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Explainer: What you need to know about Catalonia’s independence 1-0 referendum

Voters who took part in yesterday’s national 1-0 referendum overwhelmingly supported Catalonia's independence from Spain, and images of the Spanish National Police brutally suppressing the election have flooded the international media. But any honest accounting of the 1-0 referendum requires a deeper nuance that leaves no party looking heroic.

The 1-0 referendum

On October 1, Catalonia held an election asking voters, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” Catalonia, which has seen its autonomy wax and wane since the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile united in the mid-to-late fifteenth century, already enjoys considerable autonomy.

Some 90 percent of the 2.2 million people who cast a ballot on Sunday voted for independence, according to Jordi Turull, a spokesman for the Catalan government. Officials say 770,000 votes were seized by Spanish police or otherwise lost. Police closed 79 of the 2,315 polling stations nationwide.  

Although the vote produced a lopsided majority, several issues keep the results from being as definitive as portrayed.

By any measure, the referendum was illegal

The Spanish government is correct to say that the 1-0 referendum lacked legal authority. Section 2 of the Spanish Constitution, which 90 percent of Catalans approved, states:

The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards; it recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.

Section 92 adds that “[p]olitical decisions of special importance may be submitted to all citizens in a consultative referendum” called by the president (or king) and authorized by Congress. The 1-0 referendum had no such authorization.

Early last month the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended Sunday’s election, pending a full decision on its constitutionality. Nonetheless, Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, pressed forward – and he stopped complying with a law to determine whether he was using national taxpayer funds to agitate for independence.

As a result, the prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, and others have treated the vote as a non-entity. “Today there was no referendum on self-determination in Catalonia,” Rajoy said. European Commission agreed the aborted vote was “not legal,” in a statement delivered by chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas.

Procedural issues aside, 90 percent would be a clear mandate for independence – if that total represented the entire region.

The 1-0 referendum’s results were inconclusive – despite the “90 percent” figure

While 90 percent of 1-0 voters backed Catalan independence, they represent only 42 percent of the region’s registered voters. The vast majority did not participate. That tracks with previous polling results, which found only 48 percent of Catalans supported holding a referendum if it were declared illegal. In all, 41 percent said they would vote for independence according to the region’s official polling firm, the Centre for Opinion Studies.

The 1-0 referendum drew motivated pro-independence voters to the polls, but they did not speak for most Catalans.

Pro-independence sentiment has only inched up since the last vote in November 2014. At that time, 80 percent voted to leave Spain – but only half of all registered voters took part.

The 1-0 referendum drew motivated pro-independence voters to the polls, but they did not speak for most Catalans.

Polls in July showed support for independence slipping, with a majority opposing it – at least, before Madrid’s response on Sunday.

 “Worthy of Venezuela”: How Spain’s free market leaders reacted

International television captured Spanish National Police breaking up the election by firing rubber bullets, swinging batons, and dragging voters out of polling stations by their hair. As of this writing, 893 people have been injured by their aggressive tactics. Yet Prime Minister Rajoy placed the full blame for the National Police’s actions “solely and exclusively” on “those who promoted the rupture of legality.” And foreign minister Alfonso Datsis dismissed many of the photos as “fake.”

Pro-free market leaders in Spain condemned the police violence, without upholding the legality of the referendum.

“Today, we have lost the international image of a civilized country,” wrote Roxana Nicula, the president of the Fundación para el Avance de la Libertad, a Spanish free market think tank. “Rajoy will be remembered in history books as the politician who permanently expelled Catalonia from Spain.”

“I do not want to live in a country where my government sends the anti-riot forces against a civilian population,” she wrote. “It is disgusting, worthy of the Venezuela of Maduro.”

Partido Liberatrio wrote in a press release that it is “evident that the referendum held today [lacked] the minimum international standards and, therefore, has no legal value whatsoever. Precisely because of this, it was not necessary and counterproductive to prevent it by force.”

What’s next?

President Carles Puigdemont has always said that, if the referendum passed, Catalonia could declare independence within 48 hours. “Catalonia's citizens have earned the right to have an independent state in the form of a republic,” he said on television after the vote.

“It is disgusting, worthy of the Venezuela of Maduro.”

Meanwhile, more than 40 unions and civic organizations have called for a nationwide strike on Tuesday. Severing Catalonia’s 500-year-long tie with the rest of Spain could have negative repercussions for both regions.

What would the economic impact of independence be?

Catalonia’s economic output of nearly $250 billion (U.S.) last year weighs heavily in the decision. Its largely industrialized economy accounts for 20 percent of Spain’s total GDP. More jobs are created in Catalonia, and its citizens have a higher GDP-per-person than other regions of Spain.

However, Catalonia is also among the most indebted regions, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 35 percent.  Its economic balance with the national government is not as bad as it is portrayed. And, as in Scotland, independence would not necessarily bring Catalonia its desired ends of prosperity and EU membership.

Independence could harm both Spain and Catalonia’s fiscal outlook. In January, Fitch Ratings gave Catalonia a “BB” credit rating, with a “negative” outlook. On Friday, S&P Global Ratings confirmed Spain had a “BBB+” rating…but threatened to revise the outlook “if the current tensions between the central government and the regional government of Catalonia escalated and started weighing on business confidence and investment, leading to less predictable future policy responses.”

An independent Catalonia would not automatically accede to EU membership. If Catalonia declares independence from an EU member, “the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union,” Schinas said. Like Scotland, it would have to go through the normal application process for membership.

As harmful as the economic impact would be, it is hard to overstate the damage done by the Spanish government’s harsh crackdown against voters.

WWAD: What Would (St.) Augustine Do?

The Western tradition has held that laws should be implemented fairly, impartially, and with the minimum of force required. “Christian emperors,” wrote St. Augustine, often choose to “grant pardons [to guilty parties] … in the hope of reform.” If they must act harshly, they compensate with felicity for those affected. “As often as they are forced to make harsh decrees, they compensate with the gentleness of mercy and an abundance of kindness,” he wrote. Such rulers “are divinely-favored.”

Imagine that Prime Minister Rajoy allowed Catalan officials to hold their illegal election, and then announce its underwhelming outcome. Seizing control of the region’s finances punitively, instead of preemptively, would draw less international outrage and galvanize public sentiment against Puigdemont. Politicians dedicated to separatism enjoy fragile support, win or lose. Continuing to pursue independence like the white whale after failing to deliver undercuts secessionists – as it has in Scotland, where the nationalist first minister saw her Scottish Nationalist Party decimated in June’s UK’s snap election. But affection, as St. Augustine saw, creates stronger bonds of unity than intimidation.

Few people pledge allegiance to the government swinging the baton.

(Photo credit: Popicino. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.