Will Catalonia become independent?

The Spanish government may have the wrong approach to tackling the separatists

September 11, 2015
The President of Catalan's regional government Artur Mas would likely be the first leader of an independent Catalonia. © AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
The President of Catalan's regional government Artur Mas would likely be the first leader of an independent Catalonia. © AP Photo/Manu Fernandez
Today, more than 1.5m people are expected to gather on one of Barcelona’s main avenues to celebrate the national day of Catalonia and commemorate the region’s submission to the Spanish crown 301 years earlier. This will be the latest in a series of mass protests that have driven Catalonia’s desire to secede from Spain since 2010. 

A few weeks later, on 27th September, Spain’s wealthiest region and traditional industrial powerhouse will witness the most important parliamentary elections in recent history in what amounts to a de facto referendum on independence, a second best to the Scotland-style plebiscite they were denied by Madrid last year. The outcome of this, depending on who you ask, could be economic madness or the birth of a more progressive nation, based on a long-sought recognition for Catalan culture and language.

Frustrated by the central government’s persistent stonewalling of attempts for dialogue, Catalan regional President Artur Mas gambled, calling snap regional elections in a bid to force the issue. By allying his center-right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) party to its longtime rivals, the left-wing Catalan Republican Left (ERC), as well as prominent grassroots groups and several other smaller parties, Mas has sought to draw cross-party support for the region attempting to force its way out of Spain. To this end, the pact is headed up by non-affiliated figures, former European Member of Parliament Raül Romeva first among them. Though if Together for Yes succeed, few doubt Mas will be president. 

Should they win, as most polls predict they will, the pro-independence coalition will immediately begin preparations for secession and aim to declare independence unilaterally as early as Spring 2016. 

According to Ferran Requejo, political scientist and member of the committee tasked with advising Mas’s government on how to secede from Spain, the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN), Catalan independence could open the door for other separatist movements.

“There is no real political precedent for a part of a democracy leaving through a vote,” he told Prospect. “This would have been the case in Scotland last year, but as it voted No Catalonia is a singular, exceptional case and could become a reference point in the 21st Century for democracies with territorial tensions or with a historical nationalist problem that has never been resolved.”

Unlike Scotland, though, Catalonia is attempting to secede unilaterally. Any challenge to national unity is illegal under the Spanish constitution and Catalonia would have to start the disconnect under the watchful eye of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s hostile right-wing central government. Earlier this month, Rajoy granted the Constitutional Court the power to suspend officials who threaten national unity, a further tool in an already formidable arsenal of judicial firepower to prevent unilateral secession.

The economy is key for both separatists and unionists. Representing around 19 per cent of Spain’s GDP, and 16 per cent of its population, Catalonia is indispensable to the national economy, but the region believes it pays too much and receives too little from the central government. While the region has long felt oppressed under Spain’s centralising tendencies, it was only the 2010 rejection of legislation designed to grant Catalonia control of tax collection, on par with the Basque Country’s semi-federal status, that sparked popular support for independence.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy continues to strike a hard line, recently warning voters to resist the “virus of disunity” and reject Catalan nationalist parties. Last week, Defense Minister Pedro Morénes told press there would be no military intervention in Catalonia, provided that “everyone does their duty.” Rajoy will hope fears over economic uncertainty will help sway voters.

The Catalan business elite has been vocal on this point. Josep Bou, president of Businessmen of Catalonia, an association of entrepreneurs that opposes independence, claims the prospect of secession has already caused businesses to reconsider locating operations in the region. He told Prospect that the “populist-nationalist cocktail” of separatist parties deters investment and that declaring unilateral independence could have “no positive consequences” for the economy.

Catalonia’s economic potency is accepted—what is in question is whether this prosperity would survive the disruption of a unilateral exit from Spain and be able to secure continued membership of the European Union. 

Acknowledging the risks of a forced exit, Mas called this week for negotiations to lessen the economic impact for both sides. But compromise remains unlikely.

Together for Yes should secure a photo finish parliamentary majority of 68 out of 105 seats in the Parliament—most likely with the support of a splinter far-left pact led by Popular Unity Candidates (CUP)—but even if they don’t, there seems little way out of the impasse. 

Unionist parties are divided, while a further significant contingent sits in the middle, supporting the right to hold a referendum, but stopping short of a forced exit. With general elections due before the end of the year, all parties have a lot to lose by pacting with traditional rivals.

Carles Ribera, political editor of the El Punt Avui newspaper, which has backed independence, says that considerable opposition to Catalan secession in the rest of Spain—73 per cent said it would be bad for the country in a July poll—means negotiation is effectively impossible.

“Any compromise on the part of a Spanish party with a Catalan independence party would be penalised with electoral defeat,” he said in an interview. “Being anti-Catalan has a lot of traction in Spain. When a party criticises Catalonia, it gets a boost in the polls.”

For writer and columnist for Catalonia Today Matthew Tree, the British government’s last-ditch attempt to sway Scottish voters by offering maximum devolution as a compromise stands in stark contrast with the inflexible stance of the Spanish government. 

“Here it’s a mixture of stonewalling and pretending the problem will go away,” he said in an interview. “A bit like people sitting at a cafe terrace when people come around asking for money. They sort of say, well if you don’t talk to them they’ll go away. And that’s been the attitude all along of the Spanish government.” 

The battleground is set: a bullish central government content to rely on judicial powers to curtail a push for independence versus a similarly determined cabal of secessionist Catalan parties prepared to risk constitutional crisis to break the deadlock.

The second feature of the central government’s approach is rigid allegiance to an analysis which paints Mas as the man responsible for the independence movement. Many unionists hope that if they can defeat Mas—who is on shaky ground after his CDC party’s headquarters were raided by police amid allegations of corruption—they will cut the head off the separatist monster and put the Catalan question to bed.

But the secessionist movement is diverse and draws its strength from a committed civil society base, which, to date, unionist politicians have failed to speak to.