Michael Keating: An idea of nationhood

Catalan independentists: Newly revived zeal. Picture: AFP
Catalan independentists: Newly revived zeal. Picture: AFP
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As Scots wrangle over their country’s constitutional soul, Michael Keating asks if Catalonia’s newly revived zeal for independence offers us a way through the haze towards 2014

Something new is afoot in Catalonia, the biggest of Spain’s historic nationalities. For the first time, independence is being discussed as a serious proposition. Catalan nationalism itself is nothing new. It goes back to the 19th century and was a powerful force before the civil war and in the opposition to Franco. In the transition to democracy in the 1970s, a statute of autonomy for Catalonia was a priority and since then, nationalists have been in government constantly, on their own or in coalition.

Yet, in more than 20 years in office, the main nationalist party Convergència i Unió and its leader, Jordi Pujol, pressed more of a home rule than an independence agenda. They sought a distinct status but within a federal Spain.

The rival nationalist party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), has been pro-independence since the 1990s but as a long-term project within a future “Europe of the peoples”. Most Catalan socialists, for their part, espoused a form of local patriotism known as Catalanism. Popular support for independence was around 15 to 20 per cent.

Now some polls show support for independence at up to 40 per cent. A series of unofficial referendums in towns and cities has shown majorities for independence – although in the large cities turnout has been low as opponents of independence abstain.

Pujol and his successor Artur Mas (the current first minister) both declared that they had voted yes. The influential cultural foundation Omnium Cultural has given its support for a referendum. So, what has changed?

One factor is disillusionment with the idea of a Europe of the regions, in which nations could exercise real influence without having to become states. Catalonia was a leader of this movement, with nationalists as well as Catalanists arguing that the old model of the nation state was redundant in the new Europe.

The convention on the future of Europe, leading eventually to the Lisbon Treaty, offered little to the regions and nations and it has become evident that the European Union is founded on the member states. The EU committee of the regions is largely toothless and in any case represents everything from municipal governments to stateless nations and is unable to distinguish among them.

The second factor is the fate of the reformed statute of autonomy for Catalonia. This was negotiated when the Catalan socialists were in coalition with ERC and adopted by nearly 90 per cent in the Catalan parliament (everyone except the conservative Popular Party). It was toned down by the Spanish parliament, causing ERC to turn against it, but the modified statute was nonetheless approved overwhelmingly in a referendum. At that point, however, it was taken to the Spanish constitutional court by some other autonomous regions and the Popular Party.

Judges of the constitutional court are nominated by the Spanish parliament by a two-thirds majority. This is supposed to ensure that they have cross-party support and are impartial. In practice, it means that the two main parties divide the nominations between themselves so that the court is highly politicised and polarised between conservatives and progressives.

Unable to reach a verdict on the Catalan statute, the court deliberated for four years, by which time the mandate of some of the judges had expired but the parties could not agree on replacements. Since only the court itself can rule that it is unconstitutional, it just carried on, while conservative judges sought to exclude their progressive colleagues on various grounds.

Finally, a verdict was reached in 2010. The court upheld most of the statute’s clauses but subjected them to a restrictive interpretation. Much attention was given to the claim of Catalonia to be a nation, an important symbolic matter for both nationalists and Catalanists.

Eventually, the court accepted that the Catalan parliament claimed that Catalonia was a nation but that this was purely a subjective declaration with no force. Despite the fact that most of the statute had, in form at least, survived, the damage was done and opinion turned sharply against Spanish institutions.

Moderate nationalists who had argued that home rule could be extended within the existing constitution drew the conclusion that this was a dead end and that only a break with the existing constitutional order would allow them to realise their national aspirations.

The third factor is economic grievance. Catalonia is the largest contributor to Spain’s redistribution system, although the magnitude is disputed. The Catalan government claims that it loses eight per cent of its GDP to other regions, while other observers put the figure much lower.

The Basque Country, on the other hand, because it has its own system of taxation, pays very little into equalisation of spending across Spain. This has prompted a movement, supported by the nationalist parties, many of the socialists, business organisations, trade unions and other civil society bodies for a “fiscal pact” which would give Catalonia something like the Basque system. This economic factor has allowed nationalism to reach sectors of society previously impervious to its appeal, although by no means all supporters of the fiscal pact are inclined to independence.

The fourth element is experience elsewhere – and Scotland is central to the argument. The UK government’s agreement to an independence referendum has inspired Catalan nationalists to challenge Spain to do the same. Some Catalan nationalists are also parading the decision of the International Court of Justice on the independence of Kosovo (that it was not legal but not illegal either) as a precedent.

Yet if independence is on the agenda, old ambivalences remain. Interviewed on television, Pujol declared recently that he would vote yes in an independence referendum tomorrow but next year … who knows? The Convergència bit of his party at its recent congress headed off an independence resolution but adopted the idea of an estat propi (own state) a concept open to multiple interpretations, including that they already have their own autonomous state.

As in Scotland, discussion of the details rapidly moves to varieties of “independence-lite”, often difficult to distinguish from “devolution-max”. Support for independence depends on the exact question asked.

On an identical question asking voters to choose among options including more autonomy, support for independence shot up in 2011 to 30 per cent from a historic level of 20 per cent or less, a clear reaction to the constitutional court decision.

The graph is from the surveys conducted by the Institut de Ciènces Polítiques i Socials (ICPS).

The low levels between 2005 and 2008, by contrast, reflect the hopes vested in the reformed statute.

The great surprise of the 2011 poll was that 40 per cent declared that they would vote yes in an independence referendum, a result highlighted by independence supporters.

As this was in the very same poll showing just 30 per cent preferring independence to other options, it is not to be taken too literally – we have regularly had exactly the same kind of finding in Scotland.

Indeed, ICPS polls since the 1990s have shown Catalan support for the “concept of independence” running at twice the level as support for it as a practical proposition. Independence in Catalonia remains a rather vague idea in but it is one that will not go away.

• Michael Keating is professor of politics at the University of Aberdeen