Right now, the eyes of the world are on Scotland, which is voting in the coming week on whether to leave the UK. The referendum in Scotland is binding. If they vote YES, then Scotland will leave after a period of negotiating the details.
A trickier, potentially more explosive situation is unfolding in Spain, where the region of Catalan (which includes Barcelona) is scheduled to vote on November 9 on whether it is to leave Spain. This vote, however, is not binding or accepted at all by the Spanish government, which has said that just the vote itself is illegal.
Bennett provided us with the basics of what’s going on.
Why do so many people in Catalonia support independence?
There have probably been four main drivers of the current process.
Firstly, a failed attempt at negotiating a new constitutional arrangement for Catalonia within Spain during the 2000s. In 2006, the Catalan parliament passed a new Statute (like the Devo Max option being discussed in Scotland), which the then Prime Minister, Mr. Zapatero, had promised to support at the national level. But the Popular Party (Spanish conservatives), in opposition at the time, immediately appealed the new law to the Constitutional Court (equivalent of the US Supreme Court), which finally ruled 6-4 against in 2010. That caused a million man protest march in Barcelona.
Secondly, the economic crisis. Over roughly the same time period, the economic crisis has happened and is still happening in Spain. There are medium- to long-term economic arguments for and against in terms of how successful a future independent Catalonia might be, or how successful the rump of Spain might be, but at this point, many supporters of Catalan independence firmly believe that they can build a successful economy at some point after secession, and be relatively better off, considering how badly Madrid has managed the economy since 2008.
Thirdly, the relative strengths of Catalan National Identity vs. Spanish National Identity. 10 years ago, before the crisis, Project Spain was a strong, positive idea that attracted millions of immigrants to make a life here, centered on the construction boom. That’s gone now and isn’t coming back, and Spain still has some historic problems with collective national identity to solve. Catalan nationalists, in comparison, have developed a stronger, but necessarily more exclusive, collective identity and belief over the same time period.
Lastly, the firm ‘no’ position of the current Popular Party government. In the same way as many Scots are now being convinced to vote ‘yes’ by panicky and restrictive Westminster politicians, Mr. Rajoy’s conservative government in Madrid has taken a very firm ‘no’ stance since the beginning, and not just ‘no’ if it came to a vote, but ‘no, there isn’t going to be any kind of a vote, because it’s illegal’. This must have convinced more than one doubter to support secession.
What’s happening on November 9?
That depends on what happens between now and then. If we listen to the Catalan First Minister, Mr. Mas, and his parliamentary ally, Mr. Junqueras, voting stations will be opened, ballot boxes will be registered and there will be a vote on the independence of Catalonia, as promised by the Catalan government to Catalan voters. If we listen to Mr. Rajoy and Madrid, there will absolutely not be any kind of a vote on November 9 because any such vote is illegal and therefore any attempt to organise or carry one out would leave the organisers — the Catalan government and its supporters — facing criminal charges for contempt of court, sedition or rebellion.
There is another option being tossed about in political circles this week, a way of kicking the can way down field, which involves the timings of any new regional laws and Madrid’s appeal to the Constitutional Court. If they do this, they might be able to hurl the potato at the European courts, allowing Mr. Mas to say he called the referendum within the law, and Mr. Rajoy to say he blocked it, but then everyone has to wait X years for the European Court to chew over the appeal. The problem with this last option is that whilst it might save face amongst the political elite, it won’t at all solve the grassroots political problem, which is that millions of Catalans, including Mr. Junqueras and his republican, left-wing secessionist party, absolutely expect a vote to be held on November 9.
What effect will a “YES” vote have?
Spain and Europe will have a huge problem on their hands, because Madrid’s position has been, is and will likely be that any kind of secession vote is illegal. Catalonia is 19% of Spanish GDP, 26% of exports, and more than 50% of land exits to Europe. Catalonia is systemically important to Spain’s economy, and Spain is systemically important to Europe’s economy. I can’t imagine bond traders would find that scenario positive in the short term.
For Catalans to get to that stage, though, their leaders will have to take them down a path which from a Spanish legal perspective is criminal. Spain’s chief public prosecutor (Attorney General equivalent) was on the radio on Friday morning reminding Spaniards that his office has been contemplating criminal scenarios that he really hoped the worst-case scenarios didn’t come to pass, for the sake of coexistence among all Spaniards.
So if they risk running the legal gauntlet, if Mr. Rajoy doesn’t send in the police to arrest them, if the vote actually takes place and if the result is ‘yes’, we’d have to deal with that problem, which would likely get very chaotic as Madrid’s legal position would remain the same but there would then likely be calls from the Catalans for a unilateral declaration of independence. How has the Rajoy government handled the separatist movement so far? By firmly saying ‘no’ every time the question has come up over the past two years, which has been very often.
Not just ‘no’ to a possible question, but ‘no’ to any kind of secession vote taking place. They have stuck to a constitutional-legal interpretation of the problem, insisting that Spanish rule of law (prescriptive, based on Roman law) will be enough to see Spain through the choppy seas. They have been criticised for this stance being too legal and not political enough, and for being too dismissive and contemptuous of Catalan indy supporters rhetorically, but it is what it is and they aren’t likely to change it at this late stage.
Do Catalonians have a good argument that they’re getting a raw deal?
They think so. Madrid doesn’t. As with the Scottish case, there are arguments for and against, economically, depending on which figures are thrown around in which scenarios.
If Rajoy refuses to give any ground to the separatists, what leverage do they have over the rest of Spain?
Three things: people, the economy and the 21st Century.
First, there are a lot (1-2 million) independence supporters who come out onto the streets of Catalonia for the independence marches. If they all turn up at voting stations on November 9 and the ballot boxes are waiting for them, there will unlikely be enough police to stop them.
Second, the economic arguments are a double-edged sword: yes, there would likely be huge economic chaos short term after any attempt at independence but, equally, if the Catalans try to walk away with 19% of Spanish GDP and 26% of exports right now, the weakened Spanish economy will tank, and that will create would cause a huge sucking sound in Europe, and then maybe globally.
Thirdly, this is the 21st-Century, not the 19th-Century with horse charges and swords, or the 1930s with communists and fascists prepping for civil war. Supporters of Catalan independence like to say this will never be a violent revolution, so would Madrid ever have the balls to send police, soldiers and tanks to Barcelona to arrest people and stop it happening (which is what the legal threats ultimately imply)? Many Spanish conservatives also doubt Mr. Rajoy would have the guts to actually stop this taking place, despite him having lots of legal authority and actual power to try if he wants to (he could, in theory, order Mas and Junqueras arrested and suspend regional government altogether). That’s what happened the last time the Catalans tried this, in 1934. Artillery pieces and machine guns were brought onto the streets of Barcelona, 46 people were killed and the Catalan First Minister, Companys, sentenced to 30 years in jail for rebellion.
What is the feeling of separatists towards the Eurozone and the EU?
They are very aware of the international community and the need to publicise their cause for the world to see. They make sure to publicise everything they do in English, so the international press and governments can read it. They do a big publicity stunt every year on Diada Day to emphasise the point (last year the ‘human chain for independence’; this year a giant ‘V’ for ‘votes and victory’ in the centre of Barcelona). They see Europe and the international community as a way of legitimising their demands outside of the Spanish framework, and drive home the rhetorical point by arguing that “democracy and the voice of the people” is more important than constitutional law. They would also dearly like for a newly independent Catalonia to become a full member of the EU and the eurozone, despite European insistence that this is not going to happen (again, in reality, this point is probably up for negotiation if it all goes wrong).
For more on this topic and other things happening in Spain, check out The Spain Report.