Two million people defied heavy-handed police tactics to vote in favour of independence for Catalonia in Sunday’s referendum.
Following the vote, the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, said the region’s citizens had “earned the right to have an independent state”. Of the the 2.26m votes counted, 90 per cent were for independence.
Mr Puigdemont’s remarks were a strong signal that the Catalan government was going to use the vote to declare independence from Spain, despite the fact that the vote was illegal under Spanish law. This could plunge the country into a political and constitutional crisis.
What happens now?
Mr Puigdemont said that in the “next few days” he would “send the results of today’s vote to the Catalan parliament, where the sovereignty of our people lies, so that it can act in accordance with the law of the referendum”.
The law passed by the Catalan parliament last month backing the vote — but ruled invalid by the Spanish courts — says the government should declare independence within 48 hours of a Yes vote, regardless of turnout levels.
What does “declaring independence” mean?
The Catalan parliament has a series of options for how it could declare independence — if it goes down that path.
At the most extreme, it could make a unilateral declaration of independence, saying that Catalonia was from that moment a de facto independent state.
Some institutions are already in place for independence, according to Catalan officials: the Catalan government has been ramping up staff at its tax agency in Barcelona, for example. The Catalan police on Sunday already seemed to side with the separatists over the Spanish courts.
But there are other more moderate options. The government could also say, for example, that Catalonia now has the “right” to independence and that it will start a period of talks with the Spanish state and the EU about the next steps.
The government could also use the momentum of the vote to call new regional elections, seeking a stronger mandate ahead of talks on independence. Albert Rivera, leader of the liberal Ciudadanos party, said on Sunday: “There is no other clean, democratic way out in Catalonia that doesn’t first involve a new regional election.”
How will Madrid react?
Many analysts say a unilateral declaration of independence would probably force the government of Mariano Rajoy to use article 155 of the 1978 Spanish constitution to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia. The article has never been used; to do so would take Spain into uncharted constitutional territory.
Mr Rajoy on Sunday night told Catalan leaders to “give up on taking new steps that lead nowhere”, in a stern warning against a unilateral declaration of independence.
If Catalonia makes more moderate demands for talks with Madrid on secession, it would likely elicit the same reaction as ever from the Spanish government — that it will not talk about independence.
The Spanish government and courts will also soon have to decide how far to prosecute those involved in an illegal referendum. Hundreds of mayors and politicians, alongside thousands of volunteers, could in theory be prosecuted. The government has also threatened action against the 17,000-strong Catalan police force for not acting decisively enough on Sunday.
But Madrid needs to steer a fine line between enforcing the law and stoking further ill-feeling in Catalonia and condemnation by the international community.
What has been the international reaction to Sunday’s vote?
Many in Europe have condemned Sunday’s violence and some politicians have called for a negotiated solution.
Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, said: “Violence can never be the answer! We condemn all forms of violence and reaffirm our call for political dialogue.”
Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Liberal bloc in the European Parliament, said: “It’s high time for de-escalation. Only a negotiated solution is the way forward.”
There have also been calls from within Spain for Europe to step in and help negotiate a compromise.
Spain’s far-left Podemos party sent a letter to the European Commission following the vote, saying: “We are denouncing the police repression . . . and demanding a democratic and political solution for Catalonia.”
Is there a threat to the leadership of Mr Rajoy?
Mr Rajoy, after two inconclusive general elections, leads a minority government. It relies on the backing of Basque nationalists who are uneasy about Madrid’s crackdown on the vote.
The government aborted plans to present its 2018 tax and spending plans to parliament this week, saying it does not have the votes.
In itself this is not a disaster, because the budget can be pushed back. But it shows how sensitive the situation is and underlines the weakness of Mr Rajoy’s minority government.
Spain’s opposition Socialist party has so far broadly supported Mr Rajoy on the Catalan question, but this may not last, say analysts.
On the other hand, a direct confrontation with Catalonia — using article 155 — could appeal to his party’s conservative base, who have long agitated for a tough line on Catalonia.
Other parties may rally round Mr Rajoy further rather than be seen to be siding with the Catalans who are flouting the rule of law. So the confrontation could, in some sense, strengthen the position of Mr Rajoy.
How did we get here?
Catalonia has been an integral part of Spain since the 16th century, and of the Kingdom of Aragón before that. But many Catalans regard themselves as a separate nation with their own history, language and culture.
Some have always supported independence, but it has been a fringe view. For decades, about 15 to 20 per cent wanted independence.
But Spain’s harsh financial crisis fuelled more support for independence, with anger directed at Madrid’s elites. Many were also furious when in 2010 Spain’s constitutional tribunal rejected parts of a new statute that would have given Catalonia more autonomy.
Support for independence reached a peak of 49 per cent in 2013, according to the Catalan Centre for Opinion Studies.
The region held a non-binding vote on independence in November 2014, which was ruled illegal by the Spanish courts but was tolerated and simply ignored by the national government. Turnout was less than 50 per cent, but about 80 per cent of votes cast were in favour of independence.
Since 2013, polls show popular backing for independence in Catalonia has fallen to about 41 per cent.
But support was still large enough for Catalonia in 2015 to elect a coalition government made up of pro-separatist parties, which promised independence.
What does the law say?
Spain’s 1978 constitution, which was approved by more than 90 per cent of Catalan voters, says Spain cannot be broken up, referring to “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” and “the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”.
On this basis, the Spanish constitutional courts have ruled several times that holding a referendum on independence is illegal. The constitution could, of course, be changed but only by the Spanish parliament.
The Catalan parliament justifies its desire for a vote on a basic universal right to self-determination.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited . All rights reserved. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.