Following elections in Catalonia on 27 September, negotiations have taken place between the main pro-independence coalition, Together for Yes, and a smaller party, Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), with a view to forming the next Catalan government. Sebastian Balfour writes that regardless of the outcome of these negotiations, Catalonia is now moving into uncharted territory, with Together for Yes committed to a unilateral process of disconnection from Spain against the wishes of a hostile Spanish state.
Catalonia is about to embark on an extraordinary adventure. The government that emerges from the autonomous elections of 27 September will be committed to initiating an 18-month unilateral process of disconnection from Spain. By any standards this is a leap in the dark, a measure of the desperation (some might say, determination) felt by many Catalans from different parties, classes and ideologies as a result of the failure of Madrid to recognise their grievances.
The complications it may give rise to regarding membership of the EU and the euro, international relations, debt, tax, banks, diplomacy, defence and so on are multiple. To add to the uncertainties, the configuration of politics in Spain is likely to change substantially after the general elections of 20 December in ways few can predict.
The Catalan elections of 27 September
The independence movement had cast the autonomous (regional) elections as plebiscitary elections intended to determine the relationship between Catalonia and Spain. Two of the three major parties in Catalonia, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC) and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), had agreed on a single slate, Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), without clarifying what programme they might adopt beyond independence, partly because they occupy different ends of the ideological spectrum.
By any definition, a plebiscite, like a referendum, asks voters to choose between two options of constitutional importance. In these elections a vote for a party or a combination of parties had been framed by the independence parties as a vote for or against independence. Without the constitutional right to hold a referendum, the Catalan government used the autonomous elections, as it had used a ‘popular consultation’ in November 2014 (declared unlawful by the Constitutional Tribunal), to rally nationalist opinion and demonstrate to the rest of Spain that Catalans wanted to form their own state.
In the event Junts pel Sí won 62 of the 135 seats in the Catalan parliament and 39.57 per cent of the votes. Together with the 10 seats won by the small anti-capitalist, separatist party, Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP), which stood independently, they won a majority of 72 seats but only 47.8 per cent of votes. Any plebiscite or referendum needs a majority of votes, whereas an election is customarily won through a majority of seats. On the basis of this procedural ambiguity, Junts pel Sí claim that the separatist parties have a popular mandate to prepare Catalonia for independence.
Yet the CUP had always insisted that this mandate should be on the basis of a majority of votes. Since they hold a balance of power in the parliament, the CUP will seek to exact a price for parliamentary support of, or inclusion in, a new government, including a demand that the present President and leader of the CDC, Artur Mas, responsible for applying privatisation and austerity measures in Catalonia, should not stand as head of government. Already riven by programmatic differences of their own, the two parties of Junts pel Sí will have to negotiate these demands in order to form a new administration.
Arraigned against the independence movement in the elections were parties representing very different political and cultural constituencies. The most surprising result was that of the relatively new party of the centre-right, Ciutadans (or Citizens, Ciudadanos in Spain) which gained 25 seats or 17.91 per cent of the votes, making it the main opposition party in the new Catalan Parlament. Ciutadans clearly won over disenchanted voters of the centre and centre-right, including many from the Catalan branch of the Popular Party, whose result was its second worst ever, 8.5 per cent.
It almost certainly absorbed moderate votes from the CDC after Mas had hitched the party wagon to separatism. Catalanist conservatism had always been ambiguous over its relationship with Spain, using Catalanism as a bargaining tool to extract greater autonomy from the Spanish state. Ciutadans also overtook the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC), whose vote of 16 seats or 12.72 per cent, nevertheless, held up better than expected in the opinion polls. Clearly hurt by the polarisation of the electoral campaign around the issue of identity, the left slate, Catalunya Sí que es Pot (Catalonia Yes it Can), which includes Podemos and campaigns around the politics of class over identity, scored only 8.93 per cent of votes, even though it supports the right of self-determination.
The voter turnout of 77 per cent was unprecedented, higher than ever recorded in the Catalan autonomous elections, both among constituencies that had previously favoured independence and those that had not. In Barcelona’s so-called ‘red belt’ (cinturón rojo), where successive generations of Spanish immigrants have moved to and where the sense of dual nationality is strongest, many more voters turned up than before. Here, Ciutadans appears to have made inroads into the traditional Socialist vote.
The relatively high level of voter turnout was a consequence of the intense degree of polarisation in the electoral campaign. As in the Scottish referendum, national parties of right and left, backed by an array of heavyweight politicians, bankers and business leaders, combined in an attempt to persuade Catalans to vote to stay in Spain. Institutions such as Spanish banks and employers’ organisations (including the Catalan Foment and the Círculo de la Economía) painted a dire picture of an independent Catalonia. The Spanish government made increasingly strident warnings of the effects of independence on Catalonia and Spain. In 2012 an army colonel had even issued veiled threats of military intervention.
For its part, the independence movement mobilised the politics of identity above all, defined not so much in ethnic or linguistic terms but in terms of citizenship, a form of civic nationalism. It sought to channel social grievances into the politics of nation rather than class. And its campaign for independence has seized the imagination of millions.
It has been able to launch ingeniously choreographed rallies and demonstrations larger than any seen in Europe in recent years. The campaign was joined by many voluntary organisations deploying sophisticated tools of marketing and social media in the hands of young professionals working for free and raising money through crowd funding. Its central message was a narrative of national victimisation by the conservative government of Spain through constitutional blockage and redistribution of wealth from Catalonia to the rest of Spain.
Catalan identity and the Spanish state
In any case, a historical narrative of cultural and institutional difference with Spain plays an important role in the identity of many Catalans. The precedents for autonomy and independence go back to the Middle Ages, when Catalonia was an intrinsic part of the Crown of Aragon, which was joined to the Crown of Castille in 1492 to form a united kingdom of Spain.
Until 1714, Catalonia enjoyed a high degree of autonomy from the Spanish monarchy. Its support for the Habsburg monarchy in the Spanish War of Succession led the victorious Bourbon dynasty to strip the region of its rights and integrate it into a centralised Spain. Under the Spanish Republic of 1931-9, Catalonia regained its autonomy only to be subjugated brutally for almost 40 years by the Franco Dictatorship. Catalan autonomy was restored in 1978 in the new democracy, but the relations between Madrid and Catalonia began to sour as a result of comparative grievances, in particular the greater contribution Catalonia claims it makes to the rest of Spain through mechanisms of redistribution.
Perhaps the most important grievance in recent years has been the relative failure of attempts by the Catalan government to deepen the process of autonomy through the renegotiation of its Statute of Autonomy. Negotiations with the Socialist Zapatero government led to a new Statute in 2006, which declared Catalonia to be a nation and awarded new powers to the institutions of Catalan autonomy.
The Statute was approved in both the Catalan parliament and the Spanish parliament, as well as in a referendum in Catalonia. The conservative Popular Party (PP) challenged a number of its clauses and the Constitutional Tribunal ruled in 2010 that these were unconstitutional, in particular the reference to Catalonia as a nation. The first massive demonstration for independence took place shortly afterwards in 2012.
Probably more than any other factor, this refusal of the Spanish state to contemplate any change in the relationship of Catalonia to Spain lies at the heart of the intensification of the movement for independence. The Popular Party government has failed to respond to the challenge posed by Catalonia. Nor has it made much attempt to woo the Catalan nationalists through an appeal to a common heritage, to a shared identity, as Gordon Brown did for Scotland for instance. For the well-known El Pais journalist also opposed to Catalan independence, Iñaki Gabilondo, this inaction amounts to the greatest failure of Spanish democracy since 1977.
Far from seeking some sort of accommodation with Catalan nationalism, the Spanish state since 2010 has set out to block its initiatives. Its latest move is to charge Artur Mas and two of his ministers with ‘disobedience’ and ‘embezzlement’ after the Catalan government went ahead with a Catalan-wide consultation about independence on 9 November 2014 despite its suspension by the Constitutional Tribunal.
Other grievances focus on the neo-liberal policies of austerity imposed on Spain by Madrid, in particular by the PP government since 2011 and the corruption scandals that have enveloped PP politicians. The fact that successive CDC governments have also been mired in corruption scandals and were responsible for privatisations and severe cuts in social services has only slightly dented nationalist claims that Catalans can run their own affairs better. By identifying themselves with a message of nationalist renewal and populist calls for ‘liberty’, the CDC and Mas himself have retained some of the legitimacy they would have lost among Catalanists.
What these words actually mean in policy terms has not been fully spelt out nor have the benefits and costs of independence. Yet at the same time, the CDC has alienated moderate nationalist opinion. The federation it belonged to, Convergència i Unió, had already split over the issue of separatism but its ex-partner Unió Democràtica de Catalunya emerged from the elections without a single seat, having probably lost many of its voters, as had the CDC, to Ciutadans.
An uncertain future
The new government of Catalonia may also face difficult choices following the general elections of 20 December. From these may emerge a Spanish-wide coalition government more responsive to Catalan claims. This might adopt the much-touted ‘Third Way’ policy of engaging in negotiations to deepen the process of devolution for Catalonia by constitutional amendment, to give it, for example, the same tax-raising rights as the Basque Country. It might even attempt to change the Constitution to allow a referendum, a demand supported by Podemos. The recent fragmentation of the party system in Spain is such that it is hazardous at this stage to predict what sort of coalition government might be formed and to what extent it might impinge on Catalan politics.
Equally uncertain is what road map the independentistas might follow leading to and after a unilateral declaration of independence promised in 18 months. Both the Spanish Constitution and the EU Treaty refer unambiguously to the territorial integrity of each member state so that a unilateral process of independence would lead to exit both from Spain and from the EU. It is clear also that there is little support for Catalan independence from European institutions and political leaders.
Jean-Claude Juncker reiterated the European Commission’s position it had adopted over Scotland that should it secede, Catalonia would no longer be part of the EU or the euro and would need to re-apply. Without referring to Catalonia directly, Merkel, like Obama and Cameron, stressed the importance of a united Spain. For the German Chancellor in particular, the success of a southern European country like Spain in achieving GDP growth of 1.7 per cent in 2014 after years of negative growth is probably more important than the claims of a region that is hardly an important player on the international stage.
Nor is there any historical precedent for Catalan secession. The UN Charter and subsequent UN declarations envisage support for independence only in decolonisation processes, or cases of foreign occupation and among communities suffering discrimination or the abuse of human rights, a claim that Catalans could hardly make on the international stage.
The political situation in Catalonia continues to be dynamic and uncertain. Bargaining between the separatist parties is taking place through institutional negotiations and public statements and counter-statements. Mas is clearly keen to continue leading the movement for independence, but concessions will need to be made to keep the CUP on board and he may be the propitiatory victim of them.
Beyond the immediate issue of the new Catalan government, there is a broader question that needs to be answered. What concrete measures of disconnection from Spain will a separatist government start to take faced by a so far hostile Spanish state and a largely indifferent Europe?
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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Sebastian Balfour – LSE
Sebastian Balfour is Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies in the LSE’s Department of Government.
Two key quotations:
“relations between Madrid and Catalonia began to sour as a result of comparative grievances, in particular the greater contribution Catalonia claims it makes to the rest of Spain through mechanisms of redistribution”
“Nor is there any historical precedent for Catalan secession. The UN Charter and subsequent UN declarations envisage support for independence only in decolonisation processes, or cases of foreign occupation and among communities suffering discrimination or the abuse of human rights, a claim that Catalans could hardly make on the international stage.”
It is striking how much the force behind Catalan secession rests on the “unfairness” of redistribution of tax revenue to poorer regions of Spain. It reminds me of the “we are makers, they are takers” rhetoric of Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. It’s ugly.
Why do we venerate Abraham Lincoln in the USA while taking movement towards Catalan secession seriously? Cataluña approved the current Spanish Constitution overwhelmingly in 1978. What is the legitimate claim to changing it fundamentally now? What precedents would significant change to the constitution or secession set?
These are important questions about the nature of a state and its constituents that ought to be answered to consider the question of Catalan secession in a broader context.
Although I wouldn’t go as strongly as that, it does seem like the impetus behind a lot of the recent push for independence stems from dissatisfaction with Madrid rather than the actual merits of independence.
This was much the same in Scotland. Independence was an issue that only a small percentage of Scots cared about strongly prior to 2011, but after the crisis nationalist politicians were successful in making the case that the answer to Westminster’s supposed mismanagement of the economy (and allegedly unfair treatment of Scotland) was to break off and become independent.
Of course their narrative was framed in the exact opposite way – that this was about some glorious exercise in fairness and democracy (they made great play on their ‘positive’ vision of the future in contrast to the ‘negative’ case for staying in the UK) – but the arguments all took the form of pinning every ill in society on to Westminster. The SNP have a wonderful ability to tell their supporters what they’re supposed to think and then do something entirely different in practice (e.g. they repeated the term “grassroots campaign” like a mantra while presiding over something that was, by any measure, an extremely centralised campaign that was obsessed with keeping unity over debatable issues like the SNP’s stance on the currency).
The real difference in Catalonia is the extent to which having been denied a referendum the movement is finding new ways to express itself. The referendum didn’t end the issue in Scotland, but I think long-term it might well have taken the steam out of the issue in a way that won’t happen in Catalonia. As such we’re very much at the start of a process that could end in a very messy outcome.
The ins and outs of the messiness or not of changing political setups in the minds of constitutional experts vs what to do when 2 million citizens repeatedly demonstrate, on the streets and through the ballot box, their desire for this change. At the end of the day it’s “Europe, we have a problem” – let’s deal with it through democracy.
The Spanish State is not hostile towards Catalunya, but the Catalan independentists parties are hostile toward the Spanish State.
I think this should stay clear.
The votes against the independence of Catalonia were 163.000 superiors to the votes in favor of the independence. The plebiscite was lost by the pro independence parties.
That’s nonsense. You need a new calculator. Pro-indy parties won 48% votes, while ant-indy parties took around 39%. The remaining 9% were for parties proposing an independence referendum.
The Catalan independent parties are not at all hostile. They seek fairness, respect, and tolerance from the Spanish government and have seen little of that for too long. This is about a democratic Catalan society that is simply fed up with not being respected, valued, and for being taken for granted. The recent Parliament election process was a massive wake-up call.
I dont’t think the economic question is anywhere near as important as many “experts” make out. This goes much, much deeper. It’s about dignity, respect and an attempt to conserve a culture as well as being able to make our own decisions on things which affect us directly. As many Catalan independentists have said, Catalonia would be a net contributer to the EU and as such would still be showing its economic solidarity with Spain and other regions of Europe as it does now.
Above all, before the parties come the people – although this aim has been on the backburner for years before its current boom, it was always there if you looked – I arrived in Catalonia in 1988 and people were talking about this “dream” then. Many factors have led to its current outpouring of enthusiasm and the Catalan pro-indy political parties are merely doing what any party/govt should do – listen to its citizens.
And, regarding the EU – what’s pretty clear is there are no treaties which state 7 million EU citizens would be expelled from the EU, and lose their EU nationality and rights. The EU always deals with situations when they happen, not before, and this time will be no different. Think Berlin Wall.
Dear Brian, you talk about people talking of a dream in 1988. True there were always some nationalist seeking for independence but those dreamers were less than 20% of the population. Still now, despite the long government and media nationalistic campaign initiated in 1990 by Pujol and his plan of Catalanization of Catalonia, they are not the majority. Being more vocal or epic in their narratives doesn’t mean they have the right to take a unelateral road which will affect so many million of people. So there 2 million highly motivated nationalist can not legitimately force 47 million Spaniards into such an uncertain and dangerous situation. And beware that dreams are dreams. Reality is different, Spain is oppressing Catalonia, they are one of the region’s in Europe with more self government, and this is not completely transversal movement. Working classless and Spanish native speakers are largely against it. The urban bourgeoisie and middle classess and people from the interior and rural areas are those who are pushing this forward. In fact the elites who have long ruled Catalonia are those leading the “process”. So let’s not over idealized this nationalistic movement. The Catalans are not the sole Spaniards suffering Spanish governments
In a world (and Europe) where we are trying to return democracy to the people, to make people once more believe in the power of real democracy and politics (instead of the decline into cynicism and apàthy we now see), what do you suggest doing? At least 2 million Catalans want to decide their own future. What do you suggest? Tell them they can’t?! Shut up and keep voting once every 4 years? The only way out of this “problem”, which will not disappear, is to give them a say, either through a referendum or negotiations between the new pro-indy govt in Catalonia and the Spanish govt.
Surely it is down to the Catalans to decide their future, not the 47 million Spanish, or 200 million Europeans, or billions of world citizens. You’re right, that we shouldn’t idealize things, but we must find a solution and I think the only feasible one is called Real Democracy.
First of all sorry for the poor grammar in my previous message, I was using my phone.
Maybe should be more critical with the assumptions you are making.
Democracy is not simply following the wishes of a majority or a minority. Some claims and requests are unacceptable from a democratic point of view no matter how strongly and peacefully they are supported. We are discussing the unilateral creation of borders and separation of people and institutions within a democratic country, but we could also be having similar “popular movements” who are committed to other policy proposals.
Secession is illegal and unconstitutional in Spain as in 95% of the countries in the world. Probably the pro-independence nationalist feel as frustrated as those people in Spain who want to introduce the death penalty, or who would wish to discriminate some religious minorities, etc. They would have either to accept it and move on, or convince the large majority of Spaniards that separation is good. Maybe it is not so difficult for these twenty something percent of the Catalan population that have suddenly converted into pro-independence nationalist (over the last 5 years), to turn back to their point of departure.
The respect of the rights and interests of the rest of the Catalans who do not want new borders or cease being Spanish or in Spain, is important too. Also the respect of the rest of Spaniards. Spain as a whole belongs to all Spaniards. Sovereignty lies on the Spanish people and that was decided by all Spaniards (including Catalans). Moreover, 91% of them voted in favour of the Spanish Constitution in 1978 (more than the Spanish average). You cannot change democratic constitutions simply by the will of a very small minority of the population. That would not be democratic. If the pro-independence parties want secession they need to convince the rest of Catalan and the rest of Spaniards that a change of the “status quo” is not good for everyone. I agree with you that negotiation is necessary, but no Spanish government would have the capacity to negotiate a referendum, due to unconstitutionality. It is out of their power. However, independence is not completely impossible. Nationalist can follow the established legal procedures to change the Constitution, and then in the end they could potentially have a referendum and gain independence.
Final issue, the statement “want to decide their future” is an empty one (as the claims for “freedom” they repeat). Catalans live in a democracy now they are deciding for their future as much as they would be deciding for their future in a hypothetical smaller (hypercentrilized and less culturally diverse) independent country. The freedom they enjoy now is no less than the freedom they would enjoy in a Catalan State. There seems to be here an interest by the regional elites to avoid competing with the elites of the rest of Spain. In an independent Catalonia, most likely patronage and clientelism would increase. Pujol would likely avoid the courts. Having checks to power is also something important in a country. In this case the fact that Spain has mechanisms of control over the regional governments and local authorities is actually a commonly seen as good for democracy. Some pro-independence leaders are looking to be the big fish in the small pond (so that they have much less competition and control).
I hope there is negotiation and pedagogy on both sides and that people align their perceptions and expectations to the reality.
Have a good weekend!
Thanks for expressing your point of view so clearly, and politely (given some of the debate we’ve seen recently!). I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree, and see what happens next!
What are the next steps? Yes, the formation of a government in Catalunya & the December elections in Spain will set the scene. But the dispute may escalate in other ways. Court cases against Mas & other independentists? Suspending the Catalan government? On the other side, withholding taxes from Madrid?
Could it spill into violence? Could Spanish symbols be attacked by demonstrators or conversely could Spain send in paramilitary police?
How will outsiders respond? Could Russia use it to stir trouble? What of other separatists, from Kosovans to Basques?
It could all get much more messy.
Andrew, there hasn’t been a more peaceful, democratic, grassroots campaign anywhere in the world since this movement in Catalonia started to make real waves in 2012 with marches, rallies, and the mobilization of millions of very proud and happy citizens who have come together routinely, with smiles on their faces, in support of fairness and being heard. I think to even suggest that violence can play a role is a natural fear, but so far removed from anything suggested as an alternative to the peaceful activity taking place in Catalonia these days. As for “the outsiders”…the world should watch closely and learn from the peaceful process that is unfolding in Spain. It is a shining example of true, democratic freedom – – something the Catalan people are most proud of.
Things won’t become so ugly. The independence movement is losing momentum. They will struggle to form a government and would struggle even more to rule together as a coalition. Their strategy now is trying to stir things and trigger an over-reaction from the central government. This won’t happen. After the Spanish general elections in 20 December, the most likely scenario is that they call new regional elections in Catalonia.
I would predict that the pro-independence camp will have even less votes after the new elections.
The only thing that could revitalize their movement is a landslide victory of PP in Spanish general elections, which I doubt will happen. In particular if the next government is a PSOE-Ciudadanos or PSOE-Left government, the claims for outright independence will decrease rapidly and people will look back at the disastrous legacy of Convergencia’s governments.
the catalans has no fear, thank you for the advices.. see you in the future
More fool you!
I cannot believe how incredibly stupid some of the commentators are on this web page. Firstly, Catalan independence will never, ever happen, it is unconstitutional and the constitution will never be changed to accommodate a regions delusions of thinking they are a nation. There will be no negotiations with these traitors, there is nothing to discuss.
Most importantly, the Spanish army will take their own unilateral approach to resolving this issue and I can guarantee, you will not see one separatist left standing. A military approach will solve this issue that a weak government cannot. These Catalan traitors are leading Spain to another civil war. I dont think any of you realise that what is happening is treason, there is no such thing as regional parties taking a unilateral approach towards independence, its plain treason. I hope the army eliminates this scum and I hope foreigners will stop commentating on issues they know little about.
Viva España, Por Dios y la Patria.
This is the type of comment pro-independence nationalist would like to see more often on the forums, fortunately this is really far from what you can discuss or read in Spain.
I have a strong suspicion that it has not been written by someone against independence but the opposite, it is so ridicuously over the top that it does not sound a real comment anyone would leave, less so on an academic forum. And this kind of fake comments and tweets are becoming increaingly used to deligitimize positions on important debates. In any case whoever wrote it should try to keep threats and violence out of the discussion and focus on the arguments.
Jose, well said!