Kathryn Crameri: Catalans face fight to vote

More than a million took to the streets of Barcelona last September to demand their leaders draw up a plan for a referendum on independence. Picture: Getty
More than a million took to the streets of Barcelona last September to demand their leaders draw up a plan for a referendum on independence. Picture: Getty
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Spain is taking a tough line with Catalan demands for an independence referendum. And that could have repercussions for Scotland, writes Kathryn Crameri

In JANUARY, the Catalan parliament approved a Declaration of Sovereignty and the Right to Decide of the Catalan People. The text, supported by 85 of the parliament’s 128 members, states that the people of Catalonia have the right to decide their own political future, and is intended as the first step towards a referendum on independence.

Spain’s governing Partido Popular (PP) at first simply dismissed the text as having no legal validity, but is now considering whether to challenge it in the coutry’s Constitutional Court.

One of the key differences between the current situations in Scotland and Catalonia is the Spanish government’s absolute refusal to countenance a referendum on Catalan independence. Prime minister Mariano Rajoy is determined to use the Spanish constitution as a mechanism to block any kind of vote, whether a formal referendum or a non-binding “consultation”.

Rajoy’s unwillingness to compromise could potentially be a complicating factor for Scotland in the event of a Yes vote here. Spain has still not formally recognised Kosovo as an independent country, mainly because of the danger of fuelling Basque and Catalan claims that they, too, would deserve international recognition in the event of a unilateral declaration of independence. If Catalonia’s situation remains unresolved, Spain is also likely to prevaricate before giving its blessing to Scotland’s entry into the European Union, even if common sense prevails in the end.

All this is in marked contrast to the UK’s swift recognition of Kosovo and David Cameron’s pragmatic acknowledgement of the Scots’ right to an independence vote.

Cameron knew that he was faced with a political problem that needed a political solution. The consequent transferral of powers to Scotland to enable the referendum is a clear example of how legal obstacles can be overcome when there is a political will to do so. Rajoy, on the other hand, is clinging to the fact that the law, as it stands, keeps Catalonia tied to Spain. He seems to hope that by insistently repeating that Catalonia has no right to secede, he will browbeat the Catalans into giving up their claims and agreeing to be “good Spaniards”.

However, after the high-profile events of last year that drew international attention to Catalonia, the independence debate does appear to have become less urgent.

The mass demonstration of 11 September, organised by a civil association rather than a political party, brought an estimated one and a half million Catalans on to the streets of Barcelona to demand that their leaders put in place a plan for a referendum on independence. In response, the president of the Catalan government, Artur Mas, called early elections with the hope of winning both an absolute majority and a clear public mandate for a referendum.

Last November’s elections brought disappointment for Mas’s ruling federation, Convergència i Unió (CiU), which actually lost some of its seats. However, the new parliament is made up of a clear pro-referendum majority, as demonstrated by the voting in favour of the Declaration of Sovereignty, and CiU has had to find allies in order to move forward with its consultation plans.

The resulting negotiations have nudged the issue out of the public sphere and into the murkier realm of party politics.

Meanwhile, the attention of both the media and the public has shifted away from the question of Catalan independence to more immediate matters affecting all Spaniards. Austerity measures continue to bite hard. Many employees have suffered pay cuts or freezes at the same time as being saddled with extra taxes, while unemployment now stands at an eye-watering 26 per cent.

As a consequence, many Spaniards have been unable to keep up their mortgage payments and have lost their homes. Some evictees have enjoyed the support of dozens of members of the public, who have surrounded their houses in an attempt to stop the eviction, only to be forcibly removed.

Public outrage at these scenes has now prompted the government to promise emergency legislation to curb repossessions. Although this should be a popular measure, it will be seen by many as too little too late.

It will also be unlikely to draw attention away from the corruption scandals that are currently plaguing the PP. Accusations of undeclared bank accounts and party slush funds have led to much soul-searching in the media about Spain’s apparent inability to rid its political class of corrupt habits. The public, on the other hand, is now at the stage where it expects nothing better of its elected leaders.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the pro-independence fervour that Catalans showed on 11 September has been extinguished by these unpleasant realities. Quite the contrary: public disillusionment with party politics was one of the key motivating factors behind the mass turnout at the demonstration – and this only keeps on growing. Besides, 2014 is a key year for Catalonia. It marks the 300th anniversary of the defeat of Barcelona at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, which led to the abolition of Catalonia’s independent institutions and the imposed use of the Spanish language in official contexts. So, while Scotland’s choice of 2014 is a useful coincidence, the Catalans’ preference for this date responds to something much closer to home. Those who are pushing for independence are unlikely to let the year slip quietly by.

All this means that if Mas is seen to waver in his commitment to a public consultation, either because of Rajoy’s intransigence or his own inability to work productively with his pro-sovereignty allies, it is likely that public frustration will once again spill over into mass demonstrations and calls for decisive action.

While Catalan nationalism has deep roots in language, culture and history, Spain’s current problems and its institutionalised anti-Catalan rhetoric are convincing more and more Catalans that independence is the only solution.

In a survey published by the Catalan government’s public opinion agency in November 2012, some 57 per cent of respondents claimed they would vote Yes if a referendum was held tomorrow.

Perhaps even more importantly, the definite Noes were just 20.5 per cent, suggesting that there are still a lot of undecided Catalans who might lean on the side of independence if their situation continues to get worse.

And yet the Spanish government continues to deny the legitimacy of a point of view apparently held by more than four million Catalans.

The current situation has all the hallmarks of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. With no end in sight to Spain’s economic crisis, it would appear that something else has to give. But who will blink first: Rajoy, Mas, or those four million Catalans?

• Professor Kathryn Crameri holds the Stevenson Chair of Hispanic Studies at the University of Glasgow.