The Politicon team does not necessarily share the opinions expressed in this article which is solely based on the thoughts and interpretations of our interviewees.

 

On October 1, 2017, Catalonia holds an independence referendum which has been declared illegal by the Spanish government in the attempt to prevent it from happening. However, the problem has deep historic roots and it's impossible to deny the need for the parties to negotiate on the terms of co-existence. The Politicon talked with two persons from Catalonia who have deep knowledge of the local politics and care about the future of their country. 

 

Interviewees: 

Jordi Escribà is from Barcelona, Spain. He holds a degree in Economics from the University of Barcelona and a Master degree in International Relations from IBEI. Mr. Escribà consults companies and institutions in developing international projects, namely by helping them to get funding from the European Commission and other International Organizations from his small consultancy company B.LINK he co-founded. Earlier he worked at ACCIÓ (the Catalan Agency for Competitiveness) both in its Delegation to the EU in Brussels and in its HQ in Barcelona, and in the European Commission in Brussels. Mr. Escribà also has special interest in the politics and culture of the Balkans and the Middle East. 

Joaquim Asensio Sala is a member of Catalan Republican Party that is part of the regional government coalition and was elected as a District Councilor in Barcelona. He studied Economics and International Relations at IBEI- Barcelona Institute of International Studies.

 

Interviewer: Murad Muradov

 

 

Muradov: What do you think the outcomes of the referendum are likely to be? Is the "yes" vote all but guaranteed?

Response: Since the serious preparations for referendum began in Catalonia, the central government in Madrid has been trying to override it and physically prevent it from happening. Although the Head of Catalan Government, Carles Puigdemont assured the Catalans that the plebiscite would happen anyway, in the light of the measures taken by Madrid, especially its decision to deploy police force, chances for the voting to pass relatively undisturbed can be estimated as 50/50. Coming back to the aforementioned decision, since the Catalan police kept a low profile, staying loyal to the Barcelona government, the Spanish are likely to bring in forces from different regions of the country. They have also arrested several prominent politicians of the region, while threatening Mr. Puigdemont with detention, too. 

Regarding the actual outcome of the voting to take place on October 1, the “Yes” movement will probably have quite a comfortable victory. Though there is a significant share of the Catalans who don’t favour separation from Spain, they are likely to split into those who go to cast a negative vote and abstentionists who would thus try to undermine the legitimacy of the referendum. At least that was the pattern observed during the consultative voting 3 years ago. Moreover, Madrid’s hostile reaction to the referendum may trigger the moderates who are not ardently pro-independence, to go and vote “yes” in a measure of civic protest. 

 

What legal arguments do the independence movement in Catalonia and unitarists in Madrid put forward? Does the Spanish constitutional law have loopholes which would enable Barcelona to make a viable court pledge for its right to independence?

The Spanish constitution doesn’t provide conditions for secession. However, the unprecedented support the pro-independence movement now enjoys stems from the failure to adjust the Constitution to the rightful demands for self-governance put forward by Catalonia throughout the recent decades. Moreover, the argument put forward by the central government which argues that the Spanish constitution forbids referenda, is dubious at least- there is no direct prohibition, it is rather a political interpretation of the Supreme Law of the country. It is needless to say that the Catalans clearly represent a nation tied by the commons language, culture, history, institutions and self-perception and thus should not be treated as a mere province. 

Moreover, beyond the problem of legality, the legitimacy of the Spanish reading of the current constitution is under a big question. Since 1979 when the autonomy charter was granted to Catalonia after a few decades of brutal oppression, it has not been reformed. Moreover, in 2010 a rather modest project of an expanded charter that did not actually envision eventual independence for Catalonia, was rejected by the Spanish Constitutional Court despite the fact it had been overwhelmingly approved by the population at a referendum. This decision triggered a wave of protests and boosted the independence supporters since it clearly undermined legitimacy of Catalonia remaining a part of Spain. It was then that the first 1 million+ rally took place in Barcelona where clear demands for self-determination were made- this was a reaction to the aforementioned decision. 

It should be also made clear that this time the referendum should be different from the 2014 voting- at that time, the government decided beforehand that it would not have a binding force and would play a merely consultative role. 

 

If we put aside the history of Catalan statehood and the years of oppression under Franco's rule, what are the major motivations of the independence movement? Is the economy likely to prosper once the country is independent?

The Catalans have a range of reasons to demand self-determination separate from Spain. They are a nation whose identity cannot be denied, with its shared history, language and culture which throughout history has sometimes been bitterly oppressed. The political system of the current Spain is outdated and doesn’t cater for the needs of Catalonia clearly expressed: at the last elections in Generalitat (local Parliament), parties which support Catalonian self-determination have altogether gained an absolute majority. The central government, however, still perceives Catalonia as nothing more than a cultural autonomy and is reluctant to expand its government’s powers. 

Overall, the predominant political culture in Madrid is to turn Spain into a super-centralized country akin to France and treat the regions as mere provinces. Let’s just bring one example of this: in the recent years the Spanish government has realized an ambitious program of connecting the country with a network of high-speed railway. However, the way it was designed turned out to be very Madrid-centric, so there has been no direct high speed connection between Barcelona and Valencia established, although this route is a backbone of the crucially important Mediterranean corridor. The reason is quite obviously the government’s fear about a shift of economic and political power within the country to the region that has its distinct separate identity. Catalonia is still devoid of control over its own budget and much of the taxes collected locally is spent elsewhere in Spain (in fact, only 50% of it remains in Catalonia). Another consequence of that is the prohibitive budget deficit of the province which stands at the 8% level. As a result, the local government fails to provide the population the quality of infrastructure they deserve. The local economy is strong compared to the rest of Spain, it is the most export-oriented part of Spain and contributes more than 20% of the national GDP though it has just 15% of the country’s population. The Catalans do not demand to cease all redistribution to the poorer provinces but insist it must clearly be fairer than now. We also believe that broader economic self-governance would be much more efficient- recently, the Nobel prize winner economist Joseph Stieglitz praised the advantages of small countries in resisting the global crisis and adapting to the global post-industrial economy. 

The Catalans have this far been denied to have their language as one of the official ones in the EU although it is native for more than 7 million people, more than many of the official EU languages. Madrid has never been eager to raise this issue. The Catalans are known for their republican views and tend to believe the Spanish royal family does not represent them but rather a unitarist, backward-looking version of Spain. We also want to be represented on the international arena and have our voice heard; for example, the population is mostly against interventions in military missions abroad in which Spain as a NATO member is likely to participate. On the other hand, purely symbolic issues such as a desire to have our own national teams in different sports, have been mostly denied by Madrid. 

Some steps taken by Madrid, crucially in 2010 when it denied the rather modest autonomy plan prepared by the Catalan government radicalized local people and it was then when the first 1-million pro-independence rally gathered in Barcelona. 

 

What is likely to happen if a referendum takes place and the province proclaims its independence unilaterally? How far might the governments of Madrid and Barcelona go fighting for their utmost goals?

The Catalan government promised to proclaim independence within 48 hours of the voting if it yields positive result; otherwise, it will dissolve itself and call for the snap regional elections. The Spanish government made it clear it would not recognize the referendum. Though they may use police to suppress the vote and mass gatherings, the use of army is unlikely and the threat of violence remains insignificant, at least on the level of civilian population. 

If the Catalans find their voice has not been heard, one can expect a general strike capable of  paralyzing the economic life in the region (Barcelona is the biggest port in Spain and 2nd one in Mediterranean, and also an important link between Spain and France), with the prospect of involving Brussels in the matter. A regionwide strike would bring giant losses and disruptions and will force the EU to press Madrid into a dialogue. The major purpose of Catalans is to make Madrid stop pretending that nothing happens and engage in a real dialogue which would agree to eventual self-determination. The process may take years and the local government may delay the final decision time up to several years if Madrid gives its principled agreement to the abovementioned condition. Another issue on which Barcelona may get a significant leverage over Madrid is that of public debt, particularly that part of Spain’s public debt that makes up is proportional share; in case Madrid refuses to start negotiations with the province, it pledges to pass the whole debt onto the central government, while in the opposite case it undertakes to assume it. 

 

Are there any mainstream political forces in Spain that don't exclude recognizing the Catalonian right for self-determination? 

Unfortunately, the major political forces in Spain, namely the right-wing Partido Popular and centre-left Workers’ Party, operate within the paradigm of Spanish centralism and take a rigid position towards the Catalonian issue. Only Podemos, the non-traditional Left party which has attained approximately 20% support in Spain, expressly supports the Catalans’ right for self-determination. However, they are primarily popular in the regions of Catalonia and Euscadi, while their popularity in ethnically Spanish regions lower, and moreover, they are unlikely to grow much beyond that since their radical left platform has a limited appeal and is rejected at all in the rural areas. 

 

Coming to the intra-Catalan differences, are there risks of a civil unrest in case a significant minority is unhappy with the referendum results?

No, the intra-Catalan differences which definitely exist, can be easily resolved within the legal framework. First of all, the movement is not exclusive: the region is also marked by strong tolerance towards ethnic minorities, anyone who lives there, accepts local laws and wants to be Catalan, is perceived as such. The pattern of pro-independence supporters’ distribution turns out to be transversal, with no particular biases in terms of political ideology, ethnicity, social position, age etc. The people in the region are featured for the high level of solidarity and the opponents of independence will not feel uncomfortable and alien in an independent Catalonia. Moreover, the tradition of civic associationalism that is widely believed to be the best antidote to sociopolitical polarization, is very strong in the region, dating back to the 19th century at least. That said, there are no significant risks of destabilization or Balkanization. The major motivation for the independence movement is the ability to govern ourselves better and not to settle old scores.

 

The "Yes" movement contains the representatives of different parts of the political spectrum, while the left seem to be quite strong there. What would Catalonian politics be likely to look like if the country gets independence?

Despite the popular myth of a big role of radicals in the Catalonian politics, the pro-independence coalition that is currently in power in Catalonia has brought together the representatives of quite different political views: socialists, left-center and right-center parties, of which Mr. Puigdemont (President of the Generalitat) is a representative. They have long accustomed to co-operating and sharing governance responsibilities. It is true that the politics of Catalonia leans towards a left-center part of the spectrum that emphasizes wider social solidarity and fairness. 

 

Does Spain possess powers enough for blocking Barcelona's access to the EU or any other international organisations and blocks? Are you aware of the predominant mood in Brussels regarding its stance vis-a-vis a hypothetical new state in Europe?

Yes, of course, Spain can clearly block Catalonia’s accession to the EU if it wants. However, Brussels will hardly be happy with obstinate rejection of Barcelona’s membership and may probably intervene to reach a bargain. The Catalans take it into attention and believe that securing the EU’s mediation would be the best way to resolve the dispute on the best terms. In case the Spanish government interferes into the process of referendum or ignores its results, the Catalans are likely to go on a nationwide strike that would halt and paralyze economic life. This would generate a problem not only for Spain but the whole EU since Catalonia has strategic location and is thus an important hub. Although Brussels is not interested in the emergence of a new state within its borders, it will definitely prioritize trying to resolve the dispute in the quickest way without resort to violence or сoercion. That makes it a perfect mediator for the parties. 

Overall, European bureaucrats are not happy about the possible secession since it will create a lot of legal and bureaucratic issues to be resolved as well as a political controversy with Spain which might halt the Union’s internal functioning. Though they are unlikely to recognize Barcelona immediately, their pragmatic interests are to have Catalonia, a rich, pro-European and strategically situated region within its ranks. Consistent rejection to accept Catalonian independence or membership would also represent a stark contrast with the process of dissolution of Yugoslavia when the new states were almost immediately recognized despite much violence and chaos that broke out in the region, and some of them were also later admitted to the Union. That’s why the Catalans hope that eventually Brussels will favour their cause. Recently an immense work has been done to break the ice and have our voice heard in Europe; for example, a working group now functions in the UK Parliament which constantly follows and raises the issue. The tone of the major newspapers (Guardian, Le Monde, Deutsche Welle) towards possible independence is now more neutral rather than negative. Also, as Realpolitik has been returning to global agenda, the EU should be aware that in case of rejection from Brussels, Barcelona may turn to establish stronger links with alternative powers such as Russia or China. 

There is a different aspect to this issue: since the Independence movement is consistently democratic, it is widely believed that a referendum in Catalonia over the issue of EU membership should be conducted before an official request is made since it is a matter of strategic choice. Taking into account their predominant pro-European attitude, the result may hardly be “no”. 

 

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