On 1 October, a referendum on the independence of Catalonia took place. According to local authorities, 90% of the participants voted in favour of secession. The referendum, however, was illegal according to Spain’s central authorities.
Support for Catalan independence is grounded in the right of self-determination and historical rights. Catalonia was finally incorporated into Spain only in 1714 as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession. It has always kept its distinct character in comparison to the rest of Spain, as well as close relations with southwestern France. Its people are connected by the Occitan dialect. Prior to the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Republican government granted Catalonia broad autonomy, which led to suppression of the nationalist movement in the province after General Franco’s victory. Catalonia is one of the richest parts of Spain. In 2016, it comprised about 15% of Spain’s population and 20% of its GDP. Importantly, in the context of Spain’s economic crisis, the Catalan nationalists have questioned the scale of financial contributions to the central government purse.
The government of Mariano Rajoy argues that the vote on Catalonia's independence is illegal according to the Spanish constitution, a position the Constitutional Court affirmed before the referendum. Article 2 states that “the Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.” Article 155 allows the government to take measures to compel the autonomous community to refrain from initiatives detrimental to the general interest of Spain. This justified the intervention of the police during the vote and may also serve as a basis for suspending the Autonomous Government of Catalonia in the case of a proclamation of independence. According to Spanish government, the referendum does not reflect the will of society—before the referendum, independence polled at about half of Catalans.
In EU/EC history, there have been two other independence referendums. Both differed substantially from the Catalan one. In 1962, there was a double vote on Algeria’s independence both in France and Algeria, at that time an overseas part of French metropolitan territory. The referendum resulted from an extended civil war. Its legal basis was the Évian Accords, upon which Algeria departed both from France and the European Communities. In 2014, there was a vote on Scottish independence resulting from SNP’s landslide victory in the 2011 Scottish parliamentary election. The legal basis for the referendum was created by an act of the UK parliament and subsequent Scottish legislation. Despite independence being rejected by 55% of voters, the SNP in subsequent manifestoes is committed to holding another referendum in case of a grave change in Scotland’s position (e.g., Brexit).
The referendum initiators in Catalonia expected the EU to condemn the actions of the central authorities during the vote, referring to the “moral authority” of the organisation. In an official statement, the European Commission stated, however, that the referendum was an internal matter of Spain that must be dealt with in line with the constitutional order of the country. The Commission pointed out that even if a referendum were to be organised in line with Spain’s constitution, it would mean that the territory leaving would find itself outside of the European Union. The reactions of European leaders were rather cautious. In many Member States, such as Belgium (Flanders), France (Corsica), or in Italy (Padania), there are similar separatist tendencies. There are thus concerns that support for the Catalans could trigger a domino effect. In the face of Brexit, however, the EU wants unity, not further divisions.