Spanish democracy faces its biggest challenge in decades

The Catalan government is depriving over 45 million Spaniards of their democratic right to decide on the future of their own country.

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The unconstitutional and illegal ‘referendum’ on Catalan independence scheduled for Sunday 1 October is a grave threat to Spanish democracy and social cohesion.

The unilateral political process thus far has contravened every applicable legal framework – from the parliamentary rules of Catalonia’s own Statute of Autonomy to the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission. Legislation setting out the vote was forced through the Catalan parliament by the pro-independence bloc, which has a majority of seats at the Catalan Parliament despite not winning a majority of the popular vote at the last election. In doing so, they violated the rights of opposition parties – who will not take part in the referendum – and there is no recognized census, no Electoral Board, no “no” campaign, and no impartial body such as the OSCE or the CoE to oversee the process.

Most obviously, the referendum violates the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which proclaims that sovereignty lies with the Spanish people as a whole, while recognizing the right to significant autonomy of its constituent nationalities and regions and solidarity amongst them. This principle was recently upheld by the Spanish Constitutional Court, which called for the referendum to be suspended. The decision by the Catalan government to press ahead nonetheless thus deprives over 45 million Spaniards of their democratic right to decide on the future of their own country.

This is therefore not a proper referendum but a plebiscite of a decision imposed on the rest of the democratic body in Catalonia and Spain as a whole. It is a gross breach of democratic guarantees. The draft plans for an independent Catalan Republic, moreover, which are already on the table, do not meet the thresholds of the Council of Europe for pluralistic democracies, separation of powers, rule of law and equal rights.

The Catalan government has not tabled any proposal for constitutional reform nor presented its proposals within the established institutions of Spain, a democracy and de facto a federal state. No democracy could accept such a unilateral upending of its constitutional system. And nor should Europe accept the unilateral breakaway of one of its member states’ regions on this basis.

European integration was designed precisely to overcome the divisiveness and trauma of nationalist, identity politics, which are at the heart of the matter in Catalonia. At a time when the union is already under serious strain, this crisis risks aggravating the spectre of European fragmentation, while also providing an opportunity for external forces, including actors linked to Russia, to destabilize democracy.

It is also dividing Catalonia and polarizing all of Spain, putting in jeopardy its democratic stability and economic recovery. While most Catalans want some form of referendum and many want independence (around 40%, according to most polls), there are many others who would see it as a tragedy to suddenly become foreigners in their own country. They want to remain both Spanish and EU citizens. Spain and Catalonia are deeply intertwined, conforming a diverse country.

We therefore urge the Catalan government to halt their political course towards unilateral independence and de-escalate divisive rhetoric. We appeal for much-needed political dialogue between both the Spanish and Catalan government, which has been wanting in recent years, within the framework of our constitutional rules, institutions and principles. This political dialogue could also include negotiations towards constitutional reform and more home rule for Catalonia, to be put to a vote in both Catalonia and Spain as a whole.

The current crisis is a grave threat to Spanish democracy. But our leaders still have an opportunity to rise to the challenge and show the statesmanship needed to put the long-term interests of the Catalan and Spanish people first. 



Javi López, Member of the European Parliament, Socialist Party of Catalonia
Lluis Bassets, journalist
Andrés Ortega, analyst and writer
Joaquín Almunia, former Vice President of the European Commission
José Ignacio Torreblanca, professor at UNED
Cristina Manzano, Director of Esglobal
José M. de Areilza, professor at ESADE, University Ramon Llull
Irene Lozano, writer and Director of The Thinking Campus
Eva Piera, ECFR Council Member
Diego Hidalgo, founder of FRIDE and ECFR Madrid
Javier Solana, president of ESADEgeo, fomer EU High Representative and former Secretary General of NATO
Ana Palacio, former Foreign Minister and former Vice President of the World Bank
Charles Powell, director, Real Instituto Elcano
Antonio Roldán, MP Ciudadanos Party

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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