Date
October 30, 2017

Executive Summary

Continued protest activity relating to tensions around the issue of Catalan independence is likely in the coming weeks after the Spanish federal government revoked Catalonian autonomy and dismissed the regional government. Although Madrid will now likely seek to de-escalate the crisis, campaigning ahead of fresh regional elections scheduled for Dec. 21 could encourage further demonstrations by both pro-Spain and pro-independence activists. However, it remains highly unlikely that the situation will deteriorate to the point where it poses a direct threat to foreign companies or travelers in Catalonia.

Key Judgments

  • Demonstrations and social unrest are likely to continue in Catalonia through the Dec. 21 regional elections.
  • Election campaigning may prompt an intensification of protests, which could persist into 2018 should the election result show strong support for pro-independence parties.
  • Neither officials nor activists associated with the independence debate have expressed any desire to target foreign travelers or businesses, and routine security precautions should mitigate any indirect threats from civil unrest.

Suspension of Autonomy 

Tensions around the issue of Catalan independence will persist beyond the federal government's Oct. 27 revocation of Catalonian regional autonomy and dismissal of Catalonian President Carles Puigdemont and his government. The Spanish Senate voted to implement Article 155 of the Constitution, the so-called "nuclear option," which enables the federal government to assume control of Catalonia's finances, security forces, and public media. The vote came shortly after the Catalonian Parliament voted to declare independence from Spain, a move that is unlikely to have any legal weight according to the Spanish Constitution. While the region's political leadership has changed, with new ministers expected to take up their posts Oct. 30, it appears that the region's administration will continue to be managed by local institutions, which will ensure administrative continuity for businesses operating in Catalonia.

The government is unlikely to annul Catalonian autonomy permanently and risk engendering persistent civil unrest in one of Spain's key economic and tourism regions. It therefore likely plans to reimpose autonomy after fresh regional elections, which have been scheduled for Dec. 21. The setting of an election date in such a relatively short time frame suggests that the federal government is keen to find a resolution to the current crisis as well as demonstrate Madrid's commitment to democratic values in the wake of the heavy-handed police response that unfolded during the unofficial Oct. 1 referendum on Catalan independence. Nevertheless, while Madrid will seek to avoid the election being perceived as a plebiscite on independence, the focus in many voters' minds will likely be on this single issue.

Prospects for the Election

A poll by a major Spanish newspaper reports that the independence debate is virtually evenly split among Catalan voters, with 43.4 percent of December's vote forecast to be won by pro-Spain parties, compared with 42.5 percent by pro-independence parties. The election campaign period is therefore likely to be tightly contested, and could see well-attended and disruptive political rallies through Election Day and beyond. Hints from senior government officials that negotiations are possible over a new governing arrangement for Catalonia - including increased autonomy short of full independence - are further indications that the federal government desires to de-escalate the crisis, possibly by splitting the pro-independence vote.

Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis has claimed that it would be possible for Puigdemont to run for re-election, which could also signal a more conciliatory stance by Madrid to appease domestic critics of its imposition of Article 155. However, his eligibility to stand would be contingent on whether Puigdemont remains out of prison; Madrid has warned that he could face imprisonment in the next two months, as the Spanish chief prosecutor has called for his arrest on charges of rebellion, which carries a sentence of up to 30-years' imprisonment. In addition, though Madrid has ordered up to 150 Catalonian ministers to vacate their offices or face arrest, some have vowed to remain in office, which could prompt their arrests. Any such detentions would potentially increase the size and intensity of protests and associated disorder.

Future Unrest and Political Disobedience 

Puigdemont has called for "democratic opposition" to Madrid, which supporters could implement through industrial action or passive resistance to federal rule. Catalonia employs approximately 200,000 civil servants, and any public resistance to direct rule from Madrid could have widespread implications for the administrative services, healthcare, and education sectors in the region. This further increases the likelihood of disruptive protests, both by employees of these sectors and those opposed to independence who would likely be angered by disruptions to public services. In addition, the actions of the local police, the Mossos d'Esquadra, will be key. The force was criticized for failing to intervene in unrest by pro-independence activists during the referendum campaign, and officers subsequently held back from using force against pro-independence activists; their chief, Josep Lluís Trapero, was dismissed Oct. 28. The Spanish interior minister has now directly called for loyalty from Mossos officers. The force's 17,000 officers are reportedly split evenly on the independence issue, and any large-scale refusal to follow the new chain of command could have serious security implications. With only around 6,000 federal police officers permanently based in the region - currently supported by 10,000 federal reinforcements - the security forces could become stretched without the Mossos' support, which could allow temporary security vacuums in parts of Catalonia during large-scale protests or other significant security incidents. While it is uncertain how Mossos officers will act in the coming weeks, the main labor union representing its members has urged them to comply with the new chain of command and reports indicate that officers have already complied with a directive to remove photographs of Puigdemont from regional police stations. Nevertheless, in the event of further demonstrations, or any incidents of violence, Mossos officers could still be reluctant to intervene.

Demonstrations over the independence issue have the potential to attract very large participation; organizers claim that up to 1.3 million pro-Spain activists demonstrated in Barcelona Oct. 29. Meanwhile, developments, such as any arrests of Catalonian officials, or perceived incidents of excessive use of police force, have the potential to re-energize the pro-independence protest campaign, increasing the size and intensity of demonstrations.Regardless of size, related protests have mostly been peaceful, and presented only ancillary implications for business operations in the form of transport or travel disruptions, or occasional damage to property near protest venues. Although occasional acts of violence - such as the storming of the Catalunya Radio facility in Barcelona by pro-Spain activists Oct. 27 - will present an incidental threat to bystanders, neither side of the independence debate has articulated a wish to target foreign interests or individuals in any way, and this is very unlikely to change.

Conclusion 

The revocation of Catalonian autonomy, and the calling of regional elections in a relatively short time frame, may ultimately relieve some of the public tension expressed over recent weeks. However, controversial developments, such as the arrests of officials involved in the Oct. 1 referendum, could serve to boost pro-independence demonstrations intermittently ahead of the election. The risk to foreign businesses and travelers will primarily remain a background one. That said, standard commonsense security precautions that would normally be used to mitigate the risk of incidental property damage or personal injury in a temporary civil disturbance environment should still be employed.

While the government will likely wish to avoid the election being fought on issue of independence, a resurgence in related rallies is expected during the election campaign. If the election result shows large support for pro-independence parties, it could reignite persistent civil unrest by pro-independence activists into 2018, which could be met with counterdemonstrations by Spain loyalists; regardless, the federal stance on regional independence will almost certainly remain uncompromising and, without the support of external actors - such as the EU - and with a significant proportion of its own population opposing independence, Catalonia will remain part of Spain for the foreseeable future.

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