“The Spanish government spends €52 million a day on its army. This is a lot of money, isn’t it?” Teresa Forcades tells her audience, which gasps and murmurs in approval. The small neighborhood office in Berlin of The Left, a political party, is overcrowded. The audience is rapt. Ms. Forcades is a charismatic Catholic nun from the Spanish region of Catalonia who likes to take a public stance in political debates.
This time, Sister Teresa, as she is known, left the seclusion of her Benedictine monastery and traveled to Berlin to preach about an issue that has gripped the economically struggling Iberian peninsula for years: Catalonia wants to secede. Catalan leaders organized an independence referendum on Sunday. With the yes vote prevailing, the wealthy region, which enjoys a high degree of self-government, threatened to secede just 48 hours later.
But the Spanish government insisted the scheduled vote violates the country’s constitution and went to great lengths to stop it from happening. Hundreds of people were injured as national police intervened. “We’re headed for a rough Sunday,” Walther Bernecker, a retired political science professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, told Handelsblatt Global ahead of the vote.
“Even the Scottish referendum was a completely different scenario.”
Yet, although the quarrel between Madrid and Barcelona festered in recent months, it barely caused a ripple abroad. The European Union, which Spain belongs to, has repeatedly emphasized that the dispute was a strictly domestic question in which it had no say. The standoff went largely unnoticed in Germany, which is more interested in Spain’s fragile economic recovery after years of crisis than in the constant bickering between the Spanish government and the autonomous region, which accounts for 23 percent of Spain’s industrial output.
But after both sides dug their heels in, the fourth-largest economy in the euro zone is now teetering on the verge of a disorderly breakup. This could have far-reaching consequences for the EU, which already has no shortage of political crises to deal with. “We could have de facto a civil war,” Christoph Möllers, a law professor at Berlin’s Free University, told Handelsblatt Global.
Polls show that the Catalan public is almost evenly divided over secession, with a majority favoring greater autonomy from Madrid rather than outright independence. Nonetheless, there is a broader consensus in the region that voting on secession is the right thing to do. But Madrid vehemently opposes this too. The escalating rhetoric and the lack of dialogue have caused both sides to radicalize their own stance, leading to more inflammatory language and less dialogue, in a vicious circle.
Francisco Guardia, a 37-year Catalan who lives in Berlin, told Handelsblatt Global he used to be against the independence of his native land. But given the amount of vitriol he has seen from the rest of Spain in recent days, he no longer knew how to vote. “I’m not sure I still want to belong to a country that hates me so much,” he said.
Even dispassionate observers from abroad are taken aback by what they hear and see. “Discussions with local politicians in the two Spanish cities scared me. They simply are not talking to each other, but past each other,” Mark Hallerberg, a professor for public management at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance, noticed on his frequent trips to Spain.
While Spain’s conservative government had made it clear it would consider any referendum null and void, Catalan leaders did not set a minimum turnout for the vote to be valid. That made it more plausible that the yes would win on Sunday, as opponents of independence were likelier to boycott the vote. In the end, just 42 percent of likely voters went to the polls. And the Catalan government has not ruled out unilaterally declaring independence based on the referendum, where abstention rates were high.
This outcome would trigger the worst constitutional crisis in Spain since it joined the EU in 1986. For the 28-nation bloc, this would be an unprecedented scenario. “Even the Scottish referendum was a completely different scenario, since the British government had said it would accept the result of the vote and an independent Scotland,” Tanja Börzel, a political science professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University said. She added that as far as the EU is concerned, Sunday’s poll does not have any legitimacy, echoing the views of Mr. Möllers from the Free University.
Many Catalans disagree with the EU’s view that the crisis is purely domestic to Spain. On Thursday, the pro-independence camp received a welcome boost after two UN human rights experts warned the Spanish authorities that their “worrying” efforts to halt the vote appear to violate fundamental rights and risk stifling debate “at a critical moment for Spain’s democracy.”
The mayor of Barcelona, who opposes independence but is in favor of the principle of a referendum, urged the European Commission to mediate between both camps and find a way out of the crisis. For Marie Kapretz, the head of the Catalan delegation in Berlin, the EU should step in, just as it readily criticizes the governments of Hungary and Poland for their increasingly repressive policies, going as far as threatening them with legal action.
And Berlin could play a role in solving the crisis too. For Mr. Hallerberg of the Hertie School, Germany, with its decades-long tradition of reaching political compromises, should try to sway the two camps “beyond their instincts,” he told Handelsblatt Global. “Else the crisis will continue, and probably worsen.”
Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story was updated Monday, October 2, with the outcome of the vote.