ANALYSIS Crisis in Catalonia: what happens next?

Spain moved into uncharted waters after leaders in the wealthy Catalonia region signalled they may declare independence following a banned secession referendum which was marred by police violence.

ANALYSIS Crisis in Catalonia: what happens next?
Puigdemont claimed Catalonia had won the right to independence. Photo: AFP

Catalonia's leader Carles Puigdemont said the region had won the right to break away from Spain after 90 percent of voters taking part in Sunday's vote backed independence, but the central government in Madrid has vowed to stop this from happening.

The following are possible scenarios for what may happen next:

Declaration of independence

Photo: AFP

Puigdemont, who came to power in January 2016 after pro-separatist parties won a narrow majority in the Catalan regional parliament, repeated until the day of the referendum that his government would declare independence if the “yes” camp won.

While 90 percent voted for independence, the turnout was just 42.3 percent as most of those who opposed secession stayed at home. Police also closed dozens of polling stations and seized ballot boxes to prevent the vote, hindering participation.

Puigdemont has said he will now present the results to the region's parliament, which has the power to adopt a motion of independence.   

READ ALSO: Ten facts on Catalan President and pro-independence leader Carles Puigdemont

Oriol Bartomeus, a political scientist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, said the separatists were “trapped” by this referendum and would be forced to keep their promise to abide by its results.

“It is like a snowball that is rolling down a mountain, it gets faster and faster and nobody can stop it,” he told AFP.

Suspension of Catalan autonomy

Photo: AFP

Madrid could invoke the never-used Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, which allows Spain's central government to take over the powers of a regional government that is acting against the national interest, to block an independence declaration.

If Catalonia declared independence “the state would be forced to intervene” by using this article, said Javier Perez Royo, a constitutional law professor at the University of Seville.

It is seen as a last resort, but on Monday Spain's Justice Minister Rafael Catala refused to rule it out, saying the government would “do everything within the law” to block an independence declaration.


If Madrid used this power, huge protests would probably erupt across Catalonia, similar to those that followed the arrest on September 21 of 14 top Catalan government officials over their role in preparing the referendum.   

Bartomeus predicts that public squares would be occupied, as happened in May 2011 when Spain's “Indignados” movement against austerity measures and economic inequality took over the heart of Madrid and other cities for several weeks.

That would prevent a serious challenge to the central government, which was able to close just four percent of the polling stations for Sunday's referendum despite sending thousands of extra police to Catalonia, political analyst Pablo Simon told AFP.

“We saw that the government does not control the terrain in Catalonia,” he said.

No-confidence motion

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's conservative Popular Party (PP) and its allies, the centrist Ciudadanos party which is fiercely opposed to Catalan independence, do not have an absolute majority in parliament.

The main opposition Socialists, together with far-left party Podemos and several regional parties —  including some from Catalonia — could unite to oust the government with a no-confidence motion in parliament.

Opposition leaders have blasted Rajoy's handling of the Catalan crisis.    

Pablo Simon said this scenario “cannot be excluded, but it would have to happen within the next 48 hours. If there is a unilateral declaration of independence, it will not be possible for the parties to reach an agreement.”

The Socialists have so far reacted coolly to this possibility.   

For it to happen, Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez would have to make important concessions to Catalan separatist parties such as agreeing to allow a legal independence referendum, which a huge part of the party fiercely opposes.


Puigdemont and Rajoy shake hands on meeting at a memorial to the victims of the Barcelona terror attack. Photo: AFP

After five years of a dialogue of the deaf between Madrid and Catalonia, the two sides could try to restart talks to reach a compromise that grants Catalonia a special status within Spain with much more power over taxation and other matters.

Puigdemont called for “international mediation” to solve the crisis without clarifying what he expected from it.

But Simon said it was “very difficult to see how the moderates in both camps” could impose their ideas now that the issue had become so heated.    

Bartomeus was also pessimistic, saying the PP had become “trapped in a hardline discourse that does not take them anywhere.”

 By Adrien Vicente / AFP

For members


Will Spain have a sixth coronavirus wave?

While Covid infections are rising across Europe, Spain has managed to keep cases and hospitalisations low so far this autumn. But there are already signs things may be changing. 

people walk without masks on ramblas barcelona during covid times
Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave but will there be a sixth wave? Photo: Pau Barrena/AFP

Coronavirus cases have been rising quickly across Europe since October but not so in Spain, which has maintained one of the lowest infection, hospitalisation and death rates on the continent. 

According to prestigious medical publication The Lancet, Spain could well be on the verge of reaching herd immunity, a statement the country’s Health Minister tends to agree with.  

READ ALSO: Has Spain almost reached herd immunity?

Add the favourable epidemiological indicators to the almost 80 percent rate of full vaccination of Spain’s entire population and the immunity claim doesn’t seem so far-fetched. 

But if there’s one thing this pandemic has taught governments around the world – or should have – is to not assume Covid-19 can be eradicated after a few encouraging weeks. 

Not that Spain is letting down its guard, the general public continues to take mask wearing in indoor spaces seriously (outdoors as well even though not required in many situations) and there are still some regional restrictions in place. 

READ MORE: What Covid-19 restrictions are in place in Spain’s regions in November?

And yet, Covid infections are on the rise again, although not at the pace seen during previous waves of the virus. 

On Thursday November 4th Spain re-entered the Health Ministry’s “medium risk” category after the national fortnightly infection rate surpassed 50 cases per 100,000 people.

From Friday 5th to Monday 8th, it climbed five more points up to 58 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. 

It’s the biggest rise since last July but this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, especially as hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths all remain low and steady.

A closer look at the stats shows that 1.52 percent of hospital beds across the country are currently occupied by Covid patients, 4.41 percent in the case of ICU beds. 

Daily Covid deaths in October were under 20 a day, the lowest rate since August 2020. 

With all this in mind, is a sixth wave of the coronavirus in Spain at all likely?

According to a study by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, Spain will have a sixth wave.

The Seattle-based research group predicts an increase in infections in Spain from the second half of November, which will skyrocket in December reaching the highest peak towards the end of the year. 

The country would reportedly need about 24,000 beds for Covid patients (4,550 for critical ones) and there would be almost 2,000 deaths. 

Increased social interactions would mean that on December 30th alone, daily Covid infections in Spain could reach 92,000, the study claims. 

If restrictions were tightened ahead of the holiday period, including the use of face masks, the sixth wave’s peak wouldn’t be as great, IHME states

It’s worth noting that the IHME wrongly predicted that Spain wouldn’t be affected by a fifth wave whereas it ended up causing more than a million infections and 5,000 deaths. 

two elderly women in san sebastian during covid times
The vaccination rate among over 70s in Spain is almost 100 percent. Photo: Ander Guillenea/AFP

The latest message from Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias is that currently “the virus is cornered” in the country, whilst admitting that there was a slight rise in cases. 

“I do not know if there will be a sixth wave, but first we must remember that immunisation is not complete in all patients despite vaccinations,” Dr. José Polo , president of the Spanish Society of Primary Care Physicians (Semergen), told El Periódico de España

“That’s because 100 percent effectiveness doesn’t exist in any drug, or in any medicine”.

Despite having one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, Spain still has around 4.2 million eligible people who haven’t been vaccinated, mostly people aged 20 to 40. 

The majority of Covid hospitalisations across Spain are patients who have not been vaccinated: 90 percent in the Basque Country, 70 percent in Catalonia and 60 percent in Andalusia.

Among Covid ICU patients, 90 percent of people in critical condition across all regions are unvaccinated. 

“Although there are many people vaccinated in Spain, there will be an increase in cases because we know how the virus is transmitted and when the cold comes and the evenings are darker we will tend to go indoors, and the virus spreads there,” Cesar Carballo, Vice President of the Spanish Society of Emergency Medicine of Madrid, told La Sexta news.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has already warned that Europe is at a  “critical point of regrowth”  and that it has once again become the “epicentre”  of the pandemic, due to the generalised spike in cases in recent weeks.

Does that mean that Spain’s daily infections won’t be in the thousands again as winter nears? Or that regional governments won’t reintroduce Covid measures ahead of Christmas to prevent this from happening?

Nothing is for certain, but as things stand Spain’s epidemiological situation is the most favourable in the EU and a sixth wave seems unlikely, but not impossible.

The Spanish government continues to push ahead with its vaccination campaign, reopening its vaccination centres, administering booster shots to its most vulnerable and considering vaccinating under 12s to meet an immunity target of 90 percent.