‘We’ll declare referendum on Catalan independence illegal’

Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. Picture: Getty
Soraya Saenz de Santamaria. Picture: Getty
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Spain’s deputy prime minister has warned the central government has the legal power to halt a planned referendum on Catalan independence from Spain.

Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, pictured below, said the plebiscite would be illegal and “our legislation has many mechanisms to stop any illegality”.

Ms Santamaria spoke hours before the leaders of Catalonia’s two biggest political forces signed a pact to overcome deep differences on economic and social issues and defy Madrid by holding a referendum on secession in 2014, the same year as Scotland will vote on its constitutional future within the UK.

Growing Catalan separatism is a political headache for premier Mariano Rajoy, who is struggling to keep Spain’s finances on track and avoid seeking an international bailout. It is still unclear how and when the vote can be legally organised but the deal will have more direct consequences for Spain’s push to control regional finances as the two parties have agreed not to implement austerity cuts.

The agreement between the centre-right Convergence and Union alliance, or CiU, and the radical Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, or ERC), falls short of a governing coalition but the ERC will support the CiU’s budget and the two will press for a referendum.

“We will face a lot of adversaries, powerful ones, without scruples,” CiU leader Artur Mas said at the signing but he added that acting together the parties would deliver a referendum.

A deep recession and mass unemployment have stoked separatism in Catalonia, the north-east region that creates one-fifth of Spain’s output and has its own language and culture.

Mr Mas, who has implemented unpopular spending cuts, held early elections on 25 November to test support for his new drive for independence for Catalonia. Many Catalans believe their region will be better off if it leaves Spain, saying that too many of their taxes go to help poorer regions.

In the election, Mr Mas’s CiU alliance ended up with 50 seats in the Generalitat, losing 12 seats, while the traditional separatist ERC, led by Oriol Junqueras, gained 11 seats and has 21. Together they have a majority in the 135-seat Catalan parliament.

However, it will be an uneasy alliance. The ERC has opposed CiU’s deficit cutting, which has hit social services, schools and hospitals in the past two years.

To win over the ERC, the CiU has shown willingness to impose taxes that will hit the wealthiest and impose a levy on bank deposits. The ERC has signalled it is willing to make concessions to secure a referendum.

Analysts said shared passion for the referendum could hold the unlikely alliance together for at least two years.

“I’m not naive enough to say it will be easy, but I believe the pact will last through the referendum,” said Salvador Cardus, professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “There is a strong personal commitment between the two leaders for Catalans to express their opinion about their political future.”

Constitutional scholars said that there will be many legal twists and turns over the next two years, but that Catalonia will probably be able to hold some form of public consultation, though it may end up being a non-binding or symbolic vote.

Catalonia will probably have to test various alternatives, said Ferran Requejo, political science professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona.

Mr Mas’s government is likely to pass a referendum bill, Mr Requejo said, which is likely to be blocked by Spain’s constitutional court. “Eventually this will probably be played out in an international legal context, beginning with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” he said, referring to the United Nations agreement in force since 1976 that allows for self-determination. “Spain signed that pact,” he added.