Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is Catalonia Heading towards Independence?


Catalonia is one of Spain´s historic nationalities, with a population of some seven 
and a half million people and located on the border with France. It has its own 
language, part of the Romance family along with French, Spanish and Italian.

Catalan is understood by all and spoken by most people, and is used in the 
education system and public administration; all Catalans also speak Castilian 
Spanish. Historically, Catalonia was part of the Kingdom of Aragon, which was 
united with Castile in the early sixteenth century, but, within the union of the crowns, 
Catalonia kept its own governing institutions (the Generalitat) and legal system. Only 
in 1714, after Catalans sided with the losing side in the War of Spanish Succession, 
were these abolished. The broad movement known as Catalanism, like other 
European national movements, is a product of the late nineteenth century, the 
product of a cultural revival and the industrial take-off that made Catalonia one of 
the most dynamic territories in Spain. Historically, Catalanism has sought the 
transformation of Spain into a plurinational state, with Catalonia playing a full part in 
Spanish politics, although from the early twentieth century there has also been a 
movement in favour of an independent state of Catalonia. Early Catalanists called 
themselves regionalists but gradually the term nation came to be preferred, coming 
into conflict with Spanish nationalists, for whom the only possible nation is Spain. 
Catalan nationalism is the stronger version of Catalanism, prioritizing Catalonia over 
Spain. The early twentieth century and the 1960s and 1970s saw a massive
movement into Catalonia of migrants from other parts of Spain and the Catalanist 
movement has sought to assimilate them into the community, notably by
encouraging them to learn the language. 


Under the Second Republic (1931-1939, the self-governing Generalitat was 
restored but it was again abolished after Spanish Civil War resulted in the victory of 
the extreme right under Francisco Franco, who ushered in nearly forty years of 
dictatorship. The Franco regime suppressed the Catalan language and other 
symbols of Catalan national identity in the name of a single Spanish nation. 
Restoration of self-government was among the prime demands of democratic forces 
following the death of Franco in 1975 and the Generalitat was soon re-established, 
along with self-governing institutions in the Basque Country and Galicia. The 1978 
Constitution also allowed other regions to gain autonomy and soon the whole of 
Spain was divided into seventeen autonomous communities. Since then, the big 
questions has been whether all seventeen communities should be treated the same 
(what came to be known as café para todos or coffee all round) or whether special 
recognition should be given to the three historic nationalities. The Spanish 
constitution stipulates that there is only one Spanish nation but then refers to 
‘nationalities and regions’ without specifying territories qualify as which.

Since the restoration of self-government, the largest party grouping has been 
Convergència i Unió, a partnership of two moderate centre-right nationalist parties. 
In more than twenty years in office, CiU sought to build and consolidate the Catalan 
nation, seeking a distinct status but within a plurinational Spain and with a strong 
presence of Catalonia within Europe. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Catalan 
Republican Left) is a left-wing party, which supports independence. The Catalan 
socialists (affiliated with the Spanish Socialist Party) favour a federal Spain, 
deepening the current autonomous system, although some socialists are more 
centralist and others more Catalanist. The Popular Party is a Spanish party, which 
tends to centralism, as does a newer Catalan party, Ciutadans. The post- 
Communists and Greens are allied in Iniciativa per Catalunya/Verds which is 
strongly Catalanist but not quite nationalist. 

For over thirty years, Catalans accepted their statute of autonomy as a reasonable 
compromise between Catalan nationalism and Spanish unionism, while gradually 
deepening self-government, notably in taxation matters. Opinion polls showed 
between 15 and 20 per cent in favour of independence, very few wanting to return to 
the old centralized system, and some support for a federal model for Spain. In the 
last three years, however, there has been a dramatic rise in support for 
independence, which now gains a majority in most polls. A series of unofficial 
referendums in towns and cities has shown majorities for independence – although 
in the large cities turnout has been low as opponents of independence abstain. A 
plethora of groups, think tanks and clubs has sprung up to support or to study the 
idea of independence and a demonstration in September 2012 brought around a 
million people on to the streets. So what has changed? 

One factor is disillusionment with the idea of a Europe of the Regions, a concept 
popular in the 1990s, which envisaged a three-level federation of regions, states and 
Europe. Catalanists saw in this a way to recover their pre-1714 status as a 
European trading nation embedded in wider unions. Catalonia was a leader of this 
movement, with Catalanists, arguing that the old model of the nation state was 
redundant in the new Europe and that nations could exercise real influence without 
having to become states. There was some progress in the 1990s, for example in 
setting up the Committee of the Regions. On the other hand, the Convention on the 
Future of Europe leading eventually to the Lisbon Treaty (2007) offered little to the 
regions and nations and it has become evident that the European Union is founded 
on the member states. The EU Committee of the Regions is largely toothless and in 
any case represents everything from municipal governments to stateless nations 
and unable to distinguish among them. 

The second factor is the fate of a reformed statute of autonomy intended to update 
the system and more clearly define and entrench Catalonia’s power. This was 
negotiated when the Catalan socialists were in coalition with ERC and adopted by 
nearly 90 per cent in the Catalan Parliament. It was toned down by the Spanish 
Parliament but the modified statute was nonetheless approved overwhelmingly in a 
referendum in 2006. At this point, however, the Popular Party, with the support of 
some other autonomous regions appealed it to the Constitutional Court. The Court 
has become highly politicized in recent years, between left and right and between 
centralists and supporters of autonomy. Unable to reach a verdict on the Catalan 
statute, it deliberated for four years, by which time the mandate of some of the 
judges had expired, so that court itself was not constitutional, while conservative 
judges sought to exclude progressive ones on various grounds. Finally a verdict was 
reached in 2010, which upheld most of the statute´s clauses but subjected them to a 
very restrictive interpretation. Much attention was given to the claim of Catalonia to 
be a nation, an important symbolic matter for both nationalists and Catalanists. 

Eventually the court accepted that the Catalan Parliament claimed that Catalonia 
was a nation but that this was purely a subjective declaration with no force. This 
outcome which was seen as an evisceration of a statute approved by both 
parliaments and endorsed by referendum caused immense resentment in Catalonia 
and opinion turned sharply against Spanish institutions. Moderate Catalanists who 
had argued that home rule could be extended within the existing constitution drew 
the conclusion that this was a dead end and that only a break with the existing 
constitutional order would allow them to realize their national aspirations. 

The Constitutional Court caused further controversy by limiting the application of 
Catalonia’s language policies. These provide for the co-existence of Catalan and 
Castilian, but seek to avoid ethnic segregation by not separating Catalan and 
Castilian speakers at school – most of the latter are from families of incomers. While 
accepting the principle of linguistic immersion, the Court has insisted that Castilianspeaking families could have their children educated primarily in Castilian. In
practice, most incomers are keen for their children to learn Catalan but there has 
been some tension over language. 


The fourth factor is economic grievance. Catalonia is the largest contributor to 
Spain´s redistribution system, although the magnitude is disputed. The Catalan 
government claims that it loses eight per cent of its GDP to other regions, while 
other observers put the figure lower. The Basque Country, on the other hand, 
because it has its own system of taxation, pays very little into equalization. This has 
prompted a movement, supported by the nationalist parties, many of the socialists, 
business organizations, trade unions and other civil society bodies for a ´fiscal pact´ 
which would give Catalonia something like the Basque system while providing for 
some revenue-sharing with the other regions. This economic factor has allowed 
nationalism to reach sectors of society previously impervious to its appeal although 
by no means all supporters of the fiscal pact are inclined to independence. 

The fifth element is experience elsewhere and particularly that of Scotland. The UK 
Government´s agreement to an independence referendum has inspired Catalan 
nationalists to challenge Spain to do the same, although matters are not so simple. 
Spanish governments have refused to recognize Catalonia’s right to selfdetermination 
and, even it agreed, the Constitutional Court would provide another 
obstacle. 

Artur Mas, CiU first minister of Catalonia, sought to put himself at the head of the 
burgeoning independence movement, calling an early election in November 2012. 
The result was ambivalent because, while CiU lost seats, the ERC gained. The 
proposal now is to call a referendum in 2014 on a question yet to be determined but 
centred on the ‘right to decide’, that is that Catalans could choose their own future, 
whether independence or not. 2014 coincides with the Scottish referendum, which 
continues to provide inspiration, but is significant in Catalonia as the threehundredth 
anniversary of the loss of its old institutions. The Madrid parties remain 
opposed to this, insisting that it is unconstitutional. The Catalan socialists now say 
that the constitution should be changed to allow such a referendum, while insisting 
that they could campaign for a No vote, but this has not been endorsed by the party 
at the Spanish level. 

Yet if independence is on the agenda, old ambivalences remain. Convergència bit of 
his party at their congress last year headed off an independence resolution but 
adopted the idea an Estat Propi (own state) a concept open to multiple 
interpretations. The leader of Unió had made it clear that he does not favour 
independence. As in Scotland and Quebec, discussion of the details rapidly leads to 
formulas providing for some continued connections to the state, what in Scotland is 
called ´independence-lite´ and in Quebec has been sold as ‘sovereignty-association’ 
or sovereignty-partnership’. A similar proposal in the Basque country a decade ago 
was called ‘freely-associated state’. 

Support for independence depends on the exact question asked. On a consistent 
question posed over the years by the Institut de Ciènces Polítiques i Socials (ICPS) 
asking voters to choose among options including more autonomy, support for 
independence shot up from a historic level of 20 per cent or less to 30 per cent in 
2011 a clear reaction to the Constitutional Court decision. The low levels between 
2005 and 2008, by contrast, reflect the hopes vested in the reformed statute. By 
2012 support for independence was up to 49 per cent. Most polls now show that a 
majority would vote Yes in an independence referendum. Yet when independence is 
offered against other concrete options, including federalism and most autonomy, 
support falls somewhat. This is not unusual, as we find the same thing in polls in 
Scotland. There may also be differences between Madrid-based and Catalan polls. 
The table shows polls a few months apart from the Centro de Investigaciones 
Sociológicas (in Madrid) and the Centro d’Opinió, which is supported by the Catalan 
government, comparing independence with other option

A wide gap has opened up between the politicians in Madrid, who see Spain as a 
single nation state with a degree of decentralization, and the majority in Catalonia, 
who seek recognition of their own national status but not necessarily independence 
in the traditional sense. The 1980 statute of autonomy and its 2006 successor 
sought to bridge the gap, but the task is becoming ever more difficult. 


* Michael Keating is Professor of Politics at the University of Aberdeen


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