Reports emerged on Wednesday that the Spanish police had detained 14 Catalan officials, including junior government minister Josep Maria Jové. This came as the police forces raided numerous Catalan government departments.
The dispute’s escalation follows the Catalan government’s refusal to suspend their planned upcoming referendum at the start of October, with Spain’s Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro stating that the national government is set to take control of the Catalans regional budget.
While it has been claimed that the detentions were due to the misappropriation of funds for the upcoming vote and misusing confidential data on taxpayers, the raids were nevertheless met with condemnation, sparking protests in Barcelona.
The latest development is another in a series of miscalculations by the Spanish national government, whose handling of the issue has been poor and short-sighted for a considerable period of time.
Repeatedly calls for a referendum have been ignored, leaving a substantial number of Catalans who support independence feeling frustrated and angered. A non-binding vote did take place in 2014, but due to the Spanish government declaring it illegal, only 35% of the eligible voting population turned out.
Since then, the Spanish government have seemed determined to ignore the issue, with the hope that it will simply go away in spite of the wide-ranging support that exists for independence within Catalonia.
While risky, the smartest solution for the Spanish government to pursue would have been to hold a referendum, and campaign strongly on the idea of unity, perhaps persuading Catalan voters with promises of increased autonomy.
Polling on the issue has been mixed. A recent one at the start of September indicated that 50.1% of the population would vote in favour of independence, with 45.7% voting against. Nevertheless, support for the union does remain. One poll from back in June indicated that up to 49.4% would vote No, with only 41.1% of the Catalan population opting for independence. This demonstrates that the issue is a contentious one, filled with inherent uncertainty for either side. Yet there is one point on which the Catalan population is decisive: the fact that there should be a referendum.
A poll in February showed that over 70% of the population back the idea of a vote. Those within Catalonia who remain hostile towards independence but agree with the idea of a referendum may begin to sway towards voting Yes in light of the Spanish government’s attempts to curb the vote. They will view their national government as one unwilling to listen to the Catalan population. Instead of tackling the issue directly, they appear unwilling to argue for the case of Spanish unity, and the benefits they believe come alongside it.
Spanish Prime Minister Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should have taken a similar approach to the UK government in their handling of the Scottish independence referendum. While the Better Together campaign itself was heavily criticised, often too overtly negative in their approach and lacking a positive message, the decision to allow Scotland a referendum proved to be a wise one.
After the SNP obtained a majority in Holyrood in 2011, their desire to hold a vote was granted. David Cameron’s government could claim to have cooperated willingly with the Scottish government on the issue, allowing Scotland to determine its own future. Allowing a referendum to be held was a sensible approach, and one that recognised the idea of independence was not going to disappear by simply denying its existence.
And for all the disagreements and disputes that emerged, it could be argued that the vote itself was a positive process for Scotland: one that energised and engaged the nation.
The Spanish government continue to remain fixated on a different approach; one that is quite clearly not working. Echoes of the Franco era may be exaggerated and premature, but Spain’s treatment of Catalonia has hardly improved their public image, and should current protests turn sour then further questions will be asked.
Uncertainty remains as to whether the referendum at the start of October will take place, and as to what legitimacy it will hold. What does remain certain is the fact that the issue of Catalan independence is not going to disappear, however much the Spanish government may want that to be the case.