A Catalan UDI? Reasons to be Fearful

The day I left Barcelona an open letter appeared hundreds of miles away, in a central European republic, calling on the local government to condemn the Spanish authorities’ violence in Catalonia. The letter – which also demanded the European Union recognise the outcome of Sunday’s vote – appeared in a nation all too familiar with the challenge of starting a new state: Slovenia>

The first signature on the Slovene letter was a telling one: Milan Kučan. In January 1990, Kučan effectively ended Yugoslavia’s federal system when he led his Slovene communists out of the Party Congress. Multi-party elections swiftly followed. On 25 June, 1991 Kučan announced Slovenia’s independence unilaterally – despite not having the backing of a major international power.

Slovenia’s story is often repeated in the bars and cafes of small states seeking independence. The day after Kučan’s declaration, the Yugoslav army began troop movements on the Slovene border. All out war was avoided. Almost three decades later, Slovenia is a peaceful, reasonably prosperous EU state.

That Slovenia managed to escape from the collapsing Yugoslavia relatively unscathed has been adduced by some who say that Catalonia should just declare independence. Surely after the brutal violence meted out by the Spanish police the Catalan government has no option but to breakaway from Madrid, unilaterally if necessary?

That view is gaining traction, in Barcelona and beyond. On Thursday, Spain’s constitutional court suspended a Catalan parliament session planned for Monday for fear that Catalan president Carles Puigdemont might issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI).

Madrid, of course, has refused to allow a legal Catalan referendum. Last weekend, I met elderly people effectively locked inside polling stations waiting to vote who visibly trembled with fear as images of the Spanish police brutality circulated on mobile phones.

Since then Spain has doubled down. Catalan calls for mediation have been rejected out of hand. On Sunday, Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy, having delivered on his promise to disrupt a referendum vote deemed unconstitutional by the courts, praised the police and talked high-mindedly about defending democracy.

The narrative that Spanish authorities were simply defending the integrity of their laws and constitution is popular with many Spaniards outside Catalonia. During the week King Felipe in a rare televised address. told Spaniards that the Catalan leaders had showed their “disrespect to the powers of the state”.

But states, as Benedict Anderson pointed out, are “imagined communities” that exist more by legitimacy than through their laws. It is not the legislation in the books at Westminster that wills the United Kingdom into being afresh each day, it is a popular belief that is the legitimate government (a claim, of course, that is contested in Scotland and elsewhere). In using brute force to disrupt a visibly non-violent vote – even one banned by the courts – Madrid lost its legitimacy to speak on Catalonia’s behalf.

What can Catalans do now? Under legislation introduced before Sunday’s vote, the Barcelona parliament can recognise the massive ‘yes’ result as binding. Many, including many Scottish independence supports, feel that a Catalan UDI is now morally justified. But there are reasons for Catalonia – and anyone else – to be very wary of unilateral declarations of independence.

Let’s go back to Slovenia.

In late June 1991, a conflict did begin between Ljubljana and Belgrade. Troops were killed on both sides. The stage seemed set for a full blown war between a breakaway nation and the Yugoslav federation, one of the world’s largest militaries at the time.

Major war was avoided. The then European Community brokered a ceasefire but it was never enacted: within barely a week Yugoslav army forces had effectively withdrawn. Slovenia was free.

But it wasn’t the international community that permitted Slovenia to secede – it was the far darker forces brewing in Belgrade. In 1991, Slobodan Milosevic was concerned with one thing – creating a Greater Serbia. Slovenia had almost no Serbs and huge internal support for independence. Better to let Slovenia go and assert control in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic wagered. Slovenia got its independence and within months the Balkans was plunged into an orgy of violence unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

Unlike in Slovenia there seems little prospect of central authorities in Madrid allowing Catalan to just go its own way. Catalonia occupies a far more important place in the Spanish state than the Slovenes did in Milosevic’s dark vision of Yugoslavia’s future. Not only is Catalonia a significant net contributor to Spain’s budget but keeping Catalonia Spanish is an integral part of Madrid’s image of itself.

Unionism is a fundamental tenet of the ruling Popular Party. The president’s hardline position – aided by a partisan media – chimes with a hardening of attitudes towards Catalonia among many in other parts of Spain. The images from Sunday have doubtless damaged Rajoy’s international reputation but might actually improve his standing at home. The Spanish flags that appeared in the windows of homes across Madrid this week were not planted by the Guardia Civil.

In issuing a UDI the Catalan government would instantly lose the legitimacy for its cause won last Sunday. Support for Catalan independence is far from universal. A few weeks ago, polls conducted by the Catalan government itself gave the union a narrow lead. That may have evaporated after Sunday but there is unlikely to be the kind of overwhelming support for secession that there was in the new states born in the Balkans and the Baltic. Against this backdrop, independence will need some form of democratic process beyond Sunday’s chaotic poll.

But democracy alone is not sufficient for independence. New states only survive by international recognition.  After a UDI Catalonia would likely find itself outside the European Union, with a hostile neighbour on its border. Kosovo had the same situation in 2008 – and still does – but unlike the Kosovans, Barcelona would not have the United States, or anyone else, as a sponsor.

Post-UDI everyday life – and business – could become very difficult, very quickly.

Catalan nationalism stretches back centuries but has often struggled for a hearing in Europe’s corridors of power. A relatively wealthy region with a measure of devolution hoping to secede from a poorer nation is not the most endearing tale.

Madrid’s violent response last weekend changed this dynamic, but Barcelona should be very wary of taking that as a basis for a declaration of independence. The road from Catalonia to Slovenia is a long, and winding one.

Spain’s Catalans set to vote on independence

Catalans expected to turn out in droves on Sunday for what is now a ‘symbolic’ independence referendum.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in what is seen as an attempt to curb Catalan power [Reuters]

Barcelona, Spain Sleep has been hard to come by in Barcelona this week – but not on account of the city’s fabled nightlife.

Instead, the narrow streets and old squares of Barcelona have reverberated to a crepuscular cacophony of banging pots and pans. These noisy protests – called cacerolazo, literally “casserole” – started recently after Spain’s constitutional court suspended a proposed non-binding poll on Catalan independence.

A vote, however, will go ahead as planned on Sunday, Catalan President Artur Mas has said. In Barcelona, cacerolazo protesters have vowed to keep beating their kitchenware until it does.

“All peoples have the right to decide their future,” Mas told reporters on Wednesday. The vote was initially intended as a legally binding referendum on independence from Spain, but was downgraded to a symbolic “consultation” after an intervention from the country’s constitutional court.

Now, it has been watered down further. Sunday’s poll will be “a participatory process” with no formal standing, run entirely by volunteers instead of the Catalan government.

Future of Catalonia

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called any attempt to hold a vote on leaving Spain “anti-democratic”, saying Spain’s constitution prevents any region from unilaterally taking decisions that affect all Spaniards.

Madrid and Barcelona have been at loggerheads since July 2010, when a new statute on Catalan autonomy was struck down by Spain’s constitutional court.

Support for independence has risen dramatically in the wake of what was widely seen as an attempt to curb the power of Catalan’s regional parliament. Just under half of Catalans are in favour of leaving Spain, according to opinion polls last month. More than one-fifth of respondents said they were recent converts to the nationalist cause.

Rocio Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, a socialist parliamentarian at the Catalan assembly, is opposed to independence but says a referendum is needed to settle the future of Catalonia, a region of 7.5 million people that stretches for 400km from the French border to neighbouring Valencia.

The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned.

– Rafael Lopez, Catalan Popular Party MP

Martinez-Sampere Rodrigo, who favours a federal arrangement for Catalonia, blames the Spanish prime minister for unwittingly building Catalan support for leaving Spain.

“Rajoy has never approached this in a political way, he is just saying ‘no, no, no’ to everything,” she told Al Jazeera. “If you say ‘no’ to everything, people will say the only solution is independence.”

But Rafael Lopez, a Catalan member of parliament from Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, said any referendum on independence would be illegal.

“The Spanish constitution is quite clear on this point, the unity of Spain cannot be questioned,” Lopez said.

Sunday’s poll will have “no legal validity nor democratic guarantee”, Lopez added.

Nevertheless, Catalan nationalists have been busy preparing for the vote. Television adverts and mailshots have carried election information. Pro-independence memes have ignited on social media.

Widespread frustration

An estimated 40,000 people have volunteered to staff polling centres across Catalonia. Expatriates in around 40 cities worldwide – including London, Paris, Mexico City, and Montreal – will be able to vote at offices of international Catalan delegations.

The ballot will have the same two-part question that was planned for the suspended referendum. The first is whether voters want Catalonia to be a state. The second is whether they want it to be an independent state. As in the recent independence referendum in Scotland, 16 and 17-year olds will be able to participate, too.

The clamour for Catalan independence has grown amid Spain’s financial crisis and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980. Recent attempts by Madrid to interfere with Catalan education have further stoked passions.

Catalonia is the country’s most prosperous and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of Spain’s taxes – far more than its share of Spain’s population.

Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – runs at between 7 and 10 percent of the region’s GDP. Such disparities have deepened resentment.

‘V’ for vote

On September 11 this year, Catalonia’s national holiday, hundreds of thousands of independence supporters converged on Barcelona, forming a huge “V” – for vote – in Catalan red and yellow. Now nationalists are hoping a large demonstration of strength on Sunday will show both Madrid and the world that their demands are not going away.

“The goal is to keep the pressure on Madrid and to demonstrate to the world that the process is alive and it’s not just an invention of Artur Mas,” said Marc Vidal, foreign editor of pro-independence Catalan newspaper ARA.

I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote.

– Liz Castro, supporter of Catalan independence

The vast majority are expected to vote “yes”, but turnout will be crucial. Two million votes, about 30 percent of the electorate, would be a “big result” for the nationalists, said Vidal.

Liz Castro, a supporter of Catalan independence in Barcelona, said the attitude of the Spanish government will only strengthen nationalists’ resolve to turnout on Sunday.

“I think the fact that the Spanish government is making it so difficult to voice your opinion is making people angry, and making people determined to vote,” Castro said.

Supporters of the union with Spain argued independence would be disastrous for Catalonia – and for Europe.

“If regions like Catalonia, the Flemish region, Lombardy, Veneto, some German states or Corsica decide to secede, Europe would be cut into pieces, and that would go against its philosophy,” said Josep Ramon Bosch, president of pro-union association Societat Civil Catalana.

While there is little doubt about the outcome of Sunday’s consultation, a long-term solution to the Catalan question is much less clear cut. Spain’s national politics has been turned on its head following a poll this week that put Podemos, a youthful leftist-only party formed in January, ahead of both Rajoy’s Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party nationally.

Some Catalan commentators expect Artur Mas to call early elections to the Catalan parliament, in an effort to secure a resounding majority in favour of independence and increase pressure on Madrid. But Mas himself has been weakened by a tax-evasion scandal involving the founder of his ruling Convergence and Union party. A recent poll showed the more fervently pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia well ahead among Catalan voters.

For Catalan nationalists, however, the big question is how Madrid will react to the latest salvo in the campaign for a referendum on independence.

“There is a general feeling that the Spanish government doesn’t know what is going on here,” said independence activist Castro. “I don’t think they really realise what people are ready to do here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Spanish eyes are on Catalan independence

While opposing factions argue over attendance figures at the Yes rally, Catalonia musters 1.6 million for the cause , writes Peter Geoghegan

EARLIER this month, I spent an afternoon outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I didn’t go to admire the haunting spires of Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – impressive though they are – but to look at a rather different spectacle: the crowds of waving Catalan independence supporters that peaceably surrounded the cathedral as part of a massive “human chain” to mark Catalan national day on 11 September.

At 17:14, the year Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces spelling the end of Catalan autonomy, what sounded like a starter’s pistol fired. Outside the Sagrada, thousands linked arms amid chants of “In, inde, independencia”. A middle-aged man’s T-shirt carried a blunt message: “Catalonia is not Spain”. Posters, in Catalan, called for “Independence to Change Everything”. Drones flew overhead, employed not by the Spanish government but by independenistas, to photograph the “Via Catalana” as it stretched, arm-in-arm, for 250 miles from the France border to the neighbouring region of Valencia. It was a remarkable feat of logistics, organisation and political mobilisation.

How Yes Scotland must envy their Catalan cousins. A reported 1.6 million turned out in this show of separatist strength. Some flew Catalonia’s regional flag, but more waved the esteldada, the starry standard favoured by independence supporters.

Polls lend weight to the suggestion that if anywhere in Western Europe is likely to declare independence in the coming years it is Catalonia. Support for independence has risen from barely a fifth in 2007, to more than half now. Possibly more importantly, Catalan’s sense of identity seems to be shifting, too. In 2009, less than 20 per cent said they felt “Catalan only”. Now that figure is 31 per cent, according to research published by the Catalan government. The number feeling “more Spanish than Catalan” has fallen in consort.120912020406-spain-catalonia-protest-story-top

And yet Catalans can seem like reluctant independenistas. Among the throng on 11 September, and at a nationalist-led, torch-lit procession the previous evening, I met plenty who said they would settle for increased autonomy for their regional parliament. But there seems little optimism that power brokers in Madrid will acquiesce.

“If Madrid wanted to diffuse or confuse this independence movement they would immediately offer a federal package to Catalonia,” says British-born writer Matthew Tree. “But they can’t do it because they have been whipping up anti-Catalan sentiment and making political capital from it.”

Certainly the government in Madrid has given little indication that they are willing to offer a serious autonomy package to Catalonia. In May, Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, whose CiU party is the main player in the governing coalition in Barcelona, wrote to Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy asking for permission to hold a referendum on independence. Rajoy, who has had his hands full with a flat lining economy, a moribund banking sector and a series of corruption scandals, replied last week.

“The ties that bind us together cannot be undone without enormous cost,” he wrote, rejecting Mas’ request. “We need to work together to strengthen these ties and move away from confrontation.”

The two leaders met in secret for talks in August, but there still seems to be little sign of a deal emerging. Meanwhile, the momentum towards full independence seems to build.

Spain’s ongoing financial crisis has added fuel to the Catalan independence fire. Nationalists argue that the region, one of the country’s most economically productive, is being asked to shoulder too large a burden. Unlike the Basques, Catalonia has no real fiscal autonomy. In 2012, Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – was €16bn (around 8 per cent of the region’s GDP), according to the Catalan government.

Madrid’s clumsy meddling with the language system in Catalonia’s schools has acerbated an already tense situation. Since the fall of dictator Franco more than 35 years ago, Catalan has been given priority in the region’s education system. However, last year, Jose Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, unveiled proposals that all coursework in Catalan schools must be offered in Spanish and Catalan “in balanced proportions”. For many Catalans, even those with little interest in constitutional change, these pronouncements evoked divisive memories of the Spanish Civil War and their language’s suppression under Franco.

It is by no means guaranteed that Catalonia will get a vote on independence – or, even if a referendum did take place, that Catalans would say Yes – but pressure for a vote is growing. A referendum is unlikely, but a non-binding “consultation” is possible.

Some Catalan nationalists believe that holding a vote – even a non-binding one – so close to the referendum here would be a boon for them. “It would be useful for us if the world could see both referendums at the same time – one conducted in a peaceful, legal way in the UK, the other opposed by the Spanish government. That [contrast of] attitudes would be really benefit us,” Alfred Bosch, leader of the Catalan left-wing ERC party in the Spanish congress, said recently.

How Scottish nationalists, particularly the SNP, would react to a Catalan vote so close to the referendum is unclear. Formal relations between the Scottish and Catalan administrations have cooled, with the SNP reluctant to upset Madrid and Catalan independenistas wary of being closely associated with a No vote in Scotland.

One thing does seem certain: the longer Catalan calls for greater autonomy are ignored, the louder the rumble for full independence will grow. As Matthew Tree said: “If this isn’t sorted out now, it will just go on and on and on. The cat is out of the bag now”.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman.

Catalans form human chain for independence

BARCELONA, Spain — People in Catalonia formed a 250-mile human chain across this Spanish region in the latest push to create an independent state.

At least 400,000 people took part in the event on part in Catalonia’s national day.

On Tuesday evening, a crowd walked slowly through the narrow streets around Sants, a neighborhood west of Barcelona, singing, “In, inde, independencia.” Many waved torches or carried the starry esteldada, the flag favored by supporters of Catalan independence.

“We don’t feel respected about our language and our way of life,” said Jemina Albesa, a housewife who was among the pro-independence marchers.

She says she didn’t always support Catalonia’s leaving Spain, but recently changed her mind. “In the past I thought it was possible to make a compromise with the rest of Spain,” she said, “but I think that’s impossible now.’

Such views are becoming increasingly common in Catalonia, a region of around seven and a half million in the country’s northeast. Last year, on September 11, an estimated 1.5 million people took to the streets of the regional capital, Barcelona, in a huge rally for independence.catalonia_human_chain_spain_4_09_11_13

Today’s demonstration started at 5:14 pm to reflect the year 1714, when Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces. All symbols of Catalan autonomy were destroyed after the defeat. The university was closed and all writing and teaching in the Catalan language forbidden.

Almost 300 hundred years later, Catalonia is one of the country’s most developed regions with a large amount of autonomy.

Still, around 80 percent of Catalans favor holding a referendum on independence. Carles Boix, professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University, believes 60 to 65 percent would vote yes and another 35 percent would vote no or abstain.

“For 100 or more years, Catalans have tried to have autonomy within Spain, but these autonomy demands have never been fully satisfied and because of that people have become progressively tired and now they are in favor of doing something bigger,” he said.

The latest clamor for independence can be attributed to a number of factors: Spain’s on-going financial travails, growing anger at cash transfers from prosperous Catalonia to poorer regions, and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament, which was re-established in 1980.

“Catalan people have realized over the last 15 years that Spain doesn’t really want to reform itself, doesn’t want to change itself,” says Roger Albinyana, secretary for foreign and EU affairs in the Catalan government. “Therefore their aspirations cannot be met within Spain.”

More from GlobalPost: Planet Pic: Catalonia’s human chain

Others argue that independence would be the wrong choice for a region with strong economic and social links to the rest of Spain.

“For many, independence has become a magic option that will solve all economic problems,” says Murici Lucena, speaker for the Catalan Socialist Party in the regional parliament. “I think it’s a huge fallacy.”

In the aftermath of last year’s successful September 11 demonstration in Barcelona, Catalan premier Arthur Mas called a snap election in a bid to copper-fasten support for independence. But while a majority of pro-succession parties were returned, Mas’s right-of-centre CiU party saw its representation fall. The nationalists have since struggled to govern a divided Catalan parliament.

A referendum without Madrid’s blessing is unlikely — for now, at least. But by taking to the streets today, Catalans will be hoping to keep the issue of Catalonia’s constitutional future firmly on the national, and international, political agenda.

This piece originally appeared on the Global Post.