As Spaniards recover from August’s horrific terrorist attacks in Barcelona, national unity in Spain is about to face its greatest test in a generation. On October 1st, the state of Catalonia’s government intends to hold a referendum on independence –a move Madrid has deemed illegal, and vows to stop. If a majority of Catalans disregard these threats and vote for independence, the chain of events that might follow promises to cause trouble not only for Spain, but for European integration. Before reaching this stage, however, three major hurdles lie in the way.
First, the referendum needs to take place. The president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, announced the referendum’s date in June, but the Catalan parliament must first pass a law allowing it to occur (for more on this process see here). As keen as Puigdemont’s governing coalition is to pass this law, the Spanish government is equally eager to revoke it. Deputy Spanish Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria has stated that “24 hours will be enough” to strike down any law enabling the referendum. Madrid’s intransigence has probably stoked the pro-independence movement, but so far it has proven effective in avoiding a vote, as it did in 2014.
Second, a majority of voters must choose independence. The referendum law’s wording implies that a simple majority of voters –regardless of turnout numbers– is sufficient to unilaterally declare independence. As favourable as these conditions may be to the government, it remains unclear whether a majority of Catalans desire independence. According to most polls (see poll aggregates here), there is no clear majority for or against it. Considering the threats coming from Madrid, including the “nuclear option” of triggering Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution (which would allow the central government to directly run the region’s affairs), many Catalans may reconsider.
Third, in order for Catalan independence to threaten European integration, the EU must maintain its guarantee that any secession from a member state also means secession from the EU. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated this in July, perhaps knowing full well that that many –if not most– Catalans wish to remain in the bloc. This said, no one knows how the EU will react to a Catalan declaration of independence. In the wake of last year’s Brexit vote, the EU can ill afford to lose more ground –especially not in the Eurozone, its heart. As such, the EU may find a way to allow Catalonia to remain if it means averting an existential threat.
With the referendum date fast approaching, there are still many unknowns. Will Catalans be able to vote? If they do, will they vote for independence? If yes, will Catalonia leave the EU? Of all the paths to European disintegration, Catalan independence is certainly the wildcard, so we’ll just have to wait and see.