How did we get here, what’s at stake and what could happen next?
Why do Catalonians want independence?
For “independistas,” the fight for freedom has been a three-century project, one that can be traced back to 1714, when Philip V of Spain captured Barcelona. (Even today, pro-independence Catalonians insult Spanish loyalists by calling them “botiflers,” or allies of Philip V.)
Since then, Catalonian nationalists have consistently pursued some degree of autonomy from Spain. By 1932, the region’s leaders had declared a Catalan Republic, and the Spanish government agreed on a state of autonomy.
After Franco died, the fight for independence started again in earnest. In 2006, Spain granted Catalonia “nation” status and taxation power. But Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down this ruling in 2010, arguing that while Catalans were a “nationality,” Catalonia was not a “nation.” More than 1 million Catalonians protested the finding, to no avail.
Critics of Rajoy say that his argue that his inflexibility has made the situation worse. “His brand of Spanish nationalism is eerily close to that of erstwhile dictator Francisco Franco, a die-hard centralist for whom the unity and cultural homogeneity of Spain was sacred,” wrote academics Sebastiaan Faber and Bécquer Seguín.
What do Catalans want?
There are some other clues too. In 2014, Catalan leaders held an independence referendum that they framed as an “informal” survey of the region’s mood. About one-third of registered voters participated; 80 percent of those voters expressed a desire for independence. Catalonia’s separatist parties were supported by about 48 percent of Catalans in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Parties loyal to Spain garnered about 40 percent of the vote.
But Spanish loyalists are boycotting Sunday’s election. So on Sunday, most voters will almost certainly support independence, even if turnout is low.
How do “no” voters explain their vote?
“No” voters, especially those who’ve moved from other parts of Spain, worry that Catalonia’s economy will suffer if the region breaks away from Spain. It would be nearly impossible for a newly independent Catalonia to join the E.U. and the World Trade Organization, which would raise the cost of exports and imports. Jobs would likely be lost.
They’re concerned, also, that Catalonia could become less accepting of those who’ve migrated to the region. One no voter, a transplant who’s lived in Catalonia since 1979, said he worries that the region’s nationalism could become a kind of racism. “They have created a monster of illusion and excitement,” Gabriel Zafra, who runs an association of migrants from Extremadura, told the New York Times. “They have promised them the land of Narnia. They have promised them a Catalonia full of flowers, where happy people go to church on Sunday. That is a lie.”
“I don’t want to compare it to Serbia,” he said. “But if this continues, I might have to.”
As the Associated Press explains, “no” voters, who feel both Catalan and Spanish, see themselves as the “silent majority.” Speaking out, they say, comes with social isolation, stigma and very occasional verbal and physical violence.
Can Spain actually stop the vote from happening?
Despite the Spanish government’s best efforts, voting will likely take place, at least in some places. Parents are camped out at schools to ensure that they can be opened for voting. (“We will stay until Sunday,” one woman told the New York Times. “On Sunday, we will resist entirely.”) An app has been devised to help voters find polling stations.
But as the BBC writes, “it is hard to see Sunday’s vote as being free or fair.”
Where does Europe stand?
European officials have expressed firm, though muted, support for Spain’s central government. A European Union official said Friday that people should respect the constitution and rule of law in their countries. But E.U. officials also say that they won’t mediate the clash between Spain and Catalonia, calling it an internal matter. It has galvanized secession-leaning politicians across Europe too.
Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland, which itself has questioned leaving the United Kingdom, offered her quiet support of the independence effort. And politicians in Belgium’s Flanders region, who themselves have called for secession, sympathize with Catalans and wonder if their region might be next. “There is already a dynamic (toward independence around Europe). You only have to look at Scotland. It’s an evolution that no European government can avoid,” Jan Peumans, speaker of Belgium’s Flanders regional parliament, told the Associated Press.
In Italy, the far-right Northern League, which wants more autonomy for Italy’s north, spoke out against the arrest of Catalan leaders.
What happens next?
Of course, no matter what happens Sunday, Catalonia is a long way away from independence. Spain won’t recognize the result of the referendum or any independence vote in the regional parliament. Spain is already bracing for major protests, and months of messiness.
Leaders in Madrid have said that they’d support constitutional reforms that grant Catalonia more money and greater financial autonomy if Catalonian leaders cancel their vote. The vote will go on, but perhaps Catalonian leaders would be willing to negotiate these things afterward.
With passions high, though, the moment for compromise may well have passed.