Catalan independence referendum, 2017

Publication Date 01/10/2017
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While for many years the Catalan region of Spain had obtained a degree of autonomy from the Madrid government, there have been calls by Catalan nationalists for further moves towards independence from Spain. This included a self-determination referendum that was held in 2014.

The Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, called on the 9 December 2016 all members of the National Alliance for the Right to Self-Determination to a summit on the 23rd of December 2016. The aim of the meeting was to find political and social consensus around the organisation of a further referendum on independence to be planned to be held in September 2017.

The Catalan President set the meeting date after finding that repeated calls for dialogue from the Spanish Government have not resulted in any material actions. These same sources insisted that although Catalan Government’s will to agree on a referendum with Spain remained, preparations to celebrate it no matter what also continued.

The Spanish Government spokesman, Iñigo Méndez de Vigo, said on the 9 December 2016 that the summit was a 'symptom of unilateralism' that was a result of an imposition from the 'radicals of the CUP'.

Separately, a court case began in Barcelona on the 16 December 2016 against the Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, for allowing a debate on secession from Spain earlier in the year. Pro-independence supporters protested in the street.

In his New Year's televised speech on the 31 December 2016 Catalan President Carles Puigdemont promised a 'legal and binding' vote in 2017 on independence to the Catalan electorate.

The tensions concerning Catalan calls for independence were heightened by the start of a case being held in Spain's Constitutional Court on the 6 February 2017 against former regional president Artur Mas and two of his cabinet members for holding the earlier non-binding vote on independence in 2014. The Court decided on 13 March 2017 that Mr Mas was to be barred from public office for two years.

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and other Catalan government leaders organised a conference in Madrid on the 22 May 2017 to explain the final proposal for negotiating an independence referendum with the Spanish Government. Under the title 'A referendum for Catalonia: an invitation to a democratic agreement' the Catalan leaders put the case to the Spanish government for an 'accorded democratic vote'. The Catalans hoped for the referendum to take place in September or October 2017.

The conference also highlighted the 500,000 signatures for the National Pact for the Referendum, which called for an agreed referendum.

On the day of the conference El País and Politico wrote of a secret draft bill of the Catalan government ('Generalitat'), proposing a plan to declare Catalonia independent if the Spanish authorities denied the possibility of a referendum.

It was announced by the Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont on the 9 June 2017 that a Catalan independence referendum would be held on 1 October 2017.

Citizens would be asked: 'Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a Republic?'

The President said that the Spanish government's refusal to negotiate on the issue of a vote on independence for Catalonia justified organising it under the authority of the Catalan Parliament.

A legislative bill would need to be adopted by the Catalan parliament during the summer of 2017 to authorise the referendum.

The Spanish government said that a Catalan independence referendum would be illegal because it was unconstitutional, and that it would file charges if any actions were undertaken to organise it.

A draft version of the bill was announced on the 4 July 2017. A reform of parliamentary procedures to facilitate the passing of the bill with just a single reading was adopted on the 26 July 2017. In response, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on the 28 July 2017 that he would appeal to the Constitutional Tribunal. However, the new bill was officially tabled on the 31 July 2017 with the intention to be adopted on the 6 September 2017.

On the 31 July 2017 Spain's Constitutional Court accepted the Spanish government’s appeal against the legislative reform of the 26 July 2017.

The Catalan government on the 28 August 2017 presented a bill for Catalonia's transition to independence. According to the plan the bill would come into effect if a majority voted for secession from Spain in a referendum to be held on 1 October 2017. Madrid had already declared the referendum illegal.

The reactions of the Spanish media ranged from scepticism to outrage.

An important stage was reached on the 6 September 2017 when the Catalan parliament passed the fast-tracked bill providing the framework for the referendum to be held on the 1 October 2017 and the Catalan government signed the decree.

The Spanish government started the process to ask the Spanish Constitutional Court to ban the vote. Spain's constitutional court suspended the referendum law on the 7 September 2017.

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans rallied in Barcelona on their national day 12 September 2017 to demand their region's secession from Spain, in a show of strength three weeks ahead of the independence referendum.

For many years La Diada Nacional de Catalunya had been a powerful focus for the independence campaign in Catalonia.

Throughout September 2017, the Catalan Government and pro-independence supporters pressed ahead with plans to hold the independence referendum on 1 October 2017, while the central government in Madrid worked to prevent the vote. The police blocked the regional government's website on the referendum on the 12 September 2017 and the public prosecutors summoned several hundred mayors who backed the referendum.

Spain's Guardia Civil police detained a number of senior Catalan officials on 20 September 2017 and raided regional government ministries involved in organising the independence referendum scheduled for 1 October 2017.

On the 21 September 2017 the Spanish Constitutional Court issued fines for disobeying the law against 24 Catalan officials, including electoral board members and electoral administrative heads.

In addition, the Spanish government took over Catalonia’s public finances on the 21 September 2017, primarily in order to prevent spending on the planned referendum.

Public demonstrations took place in various places in Catalonia against the Spanish government moves.

Spanish news sources suggested that both the governing Popular Party and the opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) were willing to suggest talks with pro-independence parties in Catalonia on evolution of the regional autonomy model as long as the referendum was called off.

Spain's Attorney General Jose Manuel Maza said on the 25 September 2017 that Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont could be charged with civil disobedience, abuse of office and misuse of public funds for organising and holding the referendum.

Raül Romeva, a member of the Catalan government in charge of foreign relations, said on the 28 September 2017 that Catalonia would proclaim independence within 48 hours if the ‘yes’ camp won in the referendum, but was open to proposals from the government from Madrid.

A final pro-separatist rally took place in Barcelona on the 29 September 2017 attended by tens of thousands. A smaller rally of opponents, organised by Ciudadanos, also took place.

Thousands of extra police were drafted in from across Spain as the Spanish government sought to stop the ballot from taking place.

The police officers were dispatched on the 30 September 2017 to evacuate buildings, often schools, planned to be polling stations in an attempt to stop the referendum from taking place with an ultimatum for the buildings to be empty and closed by 6am on the day of the referendum. However, police were warned not to use violence.

A anti-referendum protest of about 10,000 people took place in Madrid on the 30 September 2017. Other protests took place in other Spanish cities.

Nevertheless, the holding of the referendum did take place on the 1 October 2017.

National Police and Civil Guard riot squads entered several polling stations in Barcelona and across Catalonia on the 1 October 2017 to prevent polling from taking place. Some violent incidents and scuffles took place. However, Catalan spokespersons said that over 70% of polling stations were open. Catalan emergency officials said 761 people had been injured.

Catalan officials claimed that preliminary results of the referendum indicated 90% of the 2.26 million Catalans who voted were in favour of independence. Catalonia had 5.3 million registered voters. The main groups opposing independence had recommended to their supporters not to take part in the referendum.

In the evening of the 1 October 2017 Catalan regional President Carles Puigdemont declared that Catalonia had 'earned the right to be an independent state'.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy addressed Spain on television in the evening of the 1 October 2017. He said that his government had been forced to uphold the 'rule of law' against secessionists.

Leading Catalan trade unions and pro-independence civil society associations called in the evening of the 1 October October 2017 for a 'total stoppage' in Catalonia on the 3 October 2017 as a protest against 'the grave violation of rights and freedoms'.

In a statement on the 2 October 2017 the European Commission said: 'Under the Spanish Constitution, yesterday's vote in Catalonia was not legal.

For the European Commission, as President Juncker has reiterated repeatedly, this is an internal matter for Spain that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of Spain.

We also reiterate the legal position held by this Commission as well as by its predecessors. If a referendum were to be organised in line with the Spanish Constitution it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union'.

King Felipe of Spain addressed the nation on television in the evening of the 3 October 2017. He said that Catalan leaders had showed their 'disrespect to the powers of the state'.

'They have broken the democratic principles of the rule of law'.

However, he stressed that Spain 'will overcome difficult times'.

In an interview with the BBC broadcast on the 3 October 2017 Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont said Catalonia would declare independence from Spain in a matter of days, when the final and definitive results from the referendum were announced on the 6 October 2017, or soon after.

A special session was called of the Catalan Parliament to be held on the 10 October 2017 at which the Catalan government was expected to announce independence. However, the Spanish Constitutional Court decided on the 4 October 2017 to preemptively suspend this special session.

In an exclusive interview with El País published on the 8 October 2017, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy stood firm in the face of the separatist challenge, ahead of the session in the regional parliament planned for 10 October 2017 at which an independence declaration could be made.

Marches ('white demonstrations') took place in a range of Spanish cities, including Barcelona, on the 7 October 2017 to call for Spanish unity. Dressed in white and without any flags, protesters marched under the single slogan in Spanish and Catalan: Hablemos/Parlem – let’s talk.

The main movement in Catalonia against independence, Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), the Catalan Civil Society, organised a further march in Barcelona on the 8 October 2017. The protest consisted of 350,000 people according to Barcelona police, and of 950,000 people according to the SCC. Some of the protestors had come to Barcelona from other parts of Spain.

On the 10 October 2017 pro-independence parties in the Catalan parliament and the Catalan government signed a declaration of independence. The document constituted 'the Catalan republic as an independent state', but did not include a clear date on when this would be official.

Speaking in the Catalan parliament, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, leader of the Junts pel Si (Together for Yes), said Catalans had won the right to be independent but suspended the formal declaration of statehood to seek dialogue with the Spanish government and, hopefully, the EU.

Inés Arrimadas, leader of the opposition party Ciutadans (Citizens) in Catalonia said 'This has been the chronicle of a foretold coup, of a coup to democracy, to common sense. And above all, a coup against a common project called Spain and EU'.

The Catalan branch of the Spanish ruling party, the People's Party (PP), Xavier García Albiol, criticised the speech and said that the Spanish government in Madrid under Mariano Rajoy would never allow a secession.

The Spanish government called a special cabinet meeting for the 11 October 2017 to discuss the situation. Prime Minister Rajoy briefed the Spanish Parliament later in the day.

He said he had requested he has requested the Catalan government to clear up whether independence had been declared, in which case he would activate a constitutional provision giving the central government power under Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to temporarily take over Catalonia’s internal affairs. An answer must be received from the Catalan government by the 16 October 2017.

Catalan president Carles Puigdemont proposed on the 11 October 2017 that two representatives from both the Catalan and Spanish governments agree upon a mediator for the ongoing political crisis.

In a letter delivered to the Spanish government on the 16 October 2016 Carles Puigdemont again called for dialogue but did not explictly answer the question posed by Madrid on the 11 October 2017.

Following a preliminary suspension on the 7 September 2017, the Constitutional Court of Spain formally decided on the 17 October 2017 that the referendum law adopted by the Catalan parliament on the 6 September 2017 was unconstitutional, and devoid of any binding legal force.

Following the response from the President of the Regional Government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont on both the 16 and 19 October 2017, to the official demand sent to him by the Government of Spain, the Government Spokesperson, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, made a statement in the Lower House of Parliament.

The Spanish Government would convene a Cabinet meeting on the 21 October 2017 to propose a series of measures under the framework of Article 155 of the Constitution — which allowed 'all measures necessary to compel' a region to abide by the law. These measures would be sent to the Senate for approval.

Catalan News and other news sources reported Carles Puigdemont, Catalan president, as saying in response 'If the Spanish government insists on blocking dialogue and continuing repression, the Catalan parliament may proceed to vote on the formal declaration of independence'.

Following the Cabinet meeting on the 21 October 2017 the Spanish Government activated Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution. Amongst the emergency measures suggested were the removal of all the current members of the Catalan government and to call for elections to take place in Catalonia within six months. For the measures to be implemented the Spanish Senate (upper house of the Spanish Parliament) would need to approve them. The plan was for them to come into operation on the 28 October 2017.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said 'The autonomy of Catalonia is not being suspended ... The people who have put it in risk are being suspended'.

Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Barcelona against the proposal to impose direct rule from Madrid and calling for the release of two pro-independence activists being held in custody.

Carles Puigdemont said that the activation of Article 155 was 'the worst attack on the institutions and the people of Catalonia since the decrees of the military dictator Francisco Franco'.

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