Catalan Separatists Share Goal But Wary of Collaborating

Catalan party leaders Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras shake hands after signing a governing agreement in Barcelona, December 19, 2012
Catalan party leaders Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras shake hands after signing a governing agreement in Barcelona, December 19, 2012 (CDC/Rubén Moreno)

Catalonia’s largest left- and right-wing parties agree they want to secede from Spain, but running in the next regional election on a single list is a bridge too far for the Republican Left.

The party’s leader, Oriol Junqueras, said on Tuesday he was in favor of continuing the coalition with regional president Artur Mas’ conservative Convergence and Union but could not support his proposal to contest the election on a single list. “It would be a betrayal of our supporters if we leave the banner of social justice and the fight against corruption in the hands of those who want independence,” he said.

Last month, Mas suggested the region could call early elections to serve as a proxy referendum on independence, provided all separatist parties joined a single electoral list.

Such a move would not only have resolved the ambiguity that resulted from an informal independence vote; it could also have helped Mas’ party stave off an electoral challenge from the less compromising Republican Left.

Catching up with the left

Whereas Convergence and Union has gradually moved in favor of independence, Junqueras’ party has advocated secession from Spain for decades.

A survey published in El Mundo newspaper last week put support for the conservatives at 23.8 percent and support for the Republican Left at 22.1.

Mas previously rejected proposals from the left to interpret a legislative victory for the separatists as tantamount to a vote for independence.

However, last week, he pledged that if independence parties won the next election, the Catalan government would immediately start building up “state-like structures” and be able to secede within a year and a half. Then elections would be called again to set up an independent government.

Junqueras said on Tuesday he favored a constituent process after the next election instead and calling a referendum later to ratify a new constitution.

Central government obstinate

Last month, more than 80 percent of Catalans voted for statehood in what was dubbed a “citizens’ consultation” after Spain’s highest court had struck down a planned referendum as unconstitutional. Roughly half of the region’s 5.4 million eligible voters took part.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy ridiculed the vote this weekend, calling it “a farce.” He also pledged to “never negotiate the unity of Spain.”

The central government’s refusal to negotiate increased autonomy with what is Spain’s richest region has fed separatist sentiment. Polls put Catalan support for independence around 45 percent — up from 13 percent as recently as 2005.

Rajoy Refuses to Negotiate, Ridicules Catalan Independence

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy makes a speech in parliament in Madrid, November 19
Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy makes a speech in parliament in Madrid, November 19 (La Moncloa)

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy ridiculed Catalonia’s plans for independence on Saturday, dismissing regional president Artur Mas’ suggestion that the region could secede within a year and half after the next election as “eighteen months on the road to nowhere.”

Speaking in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, Rajoy insisted he would “never negotiate the unity of Spain” and called the informal independence vote that took place earlier this month “a farce.”

More than 80 percent of Catalans voted for statehood in what was dubbed a “citizens’ consultation” after Spain’s highest court had struck down a planned referendum as unconstitutional. Roughly half of the region’s 5.4 million eligible voters participated.

Polls put support for independence around 45 percent — up from 13 percent in 2005.

The central government’s unwillingness to negotiate increased autonomy for Catalonia is at least partially responsible for the rising separatist sentiment there. When, in 2006, the region finally got some powers of its own — which it had been promised in the 1978 constitution — Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party was at the forefront of fighting to reverse the changes.

It succeeded. The Constitutional Court in Madrid — the same tribunal that tried to block this month’s referendum — overruled the majority of the articles in Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010. Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.

The ruling led to an outpour of Catalan nationalism with various elections and rallies showing mass support for self-determination, culminating in Mas’ suggestion this week that a majority vote for independence parties in the next regional elections could trigger secession.

Rajoy, who came to power in late 2011, has refused to give ground. On Saturday, he attacked Mas personally, saying Catalonia suffers from “a deficit of governance” as a result of the regional president’s obsession with independence. He contrasted Mas’ policy with his own which he said had managed to stave off economic collapse and returned Spain to growth.

The country emerged from a protracted recession late last year but unemployment remains close to 25 percent. Youth unemployment stands at over 50 percent.

Employment statistics are slightly better for Catalonia and the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce says the region is growing faster than Spain and above the eurozone average this year.

Catalonia is also richer and a net contributor to Spain’s public finances. It has 16 percent of the country’s population but produces more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other regions.

Mas Calls for Early Elections as Proxy to Secede from Spain

Artur Mas Oriol Junqueras
Catalan party leaders Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras shake hands after signing a governing agreement in Barcelona, December 19, 2012 (CDC/Rubén Moreno)

Catalonia’s regional president, Artur Mas, said on Tuesday early elections could trigger secession from Spain, provided all separatist parties in the region joined a single electoral list.

Although Mas wouldn’t commit to calling early elections, he told supporters in Barcelona it was the “only” way for Catalans to voice their opinion.

His demand for a single pro-independence list would not only settle the ambiguity that resulted from an informal independence vote earlier this month; it could also help his conservative Convergence and Union stave off an electoral challenge from the less compromising Republican Left.

A survey published in El Mundo newspaper this week put support for Mas’ party at 23.8 percent and support for the Republican Left at 22.1 percent. Read more “Mas Calls for Early Elections as Proxy to Secede from Spain”

Catalonia Votes for Statehood in Informal Referendum

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (SBA73)

More than 80 percent of Catalans voted for statehood in an informal referendum on Sunday that was denounced by the central government in Madrid.

More than two out of an estimated 5.4 million eligible voters took part in what was dubbed a “citizens’ consultation” after Spain’s highest court struck down a planned referendum on independence as unconstitutional.

Voters were asked whether they wanted a Catalan state and whether that state should be independent from Spain. Only 10 percent of those who agreed with the first statement voted against independence.

The outcome likely overrepresented those in favor of secession. Given the nonbinding nature of the consultation, opponents had less incentive to turn out. Opinion polls have put Catalan support for independence closer to 45 percent — although that is up from 13 percent in 2005.

Separatist sentiment has surged as a result of Spain’s economic crisis. Many of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants feel they are bearing the brunt of the recession. The region has 16 percent of the country’s population but produces more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

The central government’s intransigence also plays a role. It has diluted Catalan autonomy and consistently blocked the region’s attempts to organize a referendum.

Monday’s editorial in El Mundo, Spain’s second largest newspaper, probably reflected the consensus in Madrid. It dismissed the consultation as an “act of propaganda” and argued that it lacked not only legal but political legitimacy, given that the parties in favor of independence failed to turn out more voters on Sunday that they did in the 2012 regional election.

However, La Vanguardia, the largest newspaper in Catalonia, pointed out that Sunday was the fifth time in four years that a substantial part of Catalan society mobilized to protest against the status quo. In both the summer of 2010 and September 2012, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Barcelona to demand a say in their future. The following year, over a million formed a human chain, called the “Catalan Way,” along the region’s coast to express their support for independence. And most recently, well over a million Catalans again demonstrated for independence during the National Day celebrations in the regional capital.

“European democracy hasn’t witnessed a civic mobilization of this magnitude and such persistence in its recent history,” argued La Vanguardia. “It would be a grave error to ignore or downplay this reality.”

El País seemed to agree. Even if it said the consultation “was useless from the point of view of measuring the true wishes of the Catalans,” Spain’s most popular newspaper recognized that “never in our democracy has a movement been sustained for so long and been ignored.”

Turnout in Catalan Statehood Vote Almost Two Million

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Girona, October 1 (Ariet/Carles Palacio)

Nearly two millions Catalans had voted in an informal independence referendum by six o’clock on Sunday night, the local government said.

1.2 million ballots were cast in Barcelona, a city with a population of 1.6 million.

5.4 out of 7.5 million Catalans were eligible to take part in what was dubbed a “citizens’ consultation” after Spain’s highest court struck down a planned referendum on independence as unconstitutional.

Voters were asked whether they wanted a Catalan state and whether that state should be independent from Spain.

For the parties that favor increased autonomy or independence for Catalonia, it was important to get turnout at two million or more, argued Carles Castro in La Vanguardia, Catalonia’s leading newspaper, earlier in the day.

If less than two million Catalans had voted, representing under 35 percent of the electorate, it would have hardly given the separatists a mandate to escalate Catalonia’s standoff with the central government in Madrid. Those parties won just under two million votes in the 2012 regional election.

“Expectations, however, would radically change if the autonomy movement managed to mobilize more than two million people,” Castro predicted. Such a number would represent more than half the electorate in a future election.

A high turnout could also put pressure on regional president Artur Mas who is reluctant to declare independence unilaterally. The Radical Left, the second largest party in Catalonia’s regional parliament, has suggested that “civil disobedience” may be necessary for the region to get its way. Commentator Lluís Foix argued in El Punt Avui newspaper that Mas must avoid a split in the separatist camp and would therefore likely call another legislative election to seek a fresh mandate for this ruling Convergence and Union coalition.

Defying Madrid, Catalonia Votes on Statehood

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (SBA73)

Catalans voted in an unofficial independence referendum on Sunday that could take the region closer to seceding from Spain.

The Spanish judiciary had ruled the vote unconstitutional but it went ahead anyway with strong grassroots support.

“We have earned the right to a referendum,” said regional president Artur Mas as he cast his ballot in Barcelona.

“We are doing a great thing in Catalonia by defending our right to free expression and steering the political future of this country,” he added.

Voters were asked whether they wanted a Catalan state and whether that state should be independent from Spain.

Mas had argued that local elections due in November 2016 could be brought forward and turned into a de facto referendum on whether or not Catalans wanted to secede from Spain. The Constitutional Court in Madrid disputed that argument, saying no independence vote could take place without the central government’s blessing.

However, the Madrid government has tried to block increased autonomy for what is Spain’s richest region at almost every turn.

The Catalan culture and language were suppressed for almost forty years when Spain was a dictatorship. After Francisco Franco died in 1975 and Spain transitioned to democracy, a new constitution gave Catalonia autonomy. It wasn’t until 2006 that the region actually got some powers. An overwhelming 74 percent of voters approved the constitutional changes in a referendum that 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 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.

Polls show support for independence has since surged, from 13 percent in 2005 to 45 percent this year.

Many of Catalonia’s 7.5 million residents also feel they are bearing the brunt of Spain’s economic crisis. The region has 16 percent of the country’s population but produces more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

Spain Strikes Down Election, Leaves Catalonia Little Choice

Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012
Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012 (Fotomovimiento)

Spain’s Constitutional Court left separatists in Catalonia with little choice but to either accept no changes in their relationship with Madrid or declare independence unilaterally when it struck down a watered-down vote on Tuesday that had been called by regional president Artur Mas.

The central government in Madrid had asked the court to block the “consultation” Mas called last month after it earlier suspended a formal referendum, arguing that the vote, which was due to take place on Sunday, was a thinly disguised way to get around the original ruling.

Tens of thousands of Catalans were expected to take to the street to protest the decision. Civil movements and some townhalls pledged they would organize an “unofficial” ballot anyway.

Mas had argued that local elections due in November 2016 could be brought forward and turned into a de facto referendum on whether or not Catalonia wanted to secede from Spain. The two largest parties in its regional legislature, Mas’ conservative Convergence and Union and the less compromising Radical Left, both support independence.

Convergence and Union could possibly be satisfied with increased autonomy for what is Spain’s richest region but the central government’s refusal to even discuss a devolution of powers has radicalized the separatist movement.

Many Catalans feel they are bearing the brunt of Spain’s economic crisis. The region accounts for 16 percent of the country’s population but more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

Polls show some 80 percent of Catalonia’s 7.5 million inhabitants want a referendum while support for independence has surged in recent years, from 13 percent in 2005 to 45 percent this year.

Catalonia Drops Independence Referendum, to Call Elections

Barcelona Spain demonstration
Catalans celebrate their National Day in Barcelona, Spain, September 13, 2012 (Fotomovimiento)

Catalonia dropped plans for an independence referendum on Tuesday but regional president Artur Mas said there would be a vote nonetheless. While not binding, this would be a proxy plebiscite, he suggested, provided all separatist parties campaign on a single program.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hailed the decision as “excellent news,” but it doesn’t seem to have tempered separatist sentiment in what is Spain’s richest province.

A referendum, originally scheduled for November 9, was suspended by Spain’s highest court last month after the central government lodged a legal challenge against it.

Mas told a news conference in Barcelona that a “definitive consultation” could only be held “through elections that the parties turn into a de facto referendum, with joint lists and a joint program.”

With this demand, the conservative Convergence and Union party leader hopes to stave off an electoral challenge from the less compromising Republican Left. Mas rejected proposals from this party — the second largest in Catalonia’s regional parliament — to interpret a legislative victory for the separatists as tantamount to a vote for independence. Read more “Catalonia Drops Independence Referendum, to Call Elections”

Madrid’s Intransigence to Blame for Catalan Separatism

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (Wikimedia Commons/Josep Renalias)

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 get 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 regional 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.

Separatist sentiment

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 none exists.

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.

Risks

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 itself to blame.

Undeterred by Scottish “No”, Catalonia Demands Referendum

Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence from Spain in Barcelona, July 10, 2010 (SBA73)

Undeterred by Scotland’s vote against independence a day earlier, the leader of Catalonia said on Friday his region would organize a referendum in less than two months on whether or not to secede from Spain.

“What happened in Scotland is not a setback for us, because what we really want in Catalonia is to have the chance to vote,” said Artur Mas, Catalonia’s president and leader of its ruling Convergence and Union party.

The region’s parliament was due to pass a bill later in the day to give Mas the power to call a referendum.

The plebiscite will not be binding, however, and might not pave the way for Catalan secession as the central government in Madrid says it will not allow the region to split from Spain.

By far most Catalans desire a say in their future. Polls show some 80 percent of the region’s 7.5 million inhabitants are in favor of a referendum. Hundreds of thousands marched in the streets of Barcelona last week for the right to hold a vote.

Many Catalans, who are among the richest people in Spain, feel they are bearing the brunt of the country’s economic crisis. The region accounts for 16 percent of Spain’s population but more than a fifth of its economic output with an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other parts of Spain.

But independence for Catalonia involves many more uncertainties than it did for Scotland. Despite criticism that it was unprepared for secession, Scotland’s government had a plan and the region would have been able to continue using the British pound in the months following a “yes” vote. The remaining United Kingdom was also unlikely to block Scottish accession to the European Union.

Spain, by contrast, could veto Catalan membership of the European Union — which would eject it from the Schengen customs union and preclude the region from formally adopting the euro.