MADRID — Authorities in Catalonia pledge they will hold a binding referendum Oct. 1 on whether the powerful region in Spain’s northeast should break away from the rest of the country. The Spanish government says the referendum violates the country’s constitution and vows it won’t take place. Whatever happens on the day, no one seems set to win without heavy losses.
Here’s a look at how the situation has come about:
WHAT IS CATALONIA?
Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. Its capital is the dynamic, touristic and cultural Mediterranean port city of Barcelona.
The region has 7.5 million inhabitants and is one of Spain’s main economic powerhouses, generating a fifth of the country’s 1.1 trillion-euro economy ($1.31 trillion). It has its own language, which was suppressed during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, and cultural traditions. It is also home to one of the world’s greatest soccer teams, FC Barcelona.
The region runs its own police and has considerable powers in health and education. Key areas such as taxes, foreign affairs, defense, ports, airports and trains, however, are in the hands of the Spanish government.
WHEN DID THE INDEPENDENCE PUSH START?
While many Catalans have long stressed the region’s differences from the rest of Spain, the current push for independence began in earnest 2010 when Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down key parts of a groundbreaking charter that would have granted Catalonia greater autonomy and recognized it as a nation within Spain.
The court’s rejection was felt bitterly in the region and has since driven hundreds of thousands of residents out onto the streets every Sept. 11, a Catalan holiday, to demand independence.
Spain’s 2008-2013 financial crisis and resulting harsh austerity measures generated more support for secession, with many Catalans feeling they could do better on their own.
WHAT DO CATALANS THINK?
Residents in Catalonia have been nearly evenly divided over independence, although the vast majority believes they should be able to hold a binding referendum. In recent months, especially with the national and regional economies thriving again, polls indicate support for secession is on the wane, although it would probably be a close call.
The region’s first attempts to hold a non-binding referendum in 2014 were blocked by the Constitutional Court. The Catalan government went ahead and staged an unofficial poll. About 2.3 million Catalans — less than half of those eligible — voted, with 80 percent favoring independence.
Regional elections in 2015 returned a slim majority of pro-independence lawmakers, who took this as a mandate to push ahead with the independence drive. They pledge they will proclaim a new republic within 48 hours of the ballot if a “yes” vote wins the new referendum, regardless of turnout.
ARE BOTH SIDES TALKING?
Talks between the two sides have been virtually nonexistent with Spain saying it can’t discuss a referendum unless the constitution is changed, and inviting Catalonia to work on changing it, while the Catalan government says its right to self-determination must be respected first before talks can proceed.
Catalonia wants a referendum like those permitted in Scotland and Quebec, but Spain’s constitution stipulates that only the national government can call referendums on sovereignty and that all Spaniards must be allowed to vote.
So far, it’s been a game of chicken with the Catalan government making preparations and the Spanish government legally challenging every move and blocking almost all. Several officials, including former regional chief Artur Mas, have been convicted and others face possible trial for disobeying court rulings on the past and planned referendums.
CAN CATALONIA SURVIVE WITHOUT SPAIN?
The likelihood is that both Spain and Catalonia would suffer considerably if they parted ways without agreement. But Catalonia’s fate would also depend on outside reaction.
So far, no country or international body has expressed any appetite for Catalan independence. The European Union, fearful that it could stir other regional nationalists to follow suit, says Catalonia would have to reapply for EU membership, something that Spain could block.
The regional government tells voters that pragmatism will bring Catalonia back into the EU and that it will only be a matter of time until the international community accepts it as a new state.
The economic impact is virtually impossible to estimate. Catalonia has a gross domestic product of about 215 billion euros ($256 billion), the largest of the Spanish regions, greater than Greece’s, similar to Finland’s and close to those of Ireland and Denmark but many of its goods are supplied by the Spanish state. Spain in return relies on Catalonia’s industrial products and export facilities.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Spain’s constitutional court on Thursday suspended the call for a referendum on Catalonia’s independence after agreeing to review an appeal by central authorities in Madrid.
The move was widely expected after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced that the government was challenging both a controversial law meant to legitimize the independence vote and a decree signed Wednesday by the regional Catalan government summoning voters for the Oct. 1 ballot.
Carles Puigdemont, the regional president in Catalonia and one of the main promoters of the referendum, said Thursday that neither central Spanish authorities nor the courts could halt their plans for a vote.
According to the court, the suspension lasts for five months while judges come up with a ruling.