Five years on from the illegal Catalan independence referendum

Ballot of the Catalan independence referendum, 2017

The exit of the junior partner from Catalonia’s pro-independence coalition government leaves the secessionists deeply divided and the prospect of an early regional election.

The decision of Together for Catalonia (JxCat), the junior partner in Catalonia’s pro-independence government, to withdraw its support five years after the illegal referendum on splitting from Spain, leaves the secession movement profoundly divided, the region, one of the richest, in minority hands and the prospect of an early regional election (not due until 2025).

Differences between the more pragmatic Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the maximalist JxCat had been simmering for months and boiled over when Pere Aragonès, the ERC Premier of Catalonia, sacked his JxCat Deputy, Jordi Puigneró, at the end of last month, after it emerged that JxCat was planning to call a vote of no confidence in his government.

JxCat put the issue of whether to stay in government to its members this month and 55.7% of them voted to leave the coalition, swayed by Carles Puigdemont, the former JxCat Catalan leader and Premier in self-imposed exile in Belgium since the referendum. Efforts to extradite Puigdemont have yet to be successful.

ERC, whose 13 MPs in the national parliament support the Socialist-led minority coalition government of Pedro Sánchez, won one more seat than JxCat in the 2021 regional election (in 2017 two less), putting the party in the driving seat (see Figure 1). Its 33 seats coupled with JxCat’s 32 and a modicum of support from smaller parties gave it a slim majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

Figure 1. Catalan parliamentary elections, 2021 and 2017 results (number of seats and % of votes)

2021% of votes2017% of votes
Catalan Socialist Party (PSC)3323.01713.9
Catalan Republican Left (ERC)3321.33221.4
Together for Catalonia (JxCat)3220.13421.6
Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP)96.744.5
Catalunya en Comú-Podem86.987.5
Ciudadanos (Cs)65.63625.3
Popular Party (PP)33.844.2
Voter turnout 53.6 79.1
Source: Catalan Government.

The national government opened talks with the Catalan government in February 2020, shortly before COVID hit Spain, in a bid to take some of the heat out of the independence issue. While firmly ruling out a referendum, the Socialists have been more accommodating of the secessionists than the conservative Popular Party government (2011-18), which tried to stop the referendum by sending in baton-wielding police to prevent people from voting. For example, Madrid has ruled out trying to enforce the 25% Spanish use in Catalan schools ordered by the Catalan High Court, which the Catalan government refuses to implement. The Spanish state has virtually disappeared from Catalonia, to the benefit of secessionists, say unionists.

Aragonès excluded JxCat from the Mesa de Diálogo because the members of its delegation included some of the nine people jailed on charges of sedition for their role in holding the referendum in October 2017 (pardoned partially in June 2021) and others who were not members of his government. An amnesty (more than 3,500 people, according to secessionists, are tied up in court cases related to the referendum) and self-determination were off the table from the start of the talks and, at the last round in July, ERC publicly agreed to no longer pursue a unilateral route for secession. This was probably the final straw for JxCat, which regards the Mesa as a waste of time.

In the five years since the referendum (see Figure 2), JxCat has hardened its position, while ERC is playing a long game without giving up the goal of independence. Aragonès has set his sights on a referendum agreed with the central government by 2030, by which time he hopes there will be majority support for it among Catalans. He believes that concentrating on bread-and-butter issues, such as the health system, education and the cost-of-living crisis, and not on a referendum almost to the exclusion of everything else, which is the strategy of JxCat, will gain support for the waning cause of independence.

Figure 2. Main events since the unconstitutional referendum on Catalan independence in 2017

2017 SeptemberCatalan Parliament fast-tracks a referendum law and the regional government formally calls a referendum on secession from Spain. Catalan government officials arrested over the unconstitutional referendum
2017 OctoberCatalan officials said that almost 2.3 million people voted in the referendum (40% of voters eligible for the plebiscite), with 2 million voting ‘Yes’, a similar turnout to the informal consultation in 2014. Premier Carles Puigdemont declares independence and the central government imposes direct rule. Puigdemont flees Spain to avoid arrest on charges of rebellion and misappropriation of public funds
2017 DecemberPro-independence parties win a slim majority in the Catalan election, called by the Spanish government. The anti-independence Ciudadanos is the largest single party in the regional parliament
2018 AprilIn a preliminary decision, a German court rules against extraditing Carles Puigdemont on rebellion charges
2018 MayPro-independence parties change the law to enable fugitive Carles Puigdemont to be re-elected Premier, but it is struck down by the courts. The ultra-nationalist Quim Torra is elected new Catalan Premier thanks to the abstention of MPs from the anti-capitalist CUP
2018 JuneMadrid ends direct rule after the new Catalan government is sworn in
2018 JulyA German court decides that Puigdemont can be extradited on a charge of misuse of public funds for organising the illegal referendum but not for the much more serious charge of rebellion. Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s new Prime Minister, meets the Catalan Premier Quim Torra for the first time
2019 FebruaryTwelve Catalan independence leaders go on trial, nine of whom have been in prison for up to 15 months and face charges of rebellion which carries a sentence of up to 25 years in jail
2019 OctoberThe Supreme Court finds all 12 guilty and sends nine to prison. Oriol Junqueras, the former Deputy Premier of Catalonia and leader of Catalan Republican Left, receives 13 years for sedition. All are acquitted of the most serious charge of rebellion
2019 DecemberThe High Court of Catalonia bars Quim Torra, the Catalan Premier, from holding any elected office for disobeying the Central Electoral Commission
2021 FebruaryPro-independence Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and Together for Catalonia (JxCat) are returned to power in the region’s election, in which the Socialists win the most votes. The new coalition government is led by ERC (previous one by JxCat).
2021 JuneThe central government pardons the nine imprisoned Catalan independence leaders
2021 JulyCarles Puigdemont loses his appeal against being stripped of his European Parliament immunity
2021 SeptemberThe central and Catalan governments begin talks on how to resolve the standoff. Carles Puigdemont is detained by Italian police when visiting the island of Sardinia and released, pending a court decision on whether he can be extradited to Spain
2021 DecemberCatalan Republican Left wins one more seat than Together for Catalonia and leads a coalition government. The Socialists remain the most voted party
2022 AprilThe Central government denies illegally spying on 60 people linked to the Catalan independence movement, as reported by Canada’s Citizen Lab group, but sacked the country’s spy chief, Paz Esteban, in order to placate its parliamentary allies
2022 JulyThird round of talks between central and Catalan governments, with agreements on fomenting the wider use of the Catalan language, reform the crime of sedition when there is a majority in favour in the national parliament, and a commitment by the Catalan government not to pursue a unilateral path. In a non-binding opinion, the EU Advocate General backs Spain’s attempts to extradite Lluis Puig, a former Catalan Minister, from Belgium
2022 AugustThe UN Human Rights Committee found that Spain violated the political rights of former Catalan Government and Parliament members by suspending them from public duties prior to a conviction following the independence referendum in 2017
2022 SeptemberCatalan premier Pere Aragonès sacks his Deputy, Jordi Puigneró, after Together for Catalonia threatens to call a vote of no confidence against him
2022 OctoberTogether for Catalonia members vote to withdraw from the coalition government
Source: the author.

The June 2022 survey by the Catalan government’s Centre of Opinion Studies (CEO) showed 34% support for an independent state, one of four options, the lowest level since March 2014 (see Figure 3). A binary CEO survey showed 52% against independence in July and 41% in favour, down from a peak of 58.3% in favour in July 2019. Depending on how the questions are formulated, support for a referendum (by secessionists and unionists) is 23% (GAD3 survey in May 2021) and around 70% (CEO surveys).

Figure 3. Preferences for the relation between Catalonia and Spain, 2014-2022 (% of respondents)

March 2014Feb 2015Feb 2016March 2017Arpil 2018March 2019Feb 2020June 2022
A region within Spain33476678
A state within federal Spain202626226678
An autonomous region2324252924262730
An independent state4539393741403634
Source: Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió.

The number of people who gathered in Barcelona on 11 September at this year’s Catalan national day, known as the Diada, was well down on the peak of 1.5 million in 2012 –150,000 according to the police and 700,000 according to the organisers–. The Diada commemorates the fall of Barcelona to the Bourbon faction in 1 714, at the end of the War of Spanish Succession, and is traditionally used by pro-independence activists to call for secession. The war was fought over which of two dynasties, the Hapsburgs or the Bourbons, should rule Spain.

Aragonès has filled the vacancies in his government created by JxCat’s departure with figures from his party, the Socialist Party and the hard-left Podemos. The Socialist representative, Quim Nadal, who takes charge of universities, held various posts in the 2003-06 Socialist-led Catalan tripartite government. With the same number of seats in parliament as ERC (33), Aragonès needs the support of the Socialists, which won the most votes in the 2021 election, to survive.

Salvador Illa, the Catalan Socialist leader, says he intends to cooperate with ERC within limits. Pulling the plug would not only trigger a regional election but could also risk the stability of the central government, which relies on ERC’s support, particularly at this moment when the 2023 budget is going through the national parliament. A general election is not due until December 2023. Sánchez shows every sign of wanting to see out the legislature. Not the least consideration is that Spain holds the rotating EU Presidency in the second half of next year, not something that Sánchez wants to cede to a Popular Party tipped in the latest polls to win the next election.

The economic impact on Catalonia in the five years since the illegal referendum has not been as dramatic as some predicted. The more than 3,000 companies that moved their fiscal domicile and headquarters, but not their operations, to another region, including six out of the seven Ibex-35 listed companies (Banco Sabadell, Gas Natural Fenosa, CaixaBank, Abertis, Cellnex and Colonial) have not returned. This has had a marginal impact on the tax revenue that Catalonia collects, but the reputational damage is bigger. An estimated €33 billion of deposits also fled Catalonia to other parts of Spain in the six months after the referendum.

Catalonia’s industrial capacity and exporting prowess have not been weakened, but some investment decisions have been put off. Barcelona lost out in 2019 to Amsterdam for hosting the headquarters of the European Medicines Agency, but it is not clear what part the uncertainty over independence played in this, if at all. Catalonia was never the favourite candidate as Spain already houses five European agencies.

The Madrid region is pulling ahead of Catalonia. Its per capita GDP overtook Catalonia’s in 2018, something that was on course to happen. Catalonia dropped from 8th to 9th place in the 2022-23 ranking of large European Regions of the Future, published by fDi, part of the Financial Times, behind Madrid which moved up four places from the 10th spot (see Figure 4). Nonetheless, Catalonia attracted more than US$26 billion in investments between 2016 and 2020, 26.2% more than in the previous five years, a period impacted by the 2010-15 economic crisis. In September 2021, Microsoft announced it would build a new research and development hub in Catalonia.

Figure 4. Top 10 Large European Regions of the Future, 2022-23 (1)

1South-east EnglandUK
3North Rhine-WestphaliaGermany
8East of EnglandUK
(1) The ranking is based on five categories: economic potential, human capital and lifestyle, cost effectiveness, connectivity and business friendliness. Source: fDi.

The next few months will be challenging for the precarious Catalan government.

Image: Ballot of the Catalan independence referendum, 2017. Photo: (Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY-SA 2.0).