It was the option that had long been threatened, but few people imagined that the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, would actually have the guts to follow it through.
A few weeks ago, when I stood outside the parliament building in Barcelona after Puigdemont had apparently backed away from the brink, the mood was despondent as thousands of separatists, wrapped in Catalan flags, saw their dreams going up in smoke. Today, however, they were punching the air and partying after Catalonia’s regional parliament voted to declare independence following the referendum earlier this month, in defiance of the consistently aggressive dialogue from Madrid.
But their jubilation may very well be short-lived. There are now real fears that the Spanish government, which presided over the brutal suppression of Catalonia’s illegal referendum that made the world gasp in alarm, will respond even more forcefully this time.
Within just 40 minutes of the result, Article 155 had been invoked. It suspends Catalonia’s limited powers of autonomy. This is an unprecedented historical step. In theory, this allows Rajoy’s government to pursue the harshest of options against the Catalan leadership, including arresting them on charges of sedition. Should platoons of the hated national police, who were seen mercilessly beating women and elderly people on Catalonia last month, be dispatched to Barcelona, violent confrontations will be almost inevitable. This may even involve the Catalan police, who in some cases stood up to the officers from the national force. In such a scenario, the words ‘civil war’ will be on everyone’s lips.
Violence between opposing groups of activists is also highly likely, fuelled by Madrid’s traditional reluctance to criticise radical, fascist nationalists. The recent anti-separatist demonstrations were accompanied by fascist salutes and violence flared in nearby towns, acts which were not condemned by Rajoy. Catalan demonstrators have traditionally remained peaceful, but they will not be provoked forever.
Franco-era fascism remains a potent strain in the DNA of Spanish politics, as unlike Hitler and Mussolini, Franco died without being deposed or humiliated. Fascists remain in the tiny minority in the country, but their influence is significant and many people view them with a degree of sympathy, especially at times of national crisis. Seen in this light, Spanish street nationalism is a hugely powerful force, and one that may very well be harnessed by Madrid – with potentially catastrophic results.
Mr Puigdemont has found himself caught between two hardline factions since the beginning of the crisis. One the one hand, the radical separatist CUP politicians have held his feet to the flames to follow through on the results of the referendum. When he gave a much-anticipated speech detailing his government’s response to the results a few weeks ago, it was delayed by CUP members demanding that he go further towards a declaration of independence.
When he failed to do so, instead delaying the declaration pending further talks, the CUP – and a great many people I spoke to on the streets – felt deeply betrayed by their leader. But Mr Puigdemont has also been on the horns of Madrid, which has vowed repeatedly, in no uncertain terms, to crush him if he pushed the separatists’ cause over the line. Now, in a move that represents bravery to some and stupidity to others, the Catalan leader has pinned his colours to the mast at last, daring Madrid to take him down.
Jake Wallis Simons is Associate Global Editor at the Daily Mail Online