Last Friday, the Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont announced that the new referendum on Catalan independence will take place 1 October. The Catalans will respond to one question: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” This is already second attempt in the last three years to push for independence from Spain.
The announcement does not guarantee that the referendum can be held or will be legal but let’s stop for a moment and think if this region of 7.5 million people with GDP of €204 billion and predicted growth rate of 2.5% in 2017 could become a new independent state in Europe? It is still an open question but I personally think that it will not happen any time soon. Why?
First, it is because Catalonia's dream of independence from Spain collides with some harsh realities in the legal system and Madrid won’t let Barcelona go so easily. The Spanish Constitution from 1978 guarantees the indissoluble unity of Spain and does not give Catalonia or any other Spanish region the right to self-determination. Moreover, Catalonia’ government does not have a sufficient support in the Spanish Parliament to amend the Constitution which would allow it to separate from Spain. Neither Catalonia enjoys the right of self-determination as guaranteed by the United Nations for example in the situation of severe current oppression of the people. Therefore, a sub-state entity’s “right to decide” favoured by Catalonia is not recognized neither by national nor international law. Therefore, the Spanish Constitutional Court rules consistently that any unilateral referendum on independence is illegal, which will be the case also this time. Last time the Catalans organised a non-binding poll in 2014, Artur Mas former Catalan Prime Minister was convicted of civil disobedience and banned from holding office for two years.
Second, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the Spanish political establishment including the leaders of the second and fourth biggest parties in the Spanish Parliament (respectively Pedro Sánchez, PSOE and Albert Rivera, Citizens) largely oppose Catalonian self-determination. Therefore, the government in Madrid has made it crystal clear that it will again use all legal means to stop the referendum. Even though it has recently softened its stance on Scotland joining the EU, it does not mean that it would allow Catalonia to call a vote on its political future. In the past Spain planned to veto an application by an independent Scotland to join the club because it was afraid that a breakup of the UK would give a boost to separatists in Catalonia. This policy proved to be ineffective.
Third, even though pro-independence sentiment remains strong it somehow loses its appeal both in the Catalan Parliament and the ballot boxes. The “referendum” that took place in 2014 did not bring the expected outcomes. It is true that 80% cast their vote for YES but only 33% of eligible voters took part in the referendum. Additionally, the independent parties do not have majority in the Parliament and the Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont has not been successful in getting support of the newly created party “Catalunya en Comú” (Catalonia in Common) in holding referendum. Finally, there is no voter majority in Catalonia in favour of secession. As of March 2017, only 37% Catalans supports the independence according the Centre for Public Opinion, a Catalan polling company. This is 11% less than 4 years ago and 2% less in 2015.
Despite my doubtful take on the independent Catalonia, I am strongly convinced that the voices coming from the region cannot be ignored. Last Sunday 40 000 people gathered in front of the historic castle of Montjuïc, a symbol of the city's struggles during different periods in its history, to listen to Pep Guardiola, former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager read out a brief manifesto. “I’m not a Spaniard, I’m a Catalan, I’ve never called myself a Spaniard, it’s a matter of sentiments and no one can change it” said Ramon Mullerat Figueras, a Catalan businessman from Santa Coloma de Queralt when I asked him about the future of his region. “Madrid thinks we live in “open” Spain but Spain is not open. Quite the opposite, it’s closed and protects its own “empire” and is completely disconnected from ordinary people in Catalonia” he continues.
While the separatist’s movements in Catalonia have been present in the past, it has never been so strong as nowadays. Both the economic and financial crisis that hit Spain and the corruption scandals in Catalonia itself fuelled the secessionist movement in the region in 2012. As Catalonia is already one of the most autonomous territories in Europe, the next step would be independence. Federal state, which we could point out as a solution, would not please the government in Barcelona, as paradoxically it would limit its autonomy. To the independence, which would be second option, the central government would never agree. The constructive dialogue of both governments is needed like never before. Without it the Catalans will keep pursuing their goal and Madrid would keep blocking it by legal means. This will be unhealthy for Spanish democracy and the imagine of the country abroad.
Dr. Kinga Brudzińska
Future of Europe Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute