Undeterred by the Scottish “no” to independence, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, has called for a referendum to break away from Spain.
To comply with Spanish law, the referendum would not be binding — although it is difficult to imagine how the authorities in Barcelona and Madrid could ignore the outcome if a majority votes to secede.
In an attempt to block the vote, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has asked Spain’s constitutional court to declare it illegal.
“It is false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards,” he argues. “It’s profoundly anti-democratic.”
Rajoy has a point. But it is the intransigence of the central government he heads that is to blame for the situation.
Struggle for rights
The Catalan culture and language were suppressed for almost forty years while Spain was a dictatorship. After Francisco Franco died in 1975, and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution promised Catalonia autonomy.
It took until 2006 for the region to actually get more self-government. An overwhelming 74 percent of voters approved the constitutional changes in a referendum that year which defined Catalonia as a “nation” and gave it its own parliament. The Catalan government was given broad powers over cultural, education, health, justice and transportation policy.
But other regions and Spanish nationalists, especially in Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party, were dismayed by the changes and fought to reverse them.
After four years, Spain’s highest court ruled that fourteen of the new statute’s articles were unconstitutional and a further 27 had to be rewritten.
Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.
The same court suspended Mas’ referendum on independence, a decision which Catalonia’s regional parliament is appealing.
Through it all, support for independence has soared.
Polls suggest that around one in two Catalans would rather break away from Spain at this point and that 80 percent want the referendum.
Little wonder. Catalans have been denied a say in their political constellation for generations by politicians in Madrid who obsess about forging a single sense of Spanish nationhood where clearly one does not exist.
Separatist sentiment has also been fueled by Spain’s recent economic mismanagement.
Compared to the rest of the country, Catalonia is fairly well run. It has only 16 percent of Spain’s population but is responsible for more than a fifth of its gross domestic product, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. Catalan trade accounts for 35 percent of Spain’s total. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s economic output, is invested in other parts of Spain.
That is not to say Catalonia should go it alone. Independence is not without its risks. Among the thorniest issues is European Union membership, for which an independent Catalonia would need to reapply.
That includes the use of the euro. Being forced out of the single currency could hurt tourism, which brings in $12 billion per year.
Devolution of powers, similar to Scotland, would satisfy many Catalans. So would a federal structure similar to Germany’s. The Catalans are a nation, but they don’t necessarily want their own state.
It is the central government’s refusal to even consider such options that has caused more and more Catalans to favor outright independence.
If, at some point, they do decide to break away from Spain unilaterally, Madrid will have only itself to blame.