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Sergei Khenkin

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

The parliamentary elections held on September 27 were arguably the most important in Catalonia’s history. The separatists managed to make the elections feel like a referendum. Essentially, the Catalan people were answering the question of whether they wanted to have their own state or remain part of Spain. The separatists got the absolute majority of deputy seats which is, however, not enough to push the secession plan forward. In order to do this separatists have to get the unanimous agreement from the majority of the parliamentarians.

The parliamentary elections held on September 27 were arguably the most important in Catalonia’s history. The separatists managed to make the elections feel like a referendum – even though under the Spanish constitution, autonomous regions cannot hold a referendum without the consent of the authorities and a “Yes” vote in a nationwide referendum. Essentially, the Catalan people were answering the question of whether they wanted to have their own state or remain part of Spain. The separatists got the absolute majority of deputy seats which is, however, not enough to push the secession plan forward. In order to do this separatists have to get the unanimous agreement from the majority of the parliamentarians. Nevertheless, the election results challenge the political elites in Spain and the whole European Union. Their actions will now go a long way to determining the future of the embattled Spanish state, and to some extent of the European Union.

Political Alignments after the Elections

Over 77 per cent of eligible voters turned out for the elections, the highest number in Catalonia for 30 years. The elections were won by the Junts pel Si (“Together for Yes”) coalition comprising the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) and Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). The party took 62 seats, less than the required absolute majority of 68 seats. However, another party fighting for Catalonian independence, the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), won 10 seats. Together the separatists won 72 seats, which constitutes an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament.

The situation with the number of votes is somewhat different (the discrepancy between the number of seats in parliament gained by the parties and the number of votes is due to the specific features of electoral law). The Together for Yes coalition won 39.6 per cent of the votes, while the Popular Unity Candidacy received 8.2 per cent of the votes. Together, they won 47.8 per cent of the votes, which is short of an absolute majority [1]. In other words, the majority of the people voted against secession and for preserving the age-old links with Spain. Still, the separatist leaders are claiming victory, which legitimizes their actions. And they will continue their fight for the region to gain independence from Spain.

There are serious problems in the separatists’ camp. The Together for Yes coalition can only promote its plans if it forms a bloc with the Popular Unity Candidacy, which thus holds the key to the situation. However, the Popular Unity Candidacy has declared that it will not back the current president of the autonomous government and the leader of Together for Yes coalition, Artur Mas, in the upcoming elections for head of the region. Other parties too have said they are unwilling to support Artur Mas. Putting forward a different candidate for Catalan president may create problems with forming a new government and spawn various party coalitions. It is significant that the only thing that unites the centre right Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, which is the backbone of the Together for Yes coalition, and the left-wing anti-establishment Popular Unity Candidacy is the demand for Catalonia’s independence. And relations among the members of Together for Yes coalition are themselves problematic.

People gather in support of the referendum for
independence, Barcelona on 27 September 2014

We should bear in mind that the separatist camp is not united in its relations with the state, and that it is to some extent an artificial entity. Only one third of the separatists support a unilateral declaration of independence, while the majority (two thirds) supports negotiations with the central government on the terms of independence for Catalonia. Only 2 out of 10 voters want to be Catalans only, whereas 6 out of 10 want to be both Catalans and Spaniards. Their demand for independence pursues a tactical aim of signalling to the central government that a status quo in political and legal relations between Catalonia and Spain can no longer be tolerated and that a compromise needs to be worked out [2].

Among those who want to preserve the territorial integrity of Spain is the Ciudadanos (“Citizens”) party, which was formed in Catalonia in 2006. It has become one of the leading parties in the country with 25 seats in parliament (17.9 per cent of votes). Meanwhile, the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia won 16 seats (12.7 per cent of votes); the ruling People’s Party won 11 seats (8.5 per cent of votes), a serious setback, seeing as it held 19 seats in the outgoing parliament; and the Catalunya Si que es Pot (“Catalonia Yes We Can”) coalition, which which includes Podemos (“We Can”) party and has emerged as an influential force on a national scale in recent years, won 11 seats. However, one can only include the Catalonia Yes We Can coalition in the anti-separatist camp with reservations, as it is calling for a referendum in Catalonia to determine the real balance of forces. The anti-independence camp is fragmented, which makes it difficult to create an alternative bloc.

It looks as if the fragmented Catalan society is entering a period of instability in the wake of the  September 27 elections.

The Separatists’ Case: Myths and Reality

The Catalan government mounted a massive propaganda effort to drum up support for independence. It sought to instil in public consciousness the idea that Catalonia is being exploited by the “ineffective Spanish state” and that Catalonia is subsidising the entire country. “Madrid is robbing us” is a widely used phrase. But experts believe that, while the region produces more than it consumes, Spain does not sponge off of Catalonia, as the region’s government argues.

Another favourite argument of the separatists is Madrid’s negative attitude to the Catalan language and culture. In recent decades, Spanish has been persistently squeezed out of the region. In many districts of Catalonia, secondary education in Spanish is unavailable. It is often difficult to find a job if you do not know Catalan. Significantly, people are being told from a school age that the Catalan nation is great, even though the region has never had its own state.

This kind of propaganda, which is leavened heavily with demagogy and distortion of historical truth, appeals to part of the population. The idea that Catalonia is a separate nation which should exist independently of Spain has taken root in the minds of many people in the region. The advocates of secession believe that independence would rid Catalonia of its current woes and usher in an era of prosperity.

The Price of Independence for Catalonia

Let us take the hypothetical situation that Catalonia has gained independence from Spain. There is no doubt that that the region, with a territory almost as large as Belgium’s, a population equal to that of Switzerland and a GDP comparable to that of Norway, would be able to survive. Catalonia is one of the four recognized locomotives of Europe along with Lombardy in Italy, the Baden-Württemberg region in Germany and the Rhône-Alps region in France. Even so, secession would bring serious negative consequences in its wake. The price of a break with Spain would be high and the benefits rather uncertain. First of all, Catalonia would find itself outside the EU and the eurozone. According to EU legislation, any territory that withdraws from a European member state is automatically expelled from the Union. Catalonia would have to renounce the euro and create its own currency. It would not have no access to European Central Bank credits and would find itself outside the Shengen zone, which guarantees its citizens freedom of movement. Economists predict capital flight; relocation of enterprises and banks to other regions where they can conduct payments in euros; and falling revenues from tourism – one of the key sectors of the Catalonian economy, whose development and maintenance of infrastructure is tied to Spain. Duties would be introduced on the import of Catalan goods to EU countries, making them considerably less competitive. Catalonia’s gross domestic product would drop by some 20 per cent, and per capita incomes would fall below the average for Spain’s autonomous regions. Not surprisingly, major Catalan businesses and banks oriented towards the domestic market are expressing concern and distancing themselves from the separatist forces. It also worth noting that independence would entail Catalonia being outside all the major international organizations, not only the European Union, but also the World Trade Organization, the United Nations and NATO.

RIA Novosti

Artur Mas and his team are working strenuously to get the international community to approve its plan to secede from Spain. In September, the government of Catalonia sent a memorandum to the ambassadors of the countries accredited in Spain stating the case of the separatist bloc. Tellingly, it is the 20th  time that such a document has been distributed. The first memorandum was sent to foreign embassies back in September 2013. Invitations to watch the September 27 elections were sent to a number of MEPs and deputies in national parliaments. However the chances of Catalonia being internationally recognized are remote. The leaders of many countries want to see a “strong and united”, rather than a “weak and fragmented”, Spain.

We should not forget about the various other aspects of the problem. Catalonia is extremely important for Spain. Independence would trigger serious political and economic changes, most notably a possible “domino effect” and a spate of secessions by other autonomous regions. The secession of Catalonia would also be a challenge for the European Union, which does not have a mechanism for responding to the disintegration of member states. EU regulation does not provide for individual breakaway regions of its member countries to become members in their own right. However, it does not expressly forbid such admission: the legal aspect of the issue has yet to be determined.

The Problem of Catalonia is the Problem of Spain

Catalonia cannot become independent overnight. The separatists’ plan, which is known in very general terms, assumes that the process of secession from Spain would take up to 18 months. This period would see the formation of state institutions, the adoption of a constitution to be approved by referendum, and a declaration of independence. By committing themselves to secession, the separatists are violating legal norms and setting themselves in confrontation with the state, which can use any legal means necessary to preserve the country’s territorial integrity. The ruling People’s Party does not hide its readiness to do so. It does not recognize the “plebiscite” character of the elections and insists that these are just routine elections for the parliament of an autonomous region.

In general, Madrid’s position concerning the referendum on secession is fundamentally different from that of London, which allowed the referendum in Scotland and pledged to accept its outcome. The key reason for this difference of approach is historical. Great Britain traditionally did not seek to assimilate its constituent territories. Spain, on the contrary, sought assimilation (incidentally, France did the same).

The Catalan conflict has highlighted two extreme positions that cut a deep divide in the region, and in the whole of Spain: the separatists who try to wreck the existing constitutional order and the supporters of status quo (represented above all by the ruling People’s Party) who seek to protect this order. In the opinion of many experts, both these positions block the pathway towards dialogue and the search for a solution to the problem. In contrast to both these positions, the pluralistic Spanish society is looking for a viable alternative that would resolve or at least mitigate the Catalonia problem. One such alternative has been proposed by the “Third Way” association, which includes prominent politicians and intellectuals. It also has the support of the leading opposition party, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. The advocates of the third way think the way out is to develop a negotiating process between the separatists and the main political parties, above all the People’s Party. They consider that the ideological and political basis of the dialogue could be constitutional reform that would bring profound changes to the State of Autonomies, i.e., a unitary state with elements of a federation, which should develop towards a genuine federation. Reforming the constitution so that the country takes on aspects of a federation would include recognizing the “distinctive character” of Catalonia as a result of its history, culture and language, with reform being essential for finally “integrating it into Spain” [3].

How will the Mariano Rajoy government respond to the challenge of Catalan separatism? The answer takes on added importance because in less than three months, on December 20, Spain will face perhaps the most important parliamentary elections in its modern history. The ruling party is expected to meet with strong opposition, not only from its traditional rival, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), but also from two new actors, Podemos and Ciudadanos, which are fast scoring political points.

The stalemate in relations between the central authorities and the separatists is further evidence of the ineffectiveness of many political institutions in Spain, the outdated nature of some of the provisions in its constitution with regard to the political and territorial structure of the country which no longer meet the exigencies of the new times, and the lack of a collective forward-looking social project. The Catalan crisis, paradoxical though it may sound, may “jolt” the country into improving its political institutions. That is why the importance of the upcoming December parliamentary elections is hard to overestimate, because the problem of Catalonia is the problem of Spain.

1.     For election results see: Elecciones catalanas // ABC, 28.09.2015 (in Spanish).

2.     Elecciones criticas // El Pais, 20.09.2015 (in Spanish).

3.     Pedro Sanchez pide una reforma que incluya la singularidad catalana // El Pais, 6.09.2015. Dirigentes del PSOE apoyan una tercera via para Cataluña // El Pais, 7.09.2015 (in Spanish).


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