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The Catalan parliament votes for independence, opening up a new game of political chicken with Madrid.

By Ian Mount
November 10, 2015

Ratcheting up the tension in an already edgy relationship between the Spanish national government and Catalonia, the restive region in northeastern Spain, the Catalan parliament passed a resolution in which it “solemnly declared the initiation of the process of the creation of an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic.”

Or, in other words, secession from Spain.

The resolution is unlikely to lead to independence in the immediate future, but it inspired an equally solemn yet hyperbolic response from the central government in Madrid.

“The government is not going to let this continue,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Monday, announcing that the government would appeal the Catalan motion to Spain’s constitutional court. “We are committed to using all democratic means to defend democracy. We will use only the rule of law, but all the rule of law. Only the law, but all the law; only democracy, but all the force of democracy.”

Today’s vote is the latest outbreak in years—centuries, actually—of tension between Catalonia and the central government in Madrid, and the debate before the vote involved impassioned speeches, both from those who heralded an irreversible “disconnection” from Spain and from those who said that they would allow no one to “expel” them from Spain. Tensions were high.

So is Catalonia leaving?

Not now, at least. Rather than a clear statement of secession—a la the U.S. Declaration of Independence—the Catalan parliament’s resolution is a much more diffuse document, another move in what Teneo Intelligence political analyst Antonio Barroso calls, “the game of chicken between Catalonia and the central government.”

The document itself, with nine points and an addendum, talks of opening a process to write a Catalan constitution and begin the “democratic disconnection” from Spain.

“The motion, as a political event, is very attention-grabbing,” says Lluís Orriols, who teaches political science at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. “But it won’t have any legal effects. It’s just a statement of intentions.”

In other words, it says the Catalan government plans to take actions that are illegal under Spanish law, but hasn’t taken those actions. Yet.

So why state the plans now?

The reason for this has a lot to do with Catalonia’s parliamentary elections in September.

The Catalan independence movement took off in 2010 after Spain’s constitutional court defanged a 2006 agreement between the nation and Catalonia that would have given Catalonia more resources and expanded self-government powers. That anger flared when the court deemed a planned 2014 independence referendum unconstitutional.

With this as a background, Catalonia’s regional Prime Minister Artur Mas and fellow pro-independence politicians framed the recent parliamentary elections as the referendum the court wouldn’t let them have.

They won the election, but not in the way they might have hoped. The two avowedly pro-secession parties—Mas’s Junts pel Si (JxSI) coalition and the anti-capitalist leftist party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP)—fell just short of 48 percent of the vote, but managed 72 seats in the 135-seat parliament because of vagaries of Spanish election law.

This majority/non-majority was made even thornier by the fact that, while CUP supports independence, it has said it won’t vote for Mas’s re-election as regional prime minister because of his party’s pro-business tilt and corruption investigations that have sprung up around the party.

And so, in an apparent attempt to entice the CUP to support Mas, JxSI brought the secession resolution up for a vote earlier and made it more confrontational than expected. For example, it says the Catalan government will not take into account rulings by Spain’s constitutional court because it considers it illegitimate.

So what happens now?

“The resolution puts the ball back in the government’s pitch,” says Barroso.

Prime Minister Rajoy has spoken strongly against the independence drive, saying he will ask the constitutional court to stop the resolution from going into effect. But he has also said that he “does not want” to use Article 155, a legal maneuver that lets the central government strip a regional government of its powers.

That is likely because, ahead of Spain’s national elections on Dec. 20, Rajoy wants to appear a strong fighter for Spanish unity, but at the same time doesn’t want to do anything too aggressive that might unify the independence movement’s various factions behind Mas.

“If there is an aggressive reaction from central government, that could make the investiture [of Mas] easier. That explains why, despite going to constitutional court, Rajoy is being very prudent,” says Pablo Simón, editor of the political blog Politikon.

Of course, there are several parts of the resolution that, if put into effect, would break national laws and make it hard for the national government not to react. They include setting up a Catalan tax agency and social security system within 30 days. If those steps are taken, the situation will get much hotter.

But, Simón says, because some in the pro-independence camp believe that a negotiated solution is still possible with a different government in Madrid—perhaps restoring the powers in the deal rejected by the court in 2010—it’s likely that those steps won’t be taken before the national elections.

“My intuition is that this won’t happen before Dec. 20. That would be an excessively strong clash,” he says. “JxSI has different currents inside it: Some think you can have negotiations after the elections; some don’t. But if you break the law, you can’t negotiate.”

Now, attention will turn to how Rajoy reacts, and to whether Mas can convince his left-wing allies to re-elect him as Catalan prime minister. In a 90-minute speech after the resolution was passed, Mas pointedly suggested to his allies that the independence drive would fail, or at least stumble mightily, if all the pro-independence groups didn’t get in line behind him.

“If there isn’t harmony between the rudder and the sail, this boat will not be able to sail. That’s too high a price to pay in this long journey,” he said.

And so, as Rajoy tries to face down Mas, Mas will do the same with his allies.

“It’s like two simultaneous games of chicken,” Barroso says.

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