For years, there has been a growing movement for independence from Spain in Catalonia, a prosperous region that includes the city of Barcelona. Since 1977, Catalan has enjoyed limited autonomy from the Spanish government, and in 2006, Catalonian citizens approved the Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia by referendum vote, establishing the framework for Catalonia’s autonomous government. In 2010, the Statute of Autonomy was struck down by Spanish Government Constitutional Courts, which reignited the independence debate. And now, on October 1, 2017, citizens of Catalonia will vote in a major referendum that could decide the future of the region.
Well … if they’re allowed to vote that is.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the central government in Madrid have declared that any referendum which poses the question of whether to secede from Spain is unconstitutional and illegal and will not be allowed to take place. After the central government’s announcement, huge protests sprang up throughout the region, especially in Barcelona.
The local Catalan government, which has not faltered in its insistence that the vote will still take place, is now experiencing huge pushback from the central government as the referendum date nears. According to Euro News, "Spanish police have already seized Catalan government-produced leaflets and posters urging voters to back the ‘yes’ campaign." Yahoo News reported that "police had seized 'close to 10 million ballot papers' destined for a vote deemed illegal by Madrid and the courts." And then, on Wednesday, Spanish police began arresting top Catalan officials, leading Catalonia’s Minister of Labor, Social Affairs and Family to say, "Catalonia is now in a state of siege."
The New York Times notes that Catalan separatist leaders "have accused Mr. Rajoy of plunging Catalonia into a state of emergency rather than negotiating the terms of a referendum." Tensions are growing, and according to the Times, Catalonia’s Foreign Affairs Chief Raül Romeva said that “Catalonia would hold the referendum as planned, and that Catalan lawmakers would act to honor the result within 48 hours — meaning they would declare independence unilaterally if people voted for it."
And the people may well vote for it. AFP reports that polls show that "while Catalans are sharply divided on whether they want independence or not, a large majority would like to vote to settle the matter." If the region does choose secession, it could result in civil war.
Catalan’s independence would be a large blow to Spain’s economy. In 2015, a CNBC report found that Catalonia was responsible for about 20% of Spain’s 2013 GDP. The small region also "represents about 25% of all Spanish exports, and it accounted for 23% of all Spanish industry."
With many officials and separatist supporters doubling down on their commitment to the vote, and the country’s central government using increasingly heavy-handed tactics to quell the movement, Spain may be lighting a fuse that will be difficult to put out.
For now, the United States appears to have chosen to stay out of the mix, issuing a brief statement from the U.S. Embassy in Madrid that described Catalan independence pressures as an "internal issue" for Spain to figure out on its own.