Catalonia’s choice

Among the weekend’s political reading, I’d particularly recommend a long report yesterday from the BBC’s Allan Little on the campaign for independence for Catalonia.

We touched on the Catalan issue late last year, when the Spanish government waded into the debate on Scotland’s independence referendum:

[Spanish prime minister Mariano] Rajoy, of course, has no interest in Scotland for its own sake. His problem is Catalonia, analogous to Scotland in many ways, which plans to shortly announce the date of an independence referendum. The Spanish government hopes that if it can add to Scotland’s difficulties then the example will impress itself on the Catalans – and even that Britain might return the favor some day.

The Catalans did indeed set the date for a referendum, namely 9 November this year. The proposal is for two questions to be asked: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” and “Do you want that state to be independent?” (This seems to me a very confusing way of doing it, but it may sound better in Spanish and/or Catalan.)

Artur Mas, the pro-independence head of Catalonia’s autonomous government, also professed himself ready for negotiations with Madrid on the logistics of a vote – “over how to hold this consultation in accordance with existing legal norms.” But the Rajoy government was in no mood for talks, stating flatly that “The poll will not be held.” Its view is that the Spanish constitution rules out the calling of a referendum by anyone other than the national government.

And that’s substantially where things still stand. As Mas says (quoted in Little’s report):

if you have a nation, Scotland or Catalonia, and you have in this nation a broad majority of the population that is asking for a referendum, real democracy, what should you do? You should sit at the table, reach an agreement and let the people vote. This is the British way. And I wish that Spain was exactly the same, with the same mentality.

But as Little points out, the similarity between the two cases is to some extent deceptive. Scotland is not central to Britain’s economic performance in the way Catalonia is to Spain’s. Partly for that reason, polls still show consistently that the Scots will vote against independence (although I certainly wouldn’t bet the house on that outcome), but in Catalonia the pro-independence forces seem to have the upper hand.

Moreover, the surge in support for Catalan nationalism is largely a recent phenomenon. (Wikipedia, of course, has figures.) It’s hard to argue with the conclusion that to some extent it’s an artefact of the European financial crisis, in which Spain has been badly hit. In addition to a rather ugly sort of centralist nationalism, the Spanish government is also motivated by a feeling that a “Yes” vote would be a temporary aberration, and that if it can just ride out the current dispute then the issue might die down.

But at the moment Rajoy is not doing much to win friends in Catalonia. Without comprehensively trashing Catalan autonomy, it’s hard to see how he can prevent some sort of vote being held. And by trying, he is just reinforcing the thing that most drives Catalans (or anyone else in the same boat) to support independence: the sense that they are being disrespected, that their voices are not listened to.

If the vote goes ahead and a healthy majority votes for independence, that will not be something Madrid can just ignore. There is no prospect that the majority of Spaniards would actually be willing to fight to keep Catalonia against its will, nor that the rest of Europe would let them if they did. Negotiations of some sort would be the only option.

But for now, the prime minister insists that “Any discussion or debate on this is out of the question.” Rajoy’s centre-right People’s Party represents the more centralist or nationalist side of Spanish politics, although on this issue he claims the “absolute” agreement of the opposition Socialists as well. But if the Catalans persevere, it’s not hard to imagine that differences between the national parties would quickly emerge.

For further background on the issue, there are some good reports from a year or so ago, when the Catalan government first committed itself to a referendum: see this from Reuters, this from the BBC and this from the Conversation.


4 thoughts on “Catalonia’s choice

  1. I don’t think it is particularly new. Resentment of Castille goes back at least half a millenium. (I wrote a little bit on its history, citation below, that has relevance for Oz.). Perhaps the fact that it looks more practical today is what has caused a “surge” in voting intention.

    RSPT: money we deserve.
    by Michael R. James. ABC The Drum, 31 May, 2010]

    As you point out the situation in Spain is reversed relative to Scotland (especially now that North Sea oil is running out). While the Scots play an outsized role in the UK (indeed the world, historically speaking) they mostly do it in England (or places like HK where they ran the banking industry).

    In principle the EU provides a benign system within which small states can thrive, but EU politicians are likely to be against an independent Catalonia for the simple reason that the rest of Spain would become an even bigger drag/dependent on the EU. Andalusia seems like a basket case with chronic massive youth unemployment etc. that only got worse with the GFC. The Catalan economy is by far the most diverse and strongest in Spain.
    Then there could be contagion: Catalonia wants to be independent for very similar reasons why Northern Italy would like to free itself of its impoverished and semi-lawless south. Of course then there is Basque Spain, not to mention the Basque and Catalan regions of southern France (though I think those would vote to remain part of France).


  2. Thanks for that Michael. You’re quite right that tension between the Catalans and the rest of Spain goes back a long way – as of course does that between the Scots and English. The interesting thing is the way that in the former case but not (so far) the latter there’s been a recent spike in pro-independence sentiment. It seems logical to think that the GFC is at least partly responsible.

    The comparison with northern Italy is interesting as well, altho it doesn’t have the same ethno-cultural unity that Catalonia (or Scotland) has: it’s often been under a different government from the south, but it’s never really been an independent country of its own. I might try to write more about that sometime soon.


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