However, we argue that the actual situation is substantially different. The nationalistic parliamentary majority of the Catalan Parliament, which represents just 47% of the Catalan voters also holds an uncommon mix of ideologies that goes from anti-establishment far-left parties to centre-right liberal parties, and is trying to force an illegal referendum on the unilateral independence of Catalonia. Even though this referendum is sold internationally as a mere democratic exercise, it is an attempt to create a State which would leave at least half of the Catalan people as foreigners in their own country. As the writer Daniel Gascón has pointed out in the magazine Letras Libres “Secessionism fights against an imaginary enemy: an authoritarian, undemocratic Spain. This imaginary Spain is a country where Catalonia does not have a high level of autonomy, a Spain that is not an advanced democracy, comparable to the countries around it.” Having said that, there are also good reasons to think that the central government could have better managed the political demands of the nationalist movement.
In 2015, the Catalan regional election was billed as a plebiscite on independence from Spain. The pro-independence (the nationalist coalition Junts pel Sí and the far-left Popular Unity Candidacy) obtained 47.8 per cent of the votes. However, due to the anti-urban bias of the electoral system (a system that over represents rural and small towns where pro-independence parties are electorally more successful), secessionists’ parties won an absolute majority of seats in the Catalan parliament with a clear promise of calling for a referendum. Subsequently, in order to fulfil the independentist dream, the Catalan Government has passed two laws which violate the Spanish Constitution and Catalan laws.
As Borja Lasheras, head of the Madrid office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, has written “the two pieces of legislation were rushed through in a late-night session against the warnings of the legal attorneys of the Catalan Parliament and ignoring the request of opposition MPs for an opinion of the Council of Statutory Guarantees, to which they are entitled under Catalan law”. Moreover, this political process represents a “a clear violation of the rules set forth by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission, which requires, amongst other conditions, an equal opportunity process, a neutral administration, and legislation of at least statutory rank passed at least one year in advance of a referendum.”
Furthermore, the Catalan government has marginalized the opposition of the Catalan Parliament, and have not clarified what is an acceptable level of participation in the referendum. In fact, as the parties who do not support the independence have asked their voters not to participate in the referendum –because that would legitimize the referendum– the turnout is expected to be relatively low. Some leaders of the secessionist parties have declared that if there is a majority of Yes voters the independence will be unilaterally declared regardless of turnout. Similarly, some Catalan authorities have stated that they would declare unilaterally the independence of Catalonia even if the referendum is not held.
Catalan authorities speak of the Catalan people as a homogeneous and quasi-mythical entity. However, the reality is that the Catalan society is very diverse just like their preferences. According to a recent survey from the Catalan Government’s Survey Institute (CEO), only 41.1 percent of the Catalans prefer independence to other possible scenarios. And even though there is a wide majority of Catalans who stand for a legal referendum, only 35 per cent of the Catalans agree with the recent laws approved by the Catalan regional parliament. Likewise, only 34 percent see secession as a realistic solution in the short term. On the other hand, Catalonia is also divided across language lines or due to the origin of its population. For instance, as the professor of the University of Zaragoza Pau Mari-Klose has pointed out, the correlation between being a native Catalan speaker and support of independence is strong. In relation to the language, while more than a half of Catalan citizens use Spanish more commonly in daily life, almost four out of ten Catalans have Catalan as their main language.
However, nationalist parties not only campaigned across identity lines but also with more economic and instrumental arguments, such as claims against inter-regional solidarity. For instance, they have repeatedly complained about the fiscal disadvantages of giving money transfers to the poorer parts of Spain (the separatist leitmotif that “Spain robs us” is still being heard). Likewise, the Catalonia government portrays an independent Catalonia that will produce much better political and economic outcomes. In fact, some analysts have pointed out that the situation in Catalonia cannot be understood without paying attention to the political crisis in Spain and the institutional distrust towards the Central government. Therefore, politicians in the pro-independence side usually state that a Catalonia outside of Spain will have stronger institutions, a richer and less corrupt country and allow the provision of better-functioning public services. This framework could even make independence attractive to those voters who never voted for pro-independence parties but are unhappy with the way the Central government is dealing with the territorial issue in Catalonia. In order to counteract these arguments, the central government could do more to emphasize and explain the high economic and political costs for Catalonia of leaving Spain. In like manner Spain’s central government must explain what its political plans for Catalonia are beyond the application of the law.
Catalonia is objectively one of the richest regions in Spain. Since the beginning of Spanish democracy in the seventies, Catalonia has enjoyed an increasingly level of autonomy. And if compared with the regions of most EU countries today, it enjoys a notoriously high level of autonomy. According to the OECD, Spain is the seventh most federal country according to the scale of decentralized fiscal power and is the country of the OECD with the greatest level of decentralization between 1995 and 2004. As it has been suggested by Sambanis and Milanovic, “richer regions are more likely to want more autonomy and conflict arises due to a disparity between desired and actual levels of sovereignty”. In other words, the richer regions of a country tend to be also those who demand greater sovereignty and Catalonia is just an example of this trend.
It has to be said that there is much to discuss within the constitutional-legal limits. Some of the traditional nationalistic Catalan claims are legitimate and new political ways of accommodating the discontent in Catalonia are clearly needed. But the Spanish Constitution court does not allow a referendum on secession at present. Claiming a right of self-determination according to international law is misleading. International law only recognizes self-determination when cases of foreign invasion, colonialism and discrimination of minorities are taking place. It is clear that Catalonia is not in any of those scenarios, although many independentist act as if one of those assumptions were true and Catalonia could be comparable with Kosovo.
Given the actual circumstances, the referendum in Catalonia is unlikely to take place on October 1st. Certainly, It will be a day of numerous protests and demonstrations. The levels of cooperation between the two governments will be probably scarce, and it is quite unlikely that the Catalan government returns to current legality. And on October 2nd the problem will remain unsolved and it will be time to start building bridges and negotiate, if hopefully it is not too late.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog nor of the London School of Economics.
Javier Padilla holds a dual bachelor in Law and Business from Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) and is pursuing a master’s degree in philosophy and public policy at the London School of Economics.
Luis Cornago Bonal holds a dual bachelor in Political Science and Sociology from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M) and is pursuing a master’s degree in comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He has been the recipient of the “la Caixa” scholarship (2017) to carry out postgraduate studies in the United Kingdom.
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