The standoff between Catalonia’s separatist leaders and the Spanish government since the region’s independence referendum on Oct. 1 has often been likened to a game of chicken. It appears the two cars just crashed.
In dueling sessions Friday, the Catalan Parliament and the Spanish national Parliament invoked their respective “nuclear options.” In Barcelona, lawmakers voted to unilaterally declare independence from Spain. In Madrid, lawmakers invoked a never-before-used article of the Constitution that will allow the central government to assume direct rule over the autonomous region. Under Article 155, Madrid can dismiss the regional president and his ministers and take control of the region’s police, finances, and public media.
As recently as Thursday, there were signs that the crisis was abating, with Catalan President Carles Puigdemont set to call snap elections rather than declare independence. That move was strongly opposed by members of Catalonia’s ruling coalition, notably the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy party, which had been attacking Puigdemont—who is a separatist but from a more conservative party—for dragging his feet on declaring independence since the referendum. Puigdemont had suspended the process of declaring independence in hopes of entering negotiations with the central government, but Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rebuffed calls for talks.
The showdown is Spain’s worst political crisis since the end of Francisco Franco’s military dictatorship in 1975, and Catalan nationalists have accused the government of a return to authoritarianism.
At the moment, the Spanish government still appears to have the advantage. Catalonia’s lawmakers and residents are deeply divided over independence—Friday’s measure was approved 70–10, but the opposition boycotted the vote, which mirrored the Oct. 1 referendum, in which 90 percent of Catalans approved independence but only 43 percent voted. It’s also virtually impossible to become an independent country in any real sense in today’s world without international support, and with the exception of opportunistic Russian media outlets and trolls and sympathetic Scots, Catalonia has little of that.
But there’s likely to be fierce backlash to the imposition of direct rule. Recent jihadi attacks notwithstanding, Spain has seen little in the way of political violence since the decline of the Basque terrorist group ETA. Europe hasn’t had much in the way of ethnic or sectarian conflict since the end—for the most part—of Northern Ireland’s Troubles almost two decades ago. That relatively placid state of affairs can no longer be taken for granted.
It’s hard to predict what will happen next, but the next phase of the crisis is likely to take place not in a parliament but on the streets.