We are three months away from a planned referendum in Catalonia that will ask voters two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” and if yes: “Do you want this state to be independent?” If only things were so straight forward. Catalonia’s self-determination is strongly rejected by Spanish authorities who refuse to recognize the planned referendum and are fully intent on stopping it from happening. That the regional government has risked this confrontation with the Spanish state is due to the mass movement by Catalan civil society that has made any other political calculation impossible. Spanish authorities refuse to acknowledge this immense democratic desire by millions of Catalans to determine their country’s status. In doing so, these authorities are risking an irreparable rupture between Catalan society and the Spanish state if all avenues remain closed to a democratic vote.
This effort to have a referendum on self-determination goes as far back as 2009 when the small municipality of Arenys de Munt hosted its own vote on independence. Later that year, more than a 150 municipalities in Catalonia followed Arenys de Munt’s example. By the latest count, some 697 municipalities adhere to the Association of Municipalities for Independence. This campaign was strengthened in part by the 2010 ruling by the Spanish constitutional court that struck down or altered fourteen articles in Catalonia’s autonomy statute and provided its own interpretation of 27 others; many of these articles are sensitive to Catalan ambitions for self-governance like the power to tax, language use, not to mention ruling against the definition of Catalonia as a nation in the statute’s preamble. The week after the ruling an estimated one million people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest the court’s decision, bringing together a broad section of Catalan society including trade unions, FC Barcelona and most of the parties represented in the regional parliament.
The ruling convinced an increasing amount of Catalans that a glass ceiling on autonomy had been reached within the current post-Franco framework of Spain and that independence had become the only path to the self-governance. This shift in Catalan society was made evident in 2012 when as many as one and a half million people protested in Barcelona in a demonstration explicitly demanding independence from Spain. Opinion surveys show that 46% of residents of Catalonia want independence versus 36% opposed. Significantly, the consensus on deciding this by referendum is broad, with 74% demanding that the Spanish prime minister recognize the November vote.
Enter Spanish Nationalism
Just as aspirations in Catalonia for independence mounted over the past few years, the Spanish nationalist Popular Party came to power in general elections in 2011, riding voter rejection of the Spanish socialist party amid austerity and eye-watering levels of unemployment. The Popular Party, which while in opposition challenged the Catalan autonomy statute in the supreme court, would continue its role as chief antagonist in government. This antagonism to Catalan aspirations and identity was best illustrated in comments by the conservative education minister Wert when he said his goal was to make Catalan students more Spanish. It wasn’t just a provocation in words, the government passed an education reform bill that triggered over a year of protests and two general strikes by teachers, parents, and students. The opposition was extensive in regions like Catalonia with co-official languages, as the law makes it obligatory for regional administrations to offer Spanish as a language of instruction. This represented a second blow to the autonomy statute which affirmed Catalan as the language of instruction in schools.
There is a remarkable level of complacency about this worsening relationship between the Spanish state and Catalonia. The Spanish government holds firm to its rejectionist stance, repeating the indivisibility of the Spanish nation and the illegality of the referendum. It will cynically suggest that advocates of Catalan independence achieve the 3/5ths majority in both houses of the Spanish congress to change the constitution; the Popular Party controls both houses and objects to Catalonia’s current level of autonomy and would in no way cooperate in reforming the constitution to either expand autonomy or create a democratic mechanism for peaceful succession from Spain.
This is the dialogue of imposition. While a vast majority of residents in Catalonia want a referendum this November, Spanish prime minister Marino Rajoy insists he won’t let the referendum take place. It’s a naked attempt to deny voters in Catalonia an opportunity to express themselves on the sovereignty debate while allowing the Spanish government to avoid the political consequences of a likely yes vote for independence. Spanish conservatives are well accustomed to downplaying and dismissing mass protests like the ones for independence in Catalonia. They can write them off as a concentration of radicals out of touch with the silent majority that the Popular Party is so quick to cite. The referendum could shatter this argument and end the deference on Catalonia currently offered to the Spanish government by the European and international community. Spain would risk holding on to Catalonia against the will of a majority of its inhabitants, an unsustainable policy which has tragedy written all over it.
Knowing this, the central government hasn’t limited itself to just endlessly repeating the illegality of the referendum, it is actively using scare tactics and veiled threats to weaken the independence vote. Government ministers and leading Popular Party lawmakers paint dire scenarios of an independent Catalonia outside the alleged safety of the euro zone, the European Union, and Nato while economically crippled from the loss of trade with Spain. These aren’t warnings, but threats, for these scenarios would only happen if the Spanish government acted out in vengeance against an independent Catalonia by severing trade and blocking attempts by the new state, if it so desires, to remain part of those international and European treaties and unions.
The opportunity to persuade Catalan voters to avoid independence might have been missed this June when tens of thousands took to the streets in a tide of republican tricolor flags at news of the king’s abdication and prince Felipe’s ascension to the throne. The protests extended across the territory of the Spanish state, including Barcelona, where Spanish and Catalan republicans demonstrated in the thousands for the end of the monarchy. Many of those protesters had hopes of a constituent process as a second transition to democracy and a federalized state.
These demands from the street for a referendum on the form of government were ignored much like demands in Catalonia for a referendum on independence. The political system that emerged following Franco’s death has shown itself unbending to a society that has been pulsing with popular, mass demonstrations and a hunger for a deeper democratic process. It is no surprise then that this system is in danger of breaking, standing to lose 17% of its population from Catalan independence and possibly more should the Basque Country choose to secede as well.
The political ruptures aren’t just geographic, however. The liberal Catalan nationalists CiU who’ve governed the region for most of its post-Franco history have hitched themselves to the campaign for independence but they’ve failed to win back political ground lost after implementing unpopular austerity measures over the last several years. Now adding to their problems, Jordi Pujol, former CiU leader who governed the region for 23 years, has admitted to having stashed away a fortune of 600 million euros in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the forces on the left cooperating with CiU on the referendum are the ones reaping the political rewards; The Republic Left of Catalonia came in first place among Catalan voters during May’s European elections.
What an independent Catalonia would look like is still to be decided and those supporting independence as a simple administrative rearrangement may end up disappointed. Catalan politics has no shortage of political initiatives and social movements seeking to alter the governance of the country, come independence or not. The left-wing CUP (Popular Unity Candidates) has been campaigning for independence with the slogan “yes, to change everything”, insisting there isn’t independence without popular, democratic sovereignty over economic life. In Barcelona, there’s been a summer of neighborhood assemblies as part of Guanyem Barcelona (win back Barcelona), a citizen initiative that seeks the highest form of democracy and self governance for the city while both restoring and expanding of social rights.
The Coming Crisis
This summer and fall should have been a time of vibrant debate in Catalonia on the questions voters would answer in the November referendum. In the absence of this debate, there’s the growing impression that Catalonia and Spain are sleepwalking into a crisis in which the key actors have irreconcilable differences. There is no common ground between supporters of the referendum seeking a democratic outcome and the opponents who seek their total capitulation.
The political bloc behind the referendum is showing fractures under this pressure. The governing center-right CiU is divided and the splits are becoming more public in expectation of the Spanish constitutional court ruling against the regional government’s law facilitating the November referendum. The Democratic Union of Catalonia within CiU is opposed to hosting the referendum should the constitutional court stand against it. Pro-independence organisations, parties on the left and other voices within CiU insist on hosting the vote regardless of the high court’s decision. Whether this pro-referendum bloc can hold together until November will determine whether the sovereignty crisis comes to a head this fall or delayed into 2015.
The next few weeks and months will be of the highest importance for Catalonia’s future. On September 11th, the Catalan national holiday, hundreds of thousands are expected to demonstrate in Barcelona, forming a giant V to symbolize the right to vote and a victorious result for the pro-independence bloc. The following week, the Catalan regional parliament will put forth its law of consultations, paving the way for the November referendum. The scenarios from there range from civil disobedience, should Madrid try to prevent a vote, to snap regional elections as a substitute for the referendum. These events aren’t a curiosity of Spanish politics, but moments of historic consequence for Catalonia, Spain and the European continent.