The referendum

The world seems enveloped in uncertainty and fragmentation. U.S. President Donald Trump keeps governments, business and the media guessing; Brexit raises huge challenges in a more complicated Europe; and the domestic dynamics of the French and German elections have created lingering internal divisions. But one of Europe’s biggest tests has now come to the fore with the independence referendum in the Spanish autonomous region of Catalonia, held on 1 October. 

The Spanish government noted from the very beginning that any attempt to break away from Spain would be deemed to be unconstitutional. It pledged to stop the referendum from being held at all costs and had threatened to arrest and fine anyone who attempted to chair the voting booths at the assigned electoral colleges spread throughout the region. Now, images and videos of the Spanish police cracking down on peaceful voters and forcing their way into voting colleges demonstrates the strength of those pledges.

More than 800 people are reported to have been injured in a referendum that, according to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, “did not happen.” Although the state did indeed hinder the referendum, it did not succeed in putting a stop to it. 2.2 million people participated in the vote and an overwhelming 90% of those voted in favour of independence. The Catalan government has stated that the results are legitimate enough to declare independence from Spain within the next 48 hours.

How and when that declaration will happen is unclear, as how the Spanish government will react, should it be made. The big question now is whether the claim of independence can legititmately be made, given that voting turnout was less than 50%.

A legitimate result?

The low turnout at yesterday’s vote can be attributed to a combination of factors. Many people did not turn up to vote either out of apathy towards the whole process or out fear of how things were developing. The crackdown on voting day is just the latest in a series of moves by the Spanish government that have attempted to hinder the referendum vote. Two weeks prior, the referendum’s official website was shut down by the state. A few days later raids and arrests were made at the headquarters of Catalonia’s Ministry of Economy. The night-long civil protest that ensued was declared to be illegal by the prosecutor’s office. Although these efforts did not ultimately stop the referendum from being held, they did help to severely curtail it.

If we are to look at other sources of public opinion, we can turn to the current composition of the Catalan parliament or regular opinion polls conducted by Catalonia’s own Institute of Opinion Studies, which have routinely shown that independence is not favoured by 50% or more of the voting population. The current Catalan parliament resulted from a plebiscitary election held in September 2015 where independence was the key component of the campaign. Junts x Sí (Together for Yes) won the elections but was only able to govern with the help of the anti-system party CUP, the only other party in Catalonia that seeks independence. The combined votes for both parties did not account for even 50% of the votes, in an election that saw a turnout of almost 80%.

The Catalan government’s victory is not as straightforward as it seems – neither is a declaration of independence. Many in Catalonia are now calling for new parliamentary elections (to be held in November) for a more realistic understanding of how much support independence has. This would be the most likely scenario if independence is not declared.

Where is the international community?  

While most of the European political and business elite are focused on the re-election of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Brexit negotiations, or the end of French President Emmanuel Macron’s political honeymoon, tension has risen on the streets of one of Europe’s most-visited cities. But how things unfold will largely depend on who says what. For all its faults, Spain is a modern, outward-looking country that is committed to the EU and the international community and that does not want to endanger its recovering economy. Yesterday’s crackdown has already hurt the country’s image and it will ultimately be the response of the international community that will make it react in one way or another. The EU however, the most relevant body in this story, has remained largely silent on the matter by deeming Catalan independence to be an internal matter, a surprising move given what is at stake.

Catalonia has a population of 7 million – more than Denmark or Norway – and it accounts for 20% of Spain’s total GDP, with Spain being Europe’s sixth largest economy. Catalonia is Spain’s biggest investment and innovation hub after Madrid, and houses some of the world’s largest companies, including Volkswagen, Lidl and Inditex. There are reportedly more than 7,000 international companies that are based in some form or another in the region. How they will fare in an independent Catalonia is yet to be determined. The short-term impact of independence on trade, investments and job creation in either Spain or Catalonia will be significant, and likely for the worse. Catalonia could foreseeably recover in the long-term, but it is not at all clear what the consequences would be for Spain, which would probably find it difficult to prosper economically without Catalonia. If history has anything to teach us, it is that a financial crisis in Spain becomes a problem for the rest of Europe.

Therefore, given the consequences of Catalan independence, Sunday’s referendum should not be considered a domestic matter anymore. There will now be strengthened calls for the EU to attempt to mediate between both parties, because what is taking place now poses a significant challenge to the EU’s values of democracy and liberty.


Although independence won the referendum, it is unclear whether the results can be taken at face value. In this context a legitimate declaration of independence is also uncertain. Moving forward, parliamentary elections are likely to follow. But what we Catalans likely need to resolve this story, is either to hold a binding referendum – one endorsed by the Spanish government, where there will be no attempts to hinder its progression – or a commitment by the Spanish government to undertake major reform to ensure that Catalans’ financial and political concerns are met. The alternative is an unofficial referendum marred by violence and a potential unilateral declaration of independence.

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Alexia Faus Onbargi
Alexia Faus

Alexia Faus is a project assistant in APCO’s London office. Read More