The fateful year has finally arrived after centuries of agitation. The political die is cast but the outcome is uncertain. One thing is sure: the date for the independence referendum is set… 9 November. In Catalonia, that is.
Catalan president Artur Mas has announced he will follow Scotland’s lead and hold a referendum this November, so the Catalans can “decide for themselves on their own future”. He made his historic statement flanked by the leaders of five parties who between them command two-thirds of the seats in the Catalan parliament. Polls put support for Catalan independence at 56 per cent.
One significant difference between the Scottish and Catalan situations is that the Spanish government in Madrid has set its face against allowing the referendum, even though Mas has been careful to term it a “consultation”. Why are Madrid’s politicians so peculiarly reluctant to allow a democratic vote, especially when it is clearly demanded by Catalan voters? Partly this opposition reflects the importance of Catalonia (population 7.5 million) to the battered Spanish economy: the region accounts for a fifth of Spain’s GDP. Partly it reflects the dictates of the Spanish constitution, which specifically outlaws any attempt by regional parliaments to hold independence referendums.
But the formalities of the post-Franco constitution mask a deeper reality: Spanish right-wingers (especially the dormant remnants of the old Francoist regime) remain implacably opposed to secession, to the point of using violence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, while a principled democrat himself, is desperate to head off such a confrontation, especially given the deep economic crisis facing Spain, with a staggering 55 per cent of young people unemployed. The Catalan vote is a political tinderbox.
This remains true even if Madrid formally vetoes the referendum. Mr Mas has been forced into calling the vote by pressure from below. Mas and his moderate Convergence and Union (CiU) party, the Catalan equivalent of the SNP, also face electoral competition from other parties that favour a more robust stance on independence, especially the avowedly separatist Catalan Republican Left (ERC), on whose votes CiU depends to support its minority government.
While the CiU is the traditional standard-bearer of Catalan national sovereignty, the carnage of the Spanish Civil War has made the party fearful of provoking violence. As a result, since Franco’s death, CiU has pursued demands for what we would call “devo-max”, while dangling the threat of independence as political leverage. This worked well until the economic crisis of 2008, when the bursting of the insane Spanish property bubble caused the economy to implode. Since then, popular support for full Catalan independence has skyrocketed in opposition to Madrid’s austerity policies, and a feeling that hard-working Catalonia is being taxed to pay for the profligacy of other parts of Spain.
The left-wing ERC is leading the anti-austerity fight in Catalonia. Opinion polls show it is now more popular than CiU. In effect, Mr Mas has had to concede the referendum or the ERC might have defected from the Catalan coalition government. But Mas may be minded to obey orders from Spain’s constitutional court to scrap the referendum. That could split the CiU and hand the independence movement to the ERC. The next scheduled Catalan elections are in 2016. What happens if the ERC is victorious on a platform of holding a referendum regardless of opposition from Madrid? Will the tanks roll?
There is a middle road vying for attention – a federal solution to replace ad hoc devolution and Madrid’s continuing heavy hand. This compromise might find support even in Catalonia, where recent polls show that four out of five Catalans (regardless of where they stand on secession) would favour Madrid giving Barcelona more powers. Federalism is being advocated by the opposition socialists in Madrid, and by the moderate wing of the CiU in Catalonia.
In this regard, it is interesting that Mr Mas is proposing not one but two questions in the 9 November referendum. One will say “Do you want Catalonia to become a State?” and the second will ask: “In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?”. The first question is code for federalism and devo-max, which is why the Catalan socialists have agreed to the referendum. Formal acceptance by Madrid of Catalan sovereignty would then allow Barcelona to accept a federal deal.
The second question will determine if a majority of Catalans will go for federalism or hold out for independence. (All this may sound familiar – it is exactly the constitutional olive branch Alex Salmond offered, but was rejected by David Cameron.)
It is anybody’s guess what happens in Spain. Even the federal option is highly uncertain as it would need the support of Mr Rajoy’s Peoples’ Party, which is unlikely as that would mean a break with the mystical notion of Spanish sovereignty that unites the factious Spanish right-wing. The danger is that Rajoy’s unwillingness to meet the Catalans half-way could end in disaster.
The ghost of General Franco must not be allowed to hold the Catalan nation hostage against its will. Madrid has a democratic duty to let the Catalans have their consultative referendum – actually the most peaceable way forward. The European Union and the Council of Europe should ensure it does. A quiet word from Mr Cameron to Mr Rajoy might not go amiss, either. After all, the Spanish government has shown no reticence about interfering in the Scottish referendum.
Here in Scotland, the message of the Catalan events is clear. The old Europe of centralised, bureaucratic states (which fund themselves by encouraging unsustainable credit bubbles) is over. Barring a referendum or two, that is.