catalan sovereignty

The referendum juggernaut

Politicians and legal experts are calling for talks with Catalonia The aim is to find a way to channel the region's desire for a vote on independence

Around 90,000 people attended a concert organized by pro-sovereignty groups at Camp Nou stadium last month.
Around 90,000 people attended a concert organized by pro-sovereignty groups at Camp Nou stadium last month. GIANLUCA BATTISTA (EL PAÍS)

Catalonia's business community now refer to it as "the subject." Barely a year ago, the acrimonious matter that cannot be named was the object of hushed comments made only in the presence of friends or political allies. Today it is discussed in work meetings and at public events.

Catalan independence is the goal of the region's nationalist administration, which wants to hold a referendum on sovereignty next year. The new openness is perhaps best illustrated by the meeting held by Catalonia's business confederation, Fomento de Trabajo, in early July to discuss whether to join in the debate that the regional government is organizing to apply pressure on voters to give their support to splitting from the rest of Spain. Under pressure from both sides of the debate, and with no clear consensus internally, Fomento had changed its mind and decided not to join the so-called National Pact for the Right to Decide on June 30.

One thing emerged from the meeting: no organization in Catalonia, however hard it tries, can avoid the independence debate. As yet there is no clear plan or timeline, but it has come to monopolize political life in the region.

"Things in Catalonia right now are comparable to what was going on during the early years of democracy," says a member of Fomento's board regarding the debate within the organization.

No organization in Catalonia can avoid the independence debate

Polls carried out by the regional government show that around 72 percent of Catalans say their region does not enjoy sufficient autonomy, while 47 percent say they want a different political model, one within which Catalonia would be an independent state. The Socialist Party (PSOE) has proposed remaking Spain into a federal state, along German lines, but only 21 percent of voters support the idea, one percent less than those who want no change at all to Catalonia's status within Spain.

Last year, 74 percent of Catalans supported holding a referendum. "It is clear that this issue needs to be resolved by talking to the people," says Jordi Argelaguet, the director of the regional government's Opinion Poll Center (CEO). The Center for Sociological Studies, which operates under the auspices of the prime minister in Madrid, has not asked Catalans about whether they support holding a referendum, but a recent survey shows that 40.6 percent of Catalans support the idea of Spain allowing Catalonia to "become an independent state." Just over 25.6 percent want greater autonomy, while 17.6 percent want things to remain as they are.

José Juan Toharia, the head of independent pollster Metroscopia, says support for secession from Spain is far from guaranteed, and warns: "There is no turning back from a referendum: it will go ahead, whether legally or illegally." The idea of independence fascinates a substantial section of Catalan society. "At a time of crisis, such as we are now experiencing, dependent on Brussels, the markets, and who knows what else, who wouldn't be attracted by the idea of independence?" asks Toharia, who adds that in his opinion, the debate is more about feelings than exploring the reality of what an independent Catalan state would be like. "We are still in the very early stages of a debate, on the right to decide, we haven't yet started discussing specifics," he says. The reason for this, he believes, is because the Popular Party administration in Madrid is still rejecting any idea of independence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to keep the focus of the debate on the illegality of holding a referendum, while pro-independence Catalans call for a "political solution."

Enoch Albertí, a law professor at the University of Barcelona, says a referendum can be held legally. "It is certainly possible within the framework of the Spanish Constitution: Article 92 permits this; or we could follow the Scottish model of delegating competences, as outlined in Article 150.2," he says. In either case, agreement between the central and regional governments would be necessary, something that is unthinkable at the moment. Albertí is part of a group called the National Transition Council recruited by Artur Mas, the head of the Catalan regional government, who has committed himself to giving Catalans the right to decide on independence. The council is now working on specific proposals and wording for a referendum.

At a time of crisis, who wouldn't be attracted by the idea of independence?"

Within the council there are a wide range of views, and little agreement on whether it is possible to openly seek independence without contravening the Constitution. So far, nobody even knows what Artur Mas actually intends to ask Catalans. This ambiguity benefits him and his party, the CiU nationalist bloc, given that a direct question on independence would not produce any consensus, even within the party. Xavier Coller, professor of sociology at the Pablo de Olavide University, says that Josep Antoni Duran Lleida, a senior figure in CiU, and Mas each have their own strategies for independence. "Mas is trapped, because he has agreed to do something that legally is not viable," says Coller.

Coller, along with most other experts on Catalan politics, says the "frustration" that would result from failing to deliver on the promise of a referendum would create a "devilish" political scenario, and voters would not forget who was responsible. Coller believes that the referendum represents a further separation between the interests of Catalonia's political elite and voters. He accepts that the rest of Spain finds it difficult to understand Catalonia, but says that some Catalan politicians "do not understand the problems pressing many ordinary people in Catalonia." The relationship between Catalonia and the rest of Spain is, according to a number of opinion polls, a lesser problem than unemployment, the economy and disaffection with politicians.

The problem facing the regional government is that Mas is paying the price for voters' concerns about unemployment and the economy, while his coalition partner Oriol Junqueras of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) is making political capital out of the current crisis. For the moment, ERC has managed to avoid association with the cuts, and is instead associated with independence.

ERC now sees the possibility of becoming the second force in Catalan politics, a position it has not enjoyed since the days of the Second Republic, before the Civil War. There is a widespread feeling that Artur Mas has passed the point of no return. "The referendum is the only way forward now, the only way that we can find out who supports independence, and to be able to negotiate the relationship between Catalonia and Spain," says journalist Josep Ramoneda. He says a plebiscite is now inevitable: "Then, on the basis of the result, negotiations will be the inevitable outcome."

Anna Parés, the dean of Catalonia's College of Political Sciences, also supports the search for solutions other than a referendum, "but we must first exhaust all possibilities of dialogue."

Historian Joan B. Culla sees a referendum as inevitable, and in the best interests of the region. "There are a lot of people who do not support independence, but who now believe that this is the only way out of the labyrinth we have gotten ourselves into. If the vote goes against independence, it will have to be accepted. If voters support splitting from Spain, negotiations will begin."

In either case, Culla says it is unlikely Catalonia will return to the situation prior to 2000, when deals between the CiU and the government of the day kept the issue of Catalan independence at bay. "Theoretically, the only way to get back to where we were would be to repeat the events of October 1934 [when a Catalan state was declared], and with the regional government's offices occupied by the Civil Guard."

The Constitutional Court's 2010 ruling on changes to Catalonia's status within Spain marked a rupture between the region and the rest of the country. Rebuilding that relationship would require much patience and hard work in the face of mounting support for moving on and leaving the past behind.

The"right to decide"


Has it not occurred to anybody in the national government that Catalonia has the capacity to bring the political functioning of this country to a halt?

And furthermore that this can be done within the confines of the Constitution, without the need for what historian Joaquim Coll has called "insurrectional accidents"?

When I discuss Catalonia, I am referring to the extraordinarily wide parliamentary majority that has come out in support of demands for a referendum on the so-called "right to decide."

That majority manifested itself during the elections that have been held since 2010, and according to different opinion polls, continues to grow.

This parliamentary majority has at its disposal in Spanish law the instruments to impose its own political agenda and to eventually win the battle for public opinion, with potentially irreversible consequences for the current shape of Spain.

This government's refusal to even consider the possibility of negotiating the holding of a referendum means that political life in Catalonia will become a permanent referendum over the next two years.

The pro-independence concert held recently at Barcelona soccer club's Camp Nou stadium is just a taste of what is to come. Then there is the Diada, Catalan national day, which once again will follow the pattern of the last two years, bringing people out on to the streets in support of independence.

The next two years will be decisive. In 2014 there will be European elections in May, followed by the Diada once again in September, which that year will mark the 300th anniversary of the defeat of Hapsburg troops by forces led by the Bourbon King Phillip V during the siege of Barcelona in 1714.

A week earlier, Scotland will have held its own referendum on independence.

The European elections will, to all intents and purposes, be a referendum on the identity of Catalonia as a nation within the European Union. I would not rule out key figures from Catalan society standing on a single, nationalist, platform: We Are A Nation. The Constitutional Court may have ruled that we aren't a nation, but we're still here.

If this comes to pass, the non-nationalist parties will be left standing on the sidelines. In short, the referendum will be at the forefront of voters' minds.

Next year could kick off with parliamentary elections, slated for November, in which a clear mandate will be called for allowing the central government to hold a referendum. Once again, the Popular Party and the Socialists would be left out of proceedings, and the mandate would be approved with an overwhelming majority.

Should the government of the day refuse to allow a referendum to go ahead, we might ask ourselves what will happen in the municipal elections in May. Is there any doubt that there would be a protest by the pro-independence parties, who would refuse to take part in the general elections, effectively bringing the political system to a halt?

This is the scenario we are headed toward, or to put it more accurately, where the government is taking us by refusing to consider allowing Catalans to hold an independence referendum. Not a single one of the steps that could lead to a Catalan parliamentary majority can be opposed in constitutional terms. They are the result of the exercise of constitutional rights.

As a result, the government would see itself deprived of the only weapon at its disposal: the Constitutional Court. This would mean the exercising of constitutional rights to make it impossible to apply the Constitution as the Spanish Constitution in Catalonia. But in every aspect Constitutional and without any possibility of appeal.

By this I mean that the government and the regional parliament of Catalonia not holding talks is not an option for those who wish to maintain the political unity of the state.

My desire and hope is that we are still in time to hold talks. But I have the impression that time has very nearly run out.

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