European Affairs

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Separatists from Quebec to Flanders are still reeling from Scotland’s September 18th referendum in which voters chose to remain in Britain. The spillover effect from a successful Scottish push for independence, which would have provided a fillip to other like-minded movements around the world, never occurred. Secessionists in Catalonia in Northeastern Spain, home to sixteen percent of Spain’s population and nearly a fifth of its economic output, nonetheless persevere in their efforts to leave Spain.

This year’s Catalan national day, on September 11th, drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of central Barcelona to form a collective “V” in a sign of support for independence.  The subsequent Scottish “no” vote has seemingly failed to dent the movement in any significant way. They want a similar chance to express their opinion.

Catalans have centuries of forms of self-rule, a distinct language and history, and years of mistreatment by Madrid, particularly under the Franco regime (1939-1975) during which it was illegal to speak Catalan. After Franco’s death in 1975 and the onset of Spanish democracy and the Statute of Autonomy in 1979, Catalonia has been granted a high level of sovereignty, particularly in policing, health, and education.

However, this is not enough for many in the region. The last few years have seen an uptick in regional animosity. An updated Statute of Autonomy, in which Catalonia was deemed a “nation”, was agreed upon in 2006 under the center-left administration of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. The conservative Popular Party took this to the courts, and a 2010 decision struck down much of the new statute, thus sparking newfound derision in Barcelona.

Many of the grievances now appear to revolve around economics. Spain’s wealthiest region, Catalonia sends more tax receipts to Madrid than it gets back in investment. In short, Madrid redistributes Catalan wealth to poorer areas in the rest of Spain, a system many deem inequitable. Catalan nationalists, even more so since the recent financial crisis, wish to obtain greater control over fiscal affairs and increasingly view independence as the only route to do so, as talks between Madrid and Barcelona have all but broken down.

In contrast to British Prime Minister David Cameron, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refuses to succumb to Catalan regional premier Artur Mas’ wishes and allow Catalonia to hold a plebiscite on independence. Rajoy has taken a hardline, repeatedly demanding respect for the constitution, which explicitly forbids such a vote, and the rule of law. Mas, meanwhile, calls on Madrid to be democratic and listen to the will of the Catalan people.

In the ongoing struggle between Rajoy and Mas, who have reportedly not spoken since July, Mas has blinked first. Or so it seems. Mas’ plans to hold a referendum on November 9 were rebuffed by the Spanish Government’s appeal to the Constitutional Court, which temporarily suspended preparations for the poll until it issues a final ruling in a few months. Rajoy deemed it “excellent news” and a “triumph for democracy and law”. Mas has since shelved the official referendum, but refuses to completely give up on the idea, promising instead a non-binding “consultation” that he indicates will comply with the Constitutional Court’s edict and be organized by volunteers.

Mas is pretty well boxed in politically. His minority government is propped up by the more pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) party, which pushes him to be more strident on the issue. At the same time, there are many in his party and elsewhere across the spectrum looking to avoid a constitutional crisis with Madrid. Catalan public opinion is divided on the path forward in the aftermath of the Constitutional Court’s decision. A recent poll conducted by Metroscopia pointed out that twenty-three percent of Catalans backed an illegal referendum while forty-five percent called for observance of the court’s instructions.

With this modified poll, he is attempting to thread the political needle; appearing to stand up to Madrid, thus courting secessionist voters, while also seeking to maintain centrist support by technically complying with the court ruling. Unsurprisingly, Mas has since ramped up his anti-Madrid rhetoric, declaring “the Spanish state is the adversary,” but continues to pledge that he will respect the law.

Separatist parties, led by ERC, are already calling for early elections if Mas fails to hold the referendum and/or unilaterally declare independence. Elections in the near future seem inevitable. It is difficult to see how Mas can keep all these differing parties on board; he is likely biding time with this new ballot plan to garner more electoral support. His ultimate aim is to successfully lead a unified secessionist bloc in the next election.

A savvy politician, he may end up getting his way if his consultation plan successfully comes off with a high level of turnout and support, whets the appetite for a full-scale vote on leaving Spain, and increases his appeal in the run-up to elections. A new Catalan election will likely serve as more of a barometer of separatist sentiment than Mas’ November 9th consultation. Despite the failure of Scotland’s pursuit of independence and the court decision preventing a similar referendum in Catalonia, much to Madrid’s dismay, this issue is not going away.

Views expressed here are those of Ryan Barnes and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.