the Catalan independence movement, and most of them are open and progressive democrats, committed to the idea of Europe and the defense of individual rights and freedoms. Any sociologist will highlight the differences in political orientations between Catalonia and other parts of Spain, and the (much more left-leaning) electoral results are evidence of this. And Catalan institutions do not have to cope with the same continuities with Franco's dictatorship as many Spanish institutions, notably in the judiciary. So it is unclear to me why an independent Catalonia would be likely to fall into the same authoritarian temptations as Spain did over the past years. Why not picture it as yet another mid-sized liberal country which, when admitted to the EU, would be a prosperous member state weighing in favour of stronger democracy? The Catalan case can become one of positive and peaceful change if brought onto a track of debate and dialogue rather than repression and prison sentences. Europe can and should play its part in this.

John Smith says

April 19, 2020

The text ends abruptly somehow, as if you got bored of your own story. I don't get the conclusion: is this the Brexit tale transformed into the Spanish context by someone who doesn't understand the Spanish context or did I miss anything? I believe the remainers in Catalonia aren't simply people "of Castillian origin" because the migration flows from the mid 20th century effectively make 70% of the population be "of Castillian origin" but this is just one of the many details you got wrong.


Nicolas Levrat says

April 21, 2020

It is very comforting to realize that the editor-in-chief of EJIL, after several worrying opinions - for a liberal academic mindful of respect for liberal Rights and Freedom (I presume) - comes to back to reason and admits -through a complex and strange dystopic tale - that the actions of the Spanish authorities as regard claims for the right to decide democratically of their future by the people living in Catalonia and their elected représentatives are, to say the least, illegitimate illegal, based on irrelevant "constitutional principles".
I can imagine such acknowledgment has not been easy to formulate - and the chosen tale and wording are revealing of the subtle contorsionist exercise for expressing your thoughts which, as several of the expressed comments show, may lead to confusion. I should nevertheless sincerely thank you for this hidden, but legally sounder, analysis of the issues at stake in the catalan ongoing situation, than those (unfortunatey) expressed before.
Better late than never.