Former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont attends an interview with Reuters in Brussels, Belgium, December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Eric Vidal Image Credit: Reuters

Last Saturday, as millions of Spaniards were deep in the final preparations for the Christmas and New Year celebrations — a festive fortnight that doesn’t wrap up until January 6 — the footballers of Barcelona travelled to the capital to take on Real Madrid.

The contest wasn’t even close, with the Catalonians running out easy 3-0 winners and putting one hand firmly on another Spanish league crown. At least the other contest played out a couple of days earlier was a little more competitive. The Catalonians, however, also ran out winners, firmly kicking a hot political potato back into the lap of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

The Spanish premier is a man not known for personal warmth or charm, serious and contemplative in manner. Those who know him say determination is his strongest character — and that is a quality now he will have to draw upon in droves if he is to resolve the matter of Catalonia and its independence push. The matter has grown into the greatest constitutional and political crisis in Spain’s history since it was ripped apart in its bloody 1936-39 Civil War and put back together again after the death of dictator General Francisco Franco in November 1975.

Franco was no friend to the Catalonians, the seven million or so who live in the region that sits in the northeast of Spain, hugging the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees Mountains. He suppressed their language, culture and heritage, and ensured that his federal police force, the Guardia Civil, dealt forcibly and effectively with any one or organisation that toyed with his totalitarian tenets.

Depending on your view, Barcelona is primarily either Catalonia’s capital or Spain’s second city.

It has become one of the European Union’s (EU) best-loved city break destinations, famed for its 1992 Summer Olympics, trade fairs, football and tourism. Catalonia too is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions, making up 16 per cent of the national population and accounting for almost 19 per cent of Spanish gross domestic product. Generations of people from poorer parts of Spain have moved there for work, forming strong family bonds with regions such as Andalusia.

For Catalonians, there is a sense that the government in Madrid takes too much from the region, and is downplaying its importance. The province is one of 17 that each have their own regional assemblies shaping limited local laws and policies.

Certainly, the hard figures of budgetary accounting seem to back up the Catalan claim of Madrid taking more than its fair share.

In 2003, 16 per cent of Spain’s budgetary spending went to Catalonia. By 2015, that figure stood at 9.5 per cent, and the deficit between what Catalonians paid into the coffers of the national government and what they received back was €10 billion in Madrid’s favour. But Madrid says that because the funding formula is complex, the Catalonians haven’t accounted for the amounts they receive in other investments in schools and hospital services. In other words, there are two sides to the story.

Three years ago, a coalition of Catalan separatists in the regional assembly organised a referendum on independence. That vote was declared illegal by Spain’s Constitution Court five days before it was due to take place. It became little more than a civic plebiscite or opinion poll, but it showed that 80 per cent of those who did vote, wanted Catalonia to be independent. Pro-Madrid unionists largely boycotted the poll. But unionists also criticised Rajoy for vacillating before the poll and not doing enough to stop it. He did, however, order justice officials to pursue criminal charges against its organisers after the vote, but by then the independence horse had long-bolted from the stable. Artur Mas, then the president of the Catalan parliament, along with former vice-president Joana Ortega and former Catalan education minister Irene Rigau, were convicted by the Catalan high court in early February of this year for defying the Constitutional Court ruling that declared the plebiscite illegal.

Despite those convictions, the separatist parties in Catalonia were determined to hold a second referendum vote, with Carles Puigdemont, a Beatle-mopped journalist replacing Mas as president of the Catalan parliament. Unionists say that Mas and Puigdemont have only pushed the separatist agenda over the past three years because their ruling party, Convergencia i Unio, was mired in a myriad of corruption scandals. Indeed, Convergencia i Unio did rebrand itself as Junts per Catalunya, ostensibly to push for independence, but also to distance itself from the scandals.

Puigdemont led the push for the October 1 referendum that saw 90 per cent of some 2.4 million voters back independence. Again, that vote was declared illegal. This time around, Rajoy had acted quickly, seeking a ruling from the Constitutional Court and Catalan’s High Court ruling undermining the legitimacy of the vote. He also went further, ordering a tough and very firm line against the separatists. Ten were jailed ahead of the vote, millions of ballot papers were seized, and internet and telecommunication services were cut to those who pushed the separatist cause. The whole episode, separatists said, was reminiscent of Franco’s tactics. Even the Guardia Civil were let loose on voters, with 800 injured in a day of violence that saw voters dragged by their hair from polling places by a force that had long been known as “Franco’s bully boys”.

Undeterred, Puigdemont used the illegal referendum result as a mandate to declare independence three weeks later. No sooner had that been done that Rajoy’s government invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution allowing for the direct rule of any region by Madrid, suspended the Catalan parliament and called fresh elections for December 21.

Puigdemont and three other senior separatists fled to Belgium, which has laws that favour political asylum seekers. From there they fought the election campaign. Puigdemont was lucky. Oriol Junqueras, leader of Esquerra Republicana Catalana, now the second-largest separatist party in the new parliament, remains in jail on sedition and rebellion charges related to the October 1 referendum.

The ironic thing from the December 21 vote is that the largest party now in the Catalan parliament is decidedly pro-unionist.

Cuidadanos, a party that demanded a sterner line against the secessionists and their bitterly divisive policies, won 36 seats. It was loudly critical of Rajoy’s handling of the crisis, saying he didn’t go far enough to protect Spain’s sovereign integrity. Rajoy’s Popular People’s Party lost eight of its 11 deputies, while together, the three main pro-independence parties gained 70 of the 135 seats in the parliament. Puigdemont’s party won 34 seats, making him the inevitable nominee to be re-elected as regional president when the new deputies meet.

But nothing in Catalan politics is straightforward, not even the manner by which the deputies were elected. Catalonia uses a complex proportional representation system that favours rural areas. In the countryside, electoral districts have an average of 26,000 voters, and 44,000 in urban areas. With rural areas backing independence, the system is rigged, unionists say.

Puigdemont is eager to return to Catalonia but won’t until he knows he won’t face charges for organising the illegal October 1 referendum.

Rajoy too knows now he must change tack.

If he continues to invoke Article 155, he runs the very significant risk of ignoring the democratic will of Catalonians in a free — and legal — election he called. That’s not an option.

If he drops the threat of criminal charges against Puigdemont, he must also withdraw similar ones already laid against the imprisoned separatists, and that’s a climb-down that makes him appear weak.

His only real option now is to hold talks with the separatists on granting them more powers of autonomy, knowing that Spain’s constitution does not permit separation.

And for Puigdemont, there must be a version of an old Eagles song playing in his head: ‘Welcome to the Hotel Catalonia ... you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.’