Elections and Politics 13 Oct 2017

The debate on Catalan independence: from Constitutional Pact to unilateral path

Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Regional Government of Catalonia, announced on Wednesday 10 in the Catalan Parliament that he assumed the mandate offered by the referendum held on October 1 (declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court) in order to declare Catalonia’s one-sided independence. However, he then proposed the suspension of the independence effects temporarily, in order to dialogue with the government.

Most analysts have called the situation completely unprecedented; with some saying it could be a strategy to buy time in the face of the complete international rejection of Catalan independence, which makes it unviable at present. Reactions have ranged from dissatisfaction among wide-ranging separatist groups, who unambiguously labeled this suspension a “betrayal,” to concern from the Spanish Government regarding the situation of uncertainty and instability in Catalonia.

This report analyzes the development of this crisis, which began with the 2012 regional victory of Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union – CiU). After winning, it announced—for the first time—its commitment to setting up a new Catalan State, breaking the long tradition of Catalan nationalists that had governed Catalonia for 25 years. They were a key partner in all the Spanish governments and part of the 1978 Constitutional Pact and 2005 Pact for the Statute of Autonomy.



In 2003, after decades of nationalist leadership in Catalonia, progressive parties came to power in the Catalan government (known as the Generalitat in Catalan) for the first time, creating what was called the first “Govern d’Entesa,” or Tripartite government. This pact between the Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (Catalan Socialist Party – PSC), Esquerra Repubicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia – ERC) and Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (Green Catalan initiative – ICV) allowed Socialist Pasqual Maragall to take over as president of the Regional Government of Catalonia. One of the main goals of his government was to reform the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia—a proposal that had not been raised by the CiU nationalist governments until then.

The process of reforming the Statute did not have the support from the Partido Popular). This is a key element for understanding future events. The Tripartite Government had included in its legislative pact the exclusion of the People’s Party (PP) from any agreement for governance in Catalonia or Spain as a whole. The national leadership of the PP interpreted this initiative as a “line of containment” and urged its members of the Catalan Parliament not to participate in the process of the reform of the Statute.

Despite this, the CiU, PSC, ICV and ERC all pushed the reform process forward, ending with the drafting of a new Statute of Autonomy, which was approved in the Regional Parliament of Catalonia in 2005 with the support of all political parties—except the PP.

Following its approval in the Regional Parliament, the Spanish Parliament’s Lower House partially modified the Statute’s content to adapt it to the current constitutional framework through a pact between the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – PSOE) and CiU. Excluded from the process in both Catalonia and Madrid, the PP began a campaign to collect signatures across Spain, requesting the Statute be endorsed by the Spanish population.

Finally, in 2006, in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, the Catalan Statute was submitted to a referendum in Catalonia. At this point, both the PP and ERC (which had withdrawn its support from the Statute due to the changes introduced in the Spanish Lower House), asked for a vote against. In the end, the Statute won with 73.24 percent in favor and a turnout of over 2.5 million Catalans.

Following its approval in the referendum, the PP filed an appeal in the Constitutional Court, beginning a procedure that would later become this legal body’s first judgment on a law of constitutional scope, as it was approved by a regional parliament, by the Lower House and submitted to a referendum. The Tripartite Government dissolved the regional parliament and called for early regional elections, after which the pact between the progressive parties was resumed, with the Socialist Jose Montilla as the new president of the Catalan Government.

The new government spent its time focused on public policies, although the debate on regional identity continued to play a leading role in Spanish public life, in anticipation of the Constitutional Court’s ruling. Meanwhile, a fierce debate arose regarding the government’s composition, with objections from judges and an inability to reach agreements on its renewal.

Against this backdrop, the Constitutional Court issued its ruling in 2010, voiding 14 articles of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy. Days later, there was a mass demonstration in Barcelona under the slogan “Som una nació. Tenim dret a decidir (We are a Nation: We have the Right to Decide),” led by president Montilla. The judgment and subsequent demonstration characterize what the debate on Catalan and Spanish politics would be in coming years. The ruling was interpreted by the political parties and Catalan citizens as an insult, not only due to the scope of articles voided, but also because the Constitutional Court had amended a law approved by the vast majority of Catalan citizens.

November that same year, CiU won the elections and a new political phase began, headed by a new president, Artur Mas.


Artur Mas came to office as head of the Regional Government of Catalonia in 2010, during the economic and financial crisis. That is why, despite the ongoing regional debate, the initial years of his government were marked by crisis management rather than independence talks. The Catalan government called itself “business friendly,” agreed on its budget with the PP and championed the first budget-cutting measures. Months later, in 2011, the Catalan government had to deal with the events of March 15, the start of the 15M social movement that occupied squares in Spain under the banner of “they don’t represent us” in May 2011.

June 2011, when the regional police force broke up the 15 million demonstrators in Plaza de Catalunya, a new protest was organized—one that surrounded the Parliament of Catalonia. Images of Artur Mas entering Parliament by helicopter were broadcast around the world. Most analysts believe it was pressure from the social conflict, triggered by the cuts and economic crisis, that pushed the Catalan government to change its political agenda, pointing to the Spanish State as responsible for the social cuts and lack of funding. It then introduced a demand for a “fiscal pact” into the debate, leveraging it to use the social unrest in favor of the Catalan government.

This strategy of defending a new pact for Catalonia led to CiU becoming the favorite political party in November 2011 in a Catalan general election for the first time. In these elections, the People’s Party won an absolute majority and took over the government of Spain. The new Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, also faced some difficult months in managing the economic crisis.


“The process of reforming the Statute did not have support from the Partido Popular. This is a key element for understanding future events” 

In 2012, during the debate on the Spanish financial system’s bailout, the Regional Government of Catalonia and Catalan Parliament agreed to begin talks with the Spanish government for a new fiscal pact. The aim was to turn the traditional Catalan Sept. 11 celebration (La Diada) into a “cry for the fiscal pact.” However, the organizations calling for the event, financed and supported by the Catalan government, believed the time had come to demand “Catalunya, nou Estat d’Europa” (Catalonia, a new European State). They managed to mobilize somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million people, making it the biggest independence demonstration in Catalan history.

Against this backdrop, Artur Mas and Mariano Rajoy met in the Palace of La Moncloa Sept. 20. In response to Mas’ request for a fiscal pact, the Rajoy government closed ranks, pointing to the difficult economic situation the country was in. A few days later, President Mas called for early elections, believing that, given Rajoy’s refusal and demonstrators’ demands, the government’s term in office was over.


The November 2012 elections did not produce CiU’s desired results; its bid was not successful, and it lost 12 seats. But these elections would change the terms of the political debate substantially. The “dret a decidir” (right to decide) was touted not only by CiU, ERC and ICV, but also by the PSC, which declared itself in favor of a legal referendum on Catalan independence. At the same time, these elections marked the emergence of parliamentary representation for the anti-capitalist Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) party.

Artur Mas became the new regional president of Catalonia, with ERC’s support, his investiture sealed by the promise of a consultation on Catalan independence before the end of 2014. From that moment on, historical events began moving quickly.

Meanwhile, relations between the PSC and PSOE passed through a critical phase. The Catalan Socialists ignored the congress and, of the vote in January 2013 in Congress in a motion favorable to the right to decide. That same month, five Catalan Socialist Party members supported a Declaration of Sovereignty in the Catalan Parliament, and some historical PSC activists left the party to join the separatist movement. This crisis took place, at least partially, from summer 2013 through the Declaration of Granada, in which the PSOE and PSC agreed to support the federal state and the Catalan Socialists relinquished their demand for a referendum on Catalan independence.

April 2014, a delegation of Catalan Parliament members from separatist parties headed a debate in the Lower House of Parliament in which, at the request of the Catalan Parliament, they requested a transfer of the power to call for referendums. The Government of Spain did not agree to negotiate on this matter, arguing that it could not take any steps that provided legal grounds for a possible referendum on the separation of part of the national territory.

In reaction to this and following a number of prior efforts, the Catalan Parliament approved a Law on Consultations and Participation, through which it called for a consultation on Nov. 9, 2014. There was a double were two questions asked during this: “Do you want Catalonia to be a State,” and “If so, do you want it to be independent?” The consultation was supported by the Catalan Government, with the collaboration of separatist organizations, and it was organized using volunteers. State institutions did not prevent the consultation from being held, as they did not consider it to have any legal effects. According to the Catalan Government, there was a turnout of 2.3 million people, and 80.6 percent were in favor of independence. Although no measures were taken to prevent the consultation from being held, its main promoters, including Artur Mas himself, were temporarily disqualified from office by the courts and were subject to substantial financial penalties.


Following the Nov. 9 consultation, Artur Mas called for early elections on Sept. 27, 2015 with a candidate from the Junts pel Sí (JxS) coalition, formed by Convergència (now without Unió, which had left the CiU coalition), ERC and several smaller political parties, as well as some independents.

Both JxS and CUP considered the Sept. 27 elections to be a “plebiscite.” In other words, given the impossibility of the Spanish State institutions agreeing to a referendum and the lack of international recognition for the Nov. 9 consultation, the elections were seen as a substitute for the a referendum. Both parties, with complete clarity and for the first time, called for Catalan independence in their election manifestos, including offering explicit roadmaps on how to achieve it.

In these elections JxS and CUP won an absolute majority of members (72 out of 135), but represented only 48 percent of the votes. They won the elections, but had not obtained over half the votes under the terms of the plebiscite that had been proposed. As a result, then-spokesperson of CUP Antonio Baños declared the plebiscite had not been won. After weeks of deadlock, JxS and CUP finally agreed on the investiture of then-unknown former Mayor of Gerona Carles Puigdemont, a separatist from his youth, as new president of the Generalitat (Regional Government of Catalonia). At his investiture, he committed to holding constituent elections for the new Catalan Republic within an 18-month period.

The ongoing tension between CUP and the new government forced Puigdemont to submit to a vote of no-confidence, in which, in exchange for CUP support for the Generalitat’s budget, he announced a referendum on Catalan independence for 2017. This referendum had not been included in either the JxS roadmap or the investiture agreement. The referendum was finally scheduled for Oct. 1, 2017, with the question being “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?”

Meanwhile, the Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) was dissolved. Firm support for independence in the new generation of party leaders, as well as a need to separate themselves from the corruption cases affecting the party and its founder, former President Jordi Pujol, were major elements in the decision to create a new political party in the summer of 2016, the Partit Europeu Demòcrata Català (PDECAT).


To make the referendum possible, knowing the only body authorized to call it was the Spanish government, Sept. 6 and 7, 2017, the Catalan Parliament approved what were known as the Referendum Law and Legal Transition Law. The parliamentary debate took place without following the regulations set forth by the Regional Parliament itself and did not heed the Constitutional Court’s warnings of unconstitutionality. It did not comply with the provisions in the Statute of Catalonia itself, such as the need to have a prior report from the Council of Statutory Guarantees to pass laws. Catalonan government supporters had decided on a clearly unilateral course. The Regional Parliament was divided in two, with separatist forces (supported by part of the Podem party) supporting a new legality and the rest of the parties opposing a unilateral decision.

In the following weeks, state institutions used various legal mechanisms to try to prevent the referendum from being held. High-ranking officials were arrested, ballot papers were seized, there was online police activity and the Generalitat’s accounts were strictly controlled. Nevertheless, on Oct. 1, the Catalan Regional Government surprised everyone by producing the necessary logistical instruments to hold a referendum. Despite the police actions, which the Spanish government ended up apologizing for days later, it was possible for citizens to use most of the polling stations that had been organized.

Although there was no legal guarantee involved, according to the Generalitat, the consultation had a turnout of 2.2 million people, with 90.2 percent in favor of independence. These figures are impossible to verify due to the lack of any independent electoral authority, though they clearly demonstrate a high level of social support for separatism; however, they also make it clear that this is a minority opinion in Catalan society, as demonstrated by the figures from the opinion research
organization Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió (CEO).


The evening of the referendum itself, the Catalan President announced he would pass the result of the consultation on to the Regional Parliament of Catalonia to activate the Legal Transition Law. This law, which had been suspended by the Constitutional Court, states that if there is majority support for independence, Catalan independence would be proclaimed within 48 hours, and a six-month constituent process would begin, with the subsequent approval of a Catalan Constitution.


In the days following the referendum, uncertainty and fear regarding the unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) and its possible economic consequences generated a wave of companies moving offices registered in Catalonia to other autonomous regions. To make this process easier, the Spanish government approved a decree to facilitate changing companies’ registered offices, removing the need for approval at a general shareholders meeting.

Against this backdrop, six of the seven Catalan companies listed on the Ibex 35 index have already notified the National Securities Market Commission (CNMV) that they would be transferring their registered offices. Many small- and medium-sized companies from a number of sectors have decided to do the same. In practice, moving a registered office has minimal impact in terms of taxes for Catalonia, as the main taxes companies pay are to the Spanish state. However, the business world’s message to the Catalan government on its opinion of a unilateral path to independence has been clear.

At the same time, some rating agencies, such as Moody’s, have warned of a potential negative impact on the rating in both Catalonia and Spain, while organizations such as the Bank of Spain and the International Monetary Fund have stated that tension in Catalonia has endangered growth prospects for the entire Spanish economy.

Finally, in recent days, the first major demonstration against independence was held in Barcelona, with between 350,000 and 1 million people taking part. In recent years, only separatism has shown a significant capacity to mobilize supporters, but this demonstration demonstrated the plurality and diversity of opinions in Catalan society.


Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Regional Government of Catalonia, announced on Wednesday 10 in the Catalan Parliament that he assumed the mandate offered by the referendum held on October 1 (declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court) in order to declare Catalonia’s one-sided independence. However, he then proposed the suspension of the independence effects temporarily, in order to dialogue with the government.

As a result, the government of Spain demanded the Catalan government confirm whether these declarations were a declaration of independence or not. Depending on the response, it may apply Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, with the aim of at least assuming the power to call elections in Catalonia and force early elections to break the deadlock, as well as dismantle the separatist coalition which now governs Catalonia.

The application of this measure would be supported by Ciudadanos and the PSOE, which announced the party, has reached an agreement with the government to undertake a constitutional reform. Most analysts believe that once institutional normalcy returns to Catalonia, the solution will lie in negotiating a reform to the Constitution that renews the constitutional pact for coming decades and generations.


Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP)

Direct-democracy and anti-capitalist political organization, independent and in support of the unilateral path.


Catalunya Sí Que es Pot (CSQEP)

Left-wing alternative coalition created for the 2015 elections by Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV), Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (EUiA), Podemos and Equo.

Ciutadans (C’s)

A liberal party that supports the unity of Spain. It was created in 2006 to combat Catalan nationalism.

Convergència i Unió (CiU)

A federation of two Catalan nationalist parties created in 1978. It was made up of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), liberal center-right nationalists, and Uniò Democràtica de Catalunya (UDC), a Christian Democratic party. It was the main political force in Catalonia until 2015, when Uniò broke from Convergencia. Uniò then ran at the elections by itself but did not win any seats.

Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC)

Founded in 1931, it is a separatist social-democratic party.

Iniciativa per Catalunya – Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (ICV-EUiA)

An electoral coalition of leftists and ecologists, it was founded in 2003 by Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (CV), Esquerra Unida i Alternativa (EUiA), Entesa pel Progrès Municipal (EPM) and esl Verds-Esquerra Eclogista.

Junts pel Sí (JxS)

A pro-independence coalition party created for the 2015 elections by Convergència, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya and other smaller independent parties. It is currently in power, with the support of CUP.

Partit Democràtica Europeu de Catalunya (PDECAT)

Created in the summer of 2016, this independent and liberal party is the successor of Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC).

Partit Popular de Catalunya (PPC)

A delegation of the People’s Party in Catalonia, founded in 1989. Neo-conservative in ideology, it supports Spanish unity.

Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC)

This social-democratic party was founded in 1978 and supports a federal solution. It is federated with the PSOE in the rest of Spain.

Joan Navarro is Partner and Vice-President of the Public Affairs Area at LLORENTE & CUENCA. Graduate in Sociology by the UNED and the General Management Program (Programa de Dirección General, PDG) by the IESE-University of Navarra. Expert in political communication and public affairs, from 2004 to 2007 Director of the Cabinet of the Minister of Public Administration, and in 2010 recognized as one of the 100 most influential people by the magazine El País Semanal. He is founder of the forum +Democracia, entity that promotes institutional changes for the improvement of democratic functioning. He is a member of the Spanish chapter of the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professional (SCIP) and contributor to the newspaper El País.

email [email protected]

  linkedin Joan Navarro   


Ignacio Corredor es consultor senior del Área Asuntos Públicos de LLORENTE & CUENCA. Es politólogo por la Universitat Pompeu Fabra.  También es consultor de reputación y analista de inteligencia competitiva,  es analista político en medios de comunicación como Cuatro, la Cadena SER o El Periódico de Catalunya. Asimismo, es profesor en postgrados del ámbito de la comunicación y los asuntos públicos en la Universidad Internacional Menéndez Pelayo (UIMP), la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) o la Universitat Ramon Llull (URL). Ha fundado diversas organizaciones como deba-t.org y bridgingbcn dedicadas a fomentar las relaciones entre universidad, política y sociedad civil. También es miembro de la Asociación de Comunicación Política (ACOP) o de la Societat d’Estudis Econòmics (SEE).

email [email protected]

  linkedin Ignacio Corredor   


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