The Catalonia question

On Sunday, Catalonia held its own self-determination referendum as part of the movement there for independence.  The similarities with the recent “Scottish referendum” may appear to be very clear, but the situation in Catalonia is far more controversial, confused and potentially impactful than it was in Scotland.

The fact that theirs was not an independence referendum in its own right shows the first key difference.  Despite intentions to hold a binding vote on whether the region should break away from Spain it was blocked by the Spanish Constitutional Courts as “illegal” and roundly condemned by the Government.  Even this self-determination vote was denounced by the Spanish regime, instead having to be a “voluntary” exercise of the Catalonian people’s will.

Although this fundamentally undemocratic blocking of a popular display of will may seem wholly unfair and unjust, when you look at the relationship between Catalonia and Spain it becomes clear why it’s happened.  Catalonia is by far the most economically successful region in the land, with Barcelona as its capital, and the 7.2 million people within it contribute more per head of population to Spain than any other.  In a country that was hit very hard by the financial crisis and has had to introduce strict austerity measures in a desperate attempt to balance the books and stave off the international shame of defaults, losing the part that’s doing best would be a hammer blow from which it might not recover.  The UK might have been worse off without Scotland, but it wouldn’t have collapsed.  Spain just might if it loses Catalonia.

It is these austerity measures and a barrage of social factors that drive the Catalonian independence movement.  They object to falling under the same restrictions on public spending when they could provide far more services.  They have a different language and different culture to the rest of Spain, and these features of Catalan identity were so brutally repressed by Franco’s dictatorial reign over Spain just decades ago and the echoes from those dark days still reverb around the people and places of Catalonia.

Over 80% of those who voted in the self-determination referendum voted Yes-Yes, in voting for full independence, and another 10% voted Yes-No, for full autonomy within Spain.  Granted, the turnout was only around 35% and even that figure is unofficial given that the referendum had no official voter roll or external verification, but it does show that there is a significant will in the region for independence.  There have been some incredible rallies of support for Catalan independence with hundreds of thousands piling onto the streets of Barcelona in red and yellow to make a visible case for their arguments.  It makes the rallies that Yes voters had in Scotland look tame by comparison.

But the Catalonian referendum shows how diametrically opposed the two camps are.  With the referendum being labelled a “sham” by those in power in Spain, those who oppose independence in Catalonia simply will not have turned up to vote, as there was no risk in not doing so.  Although undoubtedly some independence supporters will not have cast their vote as well, the fact that in raw figures the referendum only showed around 28% of the population making an electoral case for independence is not a particularly strong result.

There is an impasse between Spain and Catalonia that is difficult to see changing.  It’s democratically reprehensible that Catalonians cannot make a binding decision on their own future, and it makes be very thankful and proud that the UK Government gave their blessing to Scotland’s referendum despite their wishes and substantial efforts to see independence rejected.  Chapter 1, Article 1, Clause 2 of the UN Charter specifically states that one of the functions of the organisation is “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”  At what point does the UN make a stand and say that what Spain is doing is illegal?  Of course, the sham that is the UN Security Council would dismiss any of the organisation’s support for Catalonia, with Russia and China both actively fighting their own separatist movements and very, very unlikely to support those elsewhere in doing so.  Even in the EU there will be little support for allowing separation, with the scare tactics used against Scotland being wheeled out again against Catalonia with threats of lengthy membership negotiations if they dare to take their lives into their own hands.  Despite the international ideals of freedom that the UN and EU wax lyrical about, they aren’t standard bearers for standing up for their beliefs when it could cost one of their bigger members some difficulties.

The repression of the Catalonian people’s freedom is worrying, as there is a history of violence when situations like this are maintained.  Spain knows only too well the dangers of violent nationalism, with the Basque nationalist terrorist group ETA only recently laying down arms after decades of violent and deadly attacks on Spanish targets.  Over 820 people died in Spain at the hands of ETA whilst they campaigned for a Basque state, which is still being campaigned for although the movement has been appeased slightly with the devolution of some autonomy.  I sincerely hope that the movement for Catalonian independence remains peaceful, but when the Spanish regime actively blocks any peaceful means of settling the issue it makes it hard for those strongly in favour of independence not to seek other alternatives.

Scotland’s chance has come and gone, for now, but Catalonia’s chance at freedom might not be too far away.  Regional President and pro-independence figurehead Artur Mas has said that Sunday’s vote is a mandate for a real and binding referendum, and he’s right.  In what is meant to be a democratic state, there can be little justification for not letting the people decide what is right for them and the tide is flowing in the direction of independence.  These movements cannot be defeated by threats and sanctions.  Spain is standing on the wrong side of history and simply adding fuel to the fire for the significant number in Catalonia who want to break away.

Although the circumstances in Catalonia may be very different than they were in Scotland, Artur Mas described the Scottish independence movement as a “blueprint” for what they were trying to achieve in Catalonia, and indeed I think that despite being unsuccessful our Yes campaign is a shining beacon to separatists worldwide of how to go about achieving independence in a peaceful, socially-driven way.  However, as loathe as I am to say it, the UK Government played their hand well in blocking independence in a peaceful way too and that could be an example that Spain should seek to follow.  By giving us the referendum they stopped any growth in support from those who would normally oppose independence but reject more the notion that their government would oppress their right to decide for themselves.  Then they wheeled out an unstoppable flurry of scare-mongering in the final few weeks that reversed the dramatic late shift towards a Yes vote and ended up carrying the day by 10 percentage points.

If Spain plays a similar game, with public support in opinion polls across Catalonia showing that a legitimate referendum is still for either side to win, then it could hang on to its prized possession and maintain a semblance of respect.  But if it keeps blocking moves to settle the question then the Catalonia question will rumble on and gain momentum until it reaches a critical mass where Spain is powerless to stop the will of the people.

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