What’s happening in Catalonia

by Lorenzo Piccoli

On 19 September 2014, the Catalan parliament approved a call for a referendum on independence. On 27 September, the Catalan President Artur Mas signed a decree authorizing the vote; the same day, however, the Spanish government announced that that it would block the effort by appealing to the Spanish Constitutional Court and the Spanish Constitutional Court decided to provisionally suspend the vote. The Catalan Government subsequently announced they would push forward with the vote, in defiance of the Constitutional Court of Spain, as a public consultation instead. As things are very confusing and hard to follow, I wrote a mail to Dani Cetrà, my half Catalan half Scottish friend and colleague working at the University of Edinburgh. Here is our exchange of ideas (mostly his ideas, to be fair) turned into a short conversation.

Will there be a referendum in Catalonia?

There will be something on 9 November. It won’t be a referendum. It won’t be the “consultation” that has been discussed during the past few months. It will be “an alternative consultation” or “a form of citizenship participation” based on article 3 of the Catalan Law on Consultative Votes, which was passed by the Catalan Parliament on Friday 19 September. So Catalans who want to cast a vote on independence will have the chance to do so. On 9 November they will go to some buildings owned by the Catalan government, they will register there, and they will immediately cast their vote. The question that they will be posed is one agreed between four Catalan parties in December 2013: “Do you want Catalonia to become a State?” and “In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?”.

What will be the outcome of the referendum?

It will be another big mobilisation of pro-independence Catalans rather than a proper consultation. Unionists and supporters of ‘third ways’ are not expected to participate, so the result won’t be very surprising… The key issue will be the turnout. The government expects a turnout of some 2 million, which is possible but ambitious. Only three months after the huge V in the streets of Barcelona, supporters of independence are asked to mobilise again in huge numbers.

Is the referendum going to be a game-changer for the pro-independence movement?

Probably not. It’s a watered-down voting, but it will permit Catalan President Artur Mas to say: “I’ve fulfilled my electoral compromise of calling for a vote on independence despite Rajoy’s undemocratic attitude”. The pro-independence movement hasn’t much to win (the best-case scenario this will be another spectacular social mobilisation), but it has much to lose (a low turnout will probably create doubts and insecurities).

The Spanish government is now considering impeding this watered-down voting too. This would be a political mistake, as it would give added strength to the pro-independence side. “They don’t even let us do this? Let’s get out of here as soon as possible!”‘. But Rajoy has his reasons. He faces pressures from the more radical pro-Spanish factions of the party, and strategically it is in his interest to shift public opinion’s attention from the corruption scandals of his party to the “Catalan threat” and the need “to respect the constitution and to keep Spain united”. After the “alternative consultation” on 9 November Mas will probably call for an early, “plebiscitary” election, which would not be without problems either.

What are the differences between the Scottish referendum on independence and the Catalan on-going process?

The main difference is that in Scotland the referendum was the result of an agreement between the two governments (Edinburgh Agreement, October 2012) and carried out though domestic constitutional law. The UK government considered that the SNP obtained a strong electoral mandate for a referendum on independence in the 2011 Scottish election and negotiated the terms and conditions for a “legal, fair and decisive” referendum with the Scottish government. A similar demand in Catalonia met the opposite reaction from the Spanish central government. This reflects different strategic considerations and different conceptions of the political union in London and Madrid. In face of the opposition of the central government, the Catalan process cannot aspire to an agreement with the central government and focuses instead on finding alternative ways of voting on independence.

Follow Dani on Twitter @DaniCetra and read his articles on The Future of the UK and Scotland website