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Sergei Khenkin

Doctor of History, Professor, Comparative Political Studies Department of the MGIMO University, RIAC Expert

The parties supporting Catalonian independence from the rest of Spain dominate that autonomous community. A referendum on self-determination is scheduled for November 9, 2014. However, according to the Constitution, no entity can hold a referendum without the consent of Spanish authorities or without a permit for a national referendum. Nevertheless, the regional authorities continue to try and achieve this goal. The currently acute situation is quite dangerous, particularly with regards to the unpredictability of both sides.

The parties supporting Catalonian independence from the rest of Spain dominate that autonomous community. A referendum on self-determination is scheduled for November 9, 2014. However, according to the Constitution, no entity can hold a referendum without the consent of Spanish authorities or without a permit for a national referendum. This provision of the Basic Law was recently confirmed by the Congress of Deputies, the lower house of the Spanish Parliament, and the Spanish Constitutional Court, which prohibited Catalonia from holding this referendum. Nevertheless, the regional authorities continue to try and achieve this goal. The currently acute situation is quite dangerous, particularly with regards to the unpredictability of both sides.

Roots of Modern Separatism

Modern Catalonia is one of the most developed and richest autonomous communities in the Kingdom of Spain. It is home to 7.5 million people, making up approximately 16 percent of the population.

But the total area where Catalan-speaking people live is much larger. The Catalan language is spoken by about 11 million people in the so-called Catalan lands in Spain (the Spanish autonomous communities of Catalonia, the Balearic Islands), in France (the Pyrenees Orientales department), and in Andorra and Italy (Alghero, Sardinia).

Most researchers agree that Catalan-speaking people living in the above-mentioned regions lack collective national consciousness. It should also be noted that, according to Spanish tradition, “nationality” (“nation” or “ethnicity”) is identified by the region of residence, rather than by ethno-cultural affiliation or “blood”. Therefore, the Catalans for most Spaniards are those who live and work in the autonomous region of Catalonia.

Wikipedia.org
Corts catalanes - Catalan Parliament, XV

Catalan nationalism and separatism have deep roots. The relationship between Madrid and Barcelona has never been trouble-free within the framework of the Spanish monarchy. Before the unification of most of the Iberian Peninsula in 1479 under the reign of the Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, Catalonia enjoyed a number of privileges. Therefore, in the alliance later established with the Crown of Aragon in 1137, Catalonia retained its own government and court system as well as the right to manage its finances, levy taxes, etc. Moreover, its political system was advanced for its time. To counterbalance royal power in the 13th century, the Catalan Courts (las Cortes Catalanas), a policy-making representative body of the nobility, clergy and townspeople, was created and held sessions on a regular basis. Many researchers consider this institution as one of the first European parliaments.

The Crown of Aragon pursued an expansionist policy. Having annexed the Balearic Islands, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, it became one of the most powerful nations in the Mediterranean. Taking advantage of its geographical location, Catalonia carried on lively maritime trade with many European and Muslim cities. Its economy quickly developed, while science and culture flourished.

Thus, a society with a strong sense of its own “singularity”, accustomed to enjoying broad autonomy and civil rights and expectant that this state of affairs would continue, became part of Spain. Many Catalans have always demanded recognition of their distinction from the rest of Spain. “We're different,” “Catalonia is not Spain, and Spain is not Catalonia” – several examples of the world-view of the significant part of the region’s residents, both in the past and into the present. These sentiments were reinforced by the short-sighted and repressive policies of Madrid which imposed Castilian laws and customs on the region. Local administrative bodies in Catalonia were abolished, and traditional privileges were revoked. The Catalan language was ousted from different spheres of public life and replaced with Spanish (Castilian).

In the middle of the 17th century, dissatisfaction with the policies of Madrid grew into open calls of separatism. Catalonia was swept over by a revolt (the Reapers’ War) aimed at achieving secession from Spain. The rebellion was suppressed in 1652. The folk-song “The Reapers” which appeared during this period has become the symbol of Catalan resistance and is currently the national anthem of Catalonia.

In the middle of the 17th century, dissatisfaction with the policies of Madrid grew into open calls of separatism. Catalonia was swept over by a revolt (the Reapers’ War) aimed at achieving secession from Spain. The rebellion was suppressed in 1652. The folk-song “The Reapers” which appeared during this period has become the symbol of Catalan resistance and is currently the national anthem of Catalonia.

In subsequent centuries, the Spanish (Castilian) state, with its cumbersome bureaucracy, proved unable to conduct an effective policy for assimilating the Catalans. In the second half of the 19th century, the so-called Catalanism emerged, which was aimed at establishing the Catalan identity and became the foundation for Catalan nationalism. During the Second Spanish Republic (1931-1939), Catalan nationalists tried to create their own state and on April 14, 1931, proclaimed the formation of “Catalan Republic as part of the Iberian Federation” [1]. However, the republican authorities suppressed the separatist claims of the Catalan elite. Nevertheless, in September 1932, the Spanish Cortes passed the Catalan Autonomy Statute, in accordance with which a Catalan Parliament was elected and a local government was formed. The Franco dictatorship, committed to the unification of society, abolished the autonomy of the region. The Catalan language was banned, and all manifestations of Catalanism were persecuted.

During the transition from Francoism to representative democracy and the formation of Spain as a unitary state with elements of federalism, Catalonia was granted a considerable amount of rights and authorities. It has its own parliament and government, police, and radio and television stations. The Catalan language is officially recognized alongside Spanish. During this period of democracy, the Catalan language has spread significantly. If in 1975, 74.3 percent of the autonomous region’s residents understood Catalan, 53.1 percent spoke it and 14.5 percent wrote it, in 1996, these figures were 95, 75.3 and 45.8 percent, respectively [2]. The fact that since the 1980s the Catalan language has begun to dominate in public schools, ousting Spanish, speaks for itself.

www.debatingeurope.eu

Nationalist sentiments, including radical elements, are gaining ground in Catalan society. This is largely due to efforts that made by the regional elite, and above all, the party federation Convergence and Union (CiU), which has ruled the region for many years. The CiU federation has done much to instill the idea of the “singularity” and "uniqueness" of this region into the public consciousness.

Separatist Resources

The origins of the current conflict between Catalonia and the central government date back to the political and legal struggle over its new Statute of Autonomy. This document was approved in 2006 and further expanded the authority of the Catalan government. However, seven subjects of law considered a number of provisions of the new Statute contradictory to the Spanish Constitution and contested them in the Constitutional Court. In June 2010, the latter passed a verdict that recognized a high degree of Catalonia’s self-government authority while at the same declaring 14 articles of the Statute of Autonomy unconstitutional in whole or in part. Most Catalan respondents regarded the decision as insulting.

The situation was aggravated by the economic crisis that severely affected Spain. Against the background of austerity policies pursued by the conservative People’s Party (PP) government, autonomous regions, which carry the full burden of such policies, are facing huge financial deficits. Catalonia appears to be the most indebted region (its debt is 42 billion euros). There is a widespread belief among Catalans that they give to the state treasury more and get back less than other regions of the country, i.e. support other less prosperous regions (“Madrid robs us”).

In recent years, nationalist sentiments have been increasingly evolving into separatist ones. Since 2009, dozens of small towns and villages of Catalonia held referendums in which the participants voted for secession from Spain. These referendums had no legal force, but exerted serious influence on public sentiment. A demonstration in Barcelona on September 11, 2012, the National Day of Catalonia, became an unprecedented manifestation of protest activity. About 1.5 million participants demanded independence from Spain and cheered the slogan “Catalonia, the next state in Europe”.

In December 2012, having developed a package for a “national transition”, which provides for the establishment of institutions and structures of Catalan statehood, the CiU and the ERC entered into a Management Pact.

At a meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in September 2012, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia and chairman of the Convergence and Union (CiU) Artur Mas demanded the establishment of the region’s independent Ministry of Finance and the transfer of full control over the collected taxes to Catalonia. To the government, this demand was unacceptable. The reason was not just that the conservatives consistently uphold the current model of autonomous regions and consider the present Constitution of Spain inviolable. The government simply does not have the means to make up for the potential losses should Catalonia gain financial independence.

In response to Madrid’s refusal to satisfy the demands for autonomy, the authorities of the latter urged the EU leadership to offer them a roadmap of secession from Spain, and Catalonia’s entry as a European Union member state. At the same time Artur Mas called a snap parliamentary election on November 25, 2012, hoping that the ruling CiU coalition would gain an absolute majority and be able to follow its own political course without looking back.

However, the election results disappointed champions of the region’s independence. CiU remained the largest party in parliament but its seat total was far from the desired absolute majority (it obtained only 50 out of 135 parliamentary seats). Moreover, the party lost 12 seats in comparison with the results of the 2010 elections.

catalonia.com

Despite the relative failure of CiU, other parties advocating Catalan secession from Spain, gained a victory, winning an absolute majority of seats in parliament. The Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) which has long and consistently stood up for the independence of the region, doubled its representation in parliament from 10 to 21 members and became the second largest parliamentary party.

The parties committed to the territorial integrity of Spain, although they see it differently – the People’s Party, the Socialist Party and the Party of the Citizens – lagged behind the winners, having received 48 seats of the 87. The elections testified to a profound split in both the Parliament and Catalan society.

In December 2012, having developed a package for a “national transition”, which provides for the establishment of institutions and structures of Catalan statehood, the CiU and the ERC entered into a Management Pact (Pacto de gobernabilidad). This package calls for establishing Catalonia’s own model of territorial organization; creating an independent bank and a revenue administration; adopting a Law on Police, which reforms the latter and grants it new powers; and developing a plan for transport and water management, energy distribution, etc. [3].

Controversy over the Referendum

The relative failure in the elections did not make Catalonia’s leadership abandon its plans. On January 23, 2013 the Parliament of Catalonia adopted a “Declaration of Sovereignty” and announced plans to hold a referendum on the establishment of an independent state on November 9, 2014. Champions of independence are taking into consideration the economic potential of their region: it accounts for 19 percent of Spain's GDP, 24 percent of its industrial output, and 28 percent of exports [4]. They regard secession as a way to solve numerous problems of the region, including those caused by the economic crisis. Kosovo, Scotland, Quebec and other regions where similar processes are underway are setting an inspiring example for them. Few have cited the referendum in the Crimea. This reticence, perhaps, is due to their reluctance to exacerbate their already complex relationship with the EU.

Opponents of secession, when arguing with its supporters, warn that the price of “liberation from Spain” and the creation of an independent state may be much higher in economic, social, political and psychological terms than the possible benefits derived.

Opponents of secession, when arguing with its supporters, warn that the price of “liberation from Spain” and the creation of an independent state may be much higher in economic, social, political and psychological terms than the possible benefits derived. They point to EU legal regulations that do not provide for the entry of individual regions wishing to secede from member countries (although there is no prohibition of such an entry either, and the problem is still legally unresolved). Should Catalonia apply for admission in the EU, it’s hard to imagine that its members will demonstrate the required unanimity. Spain and other EU countries facing regional separatism are unlikely to support such a request.

Polls in recent years indicate constant fluctuations in the correlation of forces between supporters and opponents of the independence of Catalonia. No party enjoys a significant advantage over the other: the forces are roughly equal. It is noteworthy that a significant part of the Catalan business is seriously concerned about the possible disruption of thousands of economic links with the rest of Spain.

www.newscatalonia.com / Lluís Brunet
Catalan Parliament

The proponents and opponents of Catalonia’s secession from Spain are engaged in an endless battle over the legitimacy of the referendum. This issue is inseparable from the appraisal of the current political and territorial structure of the country. The debate constantly reveals the feeling, shared even by some supporters of the state integrity that the territorial organization of Spain has become obsolete. Among the solutions proposed is the abolition of the constitutional prohibition on the establishment of the Federation (Article 145). The largest opposition party, the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, is promoting the idea of federalization as well. It has also proposed to grant autonomous regions the right to hold referendums on the question of secession, since the negative attitude towards this issue on the part of the current ruling elite in Spain are playing into the hands of separatists, helping them to blackmail the public with demands for secession. Permission to hold a referendum with a clear description of its terms would deprive separatists of an important too for propaganda, i.e. the opportunity to accuse the center of infringing on democratic freedoms and to label it as “the jailer of peoples.”

The announced referendum is causing other serious disputes. In contrast with the current practice of holding referendums in which citizens answer one question, in Catalonia they will be offered two, namely “Do you want Catalonia to become a State?” and “In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?”. This phrasing will reveal a broad range of opinions and make the results uncertain, exposing neither winners nor losers. In addition, the referendum organizers have not decided on how it will be conducted. For example, what percentage of voters will be needed to declare victory? Do supporters of independence have to win in all the territories, and what to do if the majority in any territory votes against secession from Spain?

The stalemate in relations between Barcelona and Madrid, as well as the difficult economic situation in the region are making holding the referendum a touch-and-go business for its initiators. Realizing this, Artur Mas has repeatedly expressed the idea that, should Catalonia fail to gain permission from M. Rajoy’s government to hold the referendum, the latter may be postponed until 2016, i.e. the next elections to the Catalan Parliament. A. Mas believes that by that time, the economic situation will improve, and, accordingly, “citizens' confidence will be restored.” The upcoming elections will acquire the character of a referendum, after which the pro-independence parties will declare it officially [5].

So, five months before the announced date for the referendum it remains unclear whether the latter will be held at all. If it is conducted, then predicting its results and consequences appears to be a thankless job.

1. El País, 29.09.2012.

2. Balcells A. Breve historia del nacionalismo catalan. Madrid, 2004. P. 265.

3. La Vanguardia, 15.12.2012.

4. La Vanguardia, 28.10.2012.

5. El País, 5.09.2013.

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