Barely two months after the Scottish referendum on independence, another nation in Europe is calling for greater autonomy. The Catalan case, however, differs in its context.
The effects of the economic crisis in Spain have been more dramatic than those of the United Kingdom. In Catalonia, for instance, 20% of the population are at risk of becoming poor. Considering Catalonia’s role as a net contributor to the Spanish treasury, nationalist parties on the left and right believe greater fiscal autonomy would be a way out of the crisis. However, Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government, which has been in power since 2011, has repeatedly dismissed any requests for formal negotiations to take place concerning the issue.
In 2012, the Diada, the National Day of Catalonia, was marked by a march in central Barcelona, suitably depicted by the slogan “Catalonia, new state of Europe” proudly capitalised across multiple banners. While the independence movement is deeply rooted in Spain’s history, the show of public support served as a catalyst to Catalan President Artur Mas’ call for snap elections. Voters, frustrated with a central government unwilling to explore a ‘third way’, elected a coalition of pro-independence parties in the November 2012 election. Mas, along with other nationalist parties, set the date for the Independence Referendum or ‘Consulta’: 9 November 2014.
Rajoy and Madrid government officials responded to Mas’ ‘snap’ decision with a ruling of the Spanish Constitution, which explicitly prohibits Catalonia from seceding from Spain. The conservative absolute majority in the Spanish parliament blocked the ‘Consulta’ proposal and it’s illegality was confirmed by the Spanish Constitutional Court, leaving the Catalan government with no legal approach to host the referendum. The Madrid government then dismissed civil disobedience as a valid reason for the referendum to take place.
As a result, the referendum has become a non-binding vote, arranged by volunteers and supported by the Catalan Government. This has of course raised many doubts concerning its legitimacy, or even its usefulness. Supporters of the event have called it “a symbolic democratic gesture” that reveals the extent of public support for the independence process and promotes the need for a revision of the Spanish Constitution.
Final results have shown that, out of those participating in the Catalan ‘Consulta’, 80.76% voted for independence. Within the wider Catalan population, this means 24.59% of people voted in favour.
The results were not unexpected. In fact, what mattered the most, for both supporters and opponents, were not the results but the fact that the ‘Consulta’ took place. From the Catalan point of view, it represented a shift forward in Catalonia’s quest for autonomy; Mas labelled it a “great step” towards independence and described the referendum as an “act of democracy”. From the Spanish government’s perspective, however, it was seen as as an “antidemocratic consult” and labelled an “act of propaganda”.
In reality, although the ‘participatory process’ bears no legal significance, it has once again clearly demonstrated that a considerable amount of Catalan people want, for one reason or another, independence. In this sense, the symbolic political message from the vote is clear, and it is a powerful one: this is not the end, it is only the beginning. In light of this, the next step the secessionists will take will be the much anticipated ‘plebiscite-style’ regional elections, with the hope of achieving a majority that would allow them to unilaterally declare the independence of Catalonia. In these elections, Artur Mas would presumably step down and Oriol Junqueras, the leader of the secessionist Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC; The Republican Left of Catalonia), would take over Catalan leadership.
Over the past few weeks, Junqueras has insisted on the importance of unilaterally declaring independence as an essential condition before any further political, social and economic reforms can take place in Catalonia. According to Junqueras, obtaining a 50%+1 majority in the coming elections would enable him to break the rule of law in the name of the Catalan people. It is evident that the situation is extremely delicate, and the secessionist threat is more tangible than ever. Consequently, it is absolutely imperative that the Catalan and the Spanish governments establish negotiations immediately, in order to solve a problem that has been absolutely peaceful up until now.
It seems to us that the solution to this imminent problem, if there is one, can only be that of a constitutional reform that would allow a referendum authorised and organised by Spain’s central government. In such a case, the alternatives, being not only status quo and separatism, but also federalism, would have to be clearly stated and explained to the Spanish and Catalan people. More generally, a constitutional reform is needed not only to permit the referendum but also to materialise what many of us are asking for; that is, a federal Spain, with greater, asymmetric competences given to its regions. Whether this would solve the ‘Catalan problem’ remains to be seen; it is clear, however, that democracy can only flourish with a political project that requires votes, remaining always within the rule of law.
Photo credit: sefiL