Catalonia Votes for Independence (Maybe)

“We would have preferred a referendum like in Quebec and Scotland but the only course left to us was to organise these elections,” said Artur Mas, president of the regional government of Catalonia. So, he said, the election that was held on Sunday in Spain’s richest province should be seen as a referendum on independence – and he won it.

It was not a big win: the pro-independence parties needed 68 seats for a majority in the 135-seat regional parliament, and they got 72. But it was a win nevertheless, and Mas says he will unilaterally declarate Catalonia independent in the next eighteen months on the strength of this vote.

Catalonia could certainly make it as an independent country: it’s about the same size as Switzerland, with about the same population (7.5 million). But there is doubt about whether Spain would agree to a friendly divorce – and even greater doubt about whether a majority of Catalonia’s voters would actually vote “yes” if there were a real referendum on independence.

As in most places, the rural constituencies in Catalonia contain fewer voters than the urban ones, and it is in the rural parts of Catalonia that the support for independence is strongest. The pro-independence parties got a majority of the seats, but they only won 48.7 percent of the votes.

Mas’s parliamentary majority is therefore a flimsy basis for such a momentous decision as breaking up Spain, but he is going ahead anyway. He says that he will immediately start building the institutions of an independent state – a diplomatic service, central bank, tax authority and armed forces – and declare independence unilaterally eighteen months from now.

This will create a serious confrontation with Madrid in much less than eighteen months, because creating such separate institutions is against Spanish law. But Mas argues that he had no choice but to go ahead without a referendum, since the Spanish government refuses to authorise a referendum on the grounds that the constitution does not allow regions to make unilateral decisions on sovereignty.

What Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy offers instead is a referendum in which the entire country would vote on Catalan independence. He defends this peculiar procedure on the grounds that Catalonia’s separation would affect the whole of Spain, since it accounts for 16 percent of the population and a fifth of the economy.

Naturally, this option has no appeal to the separatist leaders, but Madrid’s intransigence does give them an excuse to proceed without a referendum that they might well lose. Indeed, they would have lost it at most times in the recent past, although support for independence fluctuates with time: it was below 40 percent in 2010, rose to the low 50s in 2012-13, and is back down to the low 40s in the most recent polls.

Nor can the separatists assume that it is back up to almost 50 percent on the evidence of Sunday’s vote. Most of the pro-independence parties are on the left, and some traditional left-wing voters would have supported them without necessarily backing independence.

The arguments for independence, pro or con, are often cast in terms of the economy, but it’s very unlikely that an independent Catalonia would experience either an economic disaster or an economic bonanza. Independence is basically an emotional issue, not an economic one – and for Catalan nationalists, the emotions are very strong.

An example. The last time I was in Barcelona I was told the same story by different people on the independence side of the question on three separate occasions. A Spanish cabinet minister, they claimed, had said that “Barcelona has to be bombarded at least every 50 years” in order to keep Catalans under control. How can we be asked to live in the same country as such people?

So I checked it out, and it was true. The man who said it was one General Espartero, and he was actually the head of the Spanish government at the time. The only problem is that he said it in the early 1840s, after the end of the first Carlist civil war. Not really very relevant to the present, then, but the emotions linger on. It’s likely that a majority of people of Catalan descent would still vote for independence today.

The problem is that ethnic Catalans are barely half the population. Catalonia’s relative prosperity attracted huge numbers of Spanish immigrants in the latter half of the 20th century, and 46 percent of the people in Catalonia now speak Spanish as their first language (although 96 percent claim to speak both languages).

It’s very hard to win an independence referendum when almost half the population does not share the emotions that drive the cause, so the separatists’ best hope is to go for independence without one. That is going to make things very messy in Catalonia, and even violence is not to be excluded.

Nor is the forthcoming national election in Spain likely to change Madrid’s fierce resistance to Catalan independence: all the major Spanish parties oppose it, although the new Podemos Party at least supports Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum on it. But then, that may just be tactical thinking. Letting Artur Mas hold a referendum would not necessarily be doing him a favour.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“An example…today”)