Why Catalonia Isn’t Likely to Leave Spain Anytime Soon

Immense legal and economic roadblocks lie in the way of  any move toward independence. And then of course, there are the  politicians.
By Lisa Abend /  Madrid | @lisaabend | September 28, 2012  | 22
The president of the Catalonian regional government Artur Mas leaves after a parliament session on Sept. 27, 2012 in Barcelona.

JOSEP LAGO / AFP / Getty Images
The president of the Catalonian regional  government Artur Mas leaves after a parliament session on Sept. 27, 2012 in  Barcelona.

It has been a week of upheavals in Spain, with police violence against  protestors surrounding the parliament building in Madrid, new doubts about a  planned bank bailout, and the release of a national budget that requires more  painful cuts in the coming year. But perhaps none of the events of the past few  days has raised greater questions about Spain’s future than those occurring in  Catalonia. On Tuesday, regional president Artur Mas called for early regional  elections in an effort to gauge support for the pro-independence platform it was  newly adopting. Two days later, the Catalan parliament went further, approving a  resolution to hold a non-binding referendum on secession once the new  legislature is installed. Yet for all the momentum—momentum that comes on the  heels of a massive pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona two weeks ago—no  one here really knows if secession is even possible.

“The voice of the street must be expressed at the polls,” Mas told the  Catalan parliament on Wednesday. Explaining the snap elections as an inevitable  reaction to a secessionist march that had drawn an estimated 1.5 million people  into the streets of Barcelona, he signaled a new ideological direction for his  party, Convergència I Unió [CiU)]. “The time has come,” he said,  “for  Catalonia to exercise its right to self-determination.”

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Not everyone sees it that way. For Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, head of the  Catalan Popular Party, the bid for independence is making a bad situation worse. “To call snap elections, when we’re not even halfway through the legislative  term is irresponsible and proof of Mas’ failure to govern,” she says. “And by  pushing for independence, he’s taking the economic crisis and adding an  institutional one to it, which will only generate instability and  uncertainty.”

It is also not at all clear that separation is a real option. Apart from the  questions about economic viability (everything from loss of investments to  membership in the European  Union), there are also serious doubts about how and whether Catalonia could  legitimately establish itself as an independent state. “There’s no chance,” says  Enrique Alvaro, professor of constitutional law at Madrid’s University of King  Juan Carlos. “The Spanish constitution doesn’t permit secession. You’d have to  reform the constitution, and both of the major parties have made it clear they  aren’t willing to do that.” Even if they were, reforming the constitution is an  onerous process that requires, among other things, a 2/3 majority in the  national legislature, the dissolution of the sitting parliament, and new  elections.

Even those with doubts about the viability of secession agree, however, that  a consultation of the sort that the Catalonian parliament approved on Thursday  would be a critical first step. “You have to answer the big question: What  percentage of Catalans really want to separate from Spain?” says Francesc de  Carreras, professor of constitutional law at the Autonomous University of  Barcelona. “We have have to clear that up. And the only way to do that is by  voting.”

Yet even that is tricky. In 2008, Basque leader Juan José Ibarretxe tried to  call for a similar non-binding “consultation” in his region, only to have the  proposal shot down by the Spanish government as unconstitutional. And already,  deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria has vowed that the government  will use its “juridical and judicial instruments to stop” a Catalan attempt to  do the same.

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But the Catalan parliament is hardly backing down. “If we can do it through a  referendum authorized by the Spanish government, good,” Mas said in a speech  before his fellow legislators. “But if the government turns its back and doesn’t  authorize any time of referendum or consultation, well, we’ll have to do it just  the same.”

Some constitutional law experts think that Catalonia could pull it off by  looking outside Spain. “You would have to do a good job of winning international  support,” says Ferran Requejo, political scientist at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra  university. “Secession is completely illegal in Spain, so you’d have to look for  legitimacy outside.”

Few countries, however, are going to support a unilateral declaration of  independence, especially those—like Great  Britain and the Canada—that have secessionist issues of their own. And  Catalonia may face other challenges in arousing international sympathies. “We’re  not talking about Kosovo or Southern Sudan,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca,  professor of political science at Spain’s National Distance University. “With  autonomy as great as it is in Catalonia, it’s very difficult to make the case  that you’re a victim, that its worth jumping over the Spanish constitution so  you can liberate yourself.”

The pro-independence parties are banking on the idea that a referendum—even a  non-binding one—could shift that balance, winning support for negotiation both  at home and abroad. If there were a significant turnout and an overwhelming  majority—not 51% but something more like 70%–voted in favor of independence,  Catalonia might find itself in a position to pressure Madrid into negotiating a  revision of the constitution that would allow for legal separation or, at the  very least, a more federal state. “Democratically, Catalonia has to prove that a  clear majority of its citizens are in favor of independence,” says De Carreras. “And if they do that, then, democratically, Spain is going to find it very  difficult to say, “Ok, even though you’re the majority, we’re going to ignore  you.’”

Apart from the legalities of secession, the impetus behind the move to  separate may depend on Mas’ motives. Catalonia recently requested a 5 billion  euro bailout from the state, and has been forced to make drastic cuts in public  services. “They’ve the highest public debt in the country, and are making cuts  as severe or worse as those in the rest of Spain,” says Alvaro. “I don’t think  there’s any doubt that he [Mas] is pushing separatism as of way of distracting  people from the economic situation.”

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Indeed, Mas and his party are recent converts to the secessionist  cause.  Although nationalist, the CiU historically has confined itself—like  the majority of Catalans—to supporting greater autonomy rather than outright  independence. If that has changed for both the party and the population at large  (recent polls say that 51% of Catalans now support secession), it is partly due  to the economic crisis. “Many Catalans have constructed this idea that the cause  of the crisis is with the rest of Spain,” says Torreblanca. “They figure if you  get rid of the cause you solve the problem.”

The region is the most indebted in the country, but many Catalans blame the  debt on what they call “fiscal looting,” a reference to the disproportionate  amount of taxes they pay to the state, compared with other regions. Last week,  Mas tried to wrangle a new fiscal pact from the Spanish government that would  give Catalans control over tax collection. When prime minister Mariano Rajoy  refused to negotiate, Mas said he had no choice but to embrace secession.

“Fiscal reform was CiU’s main platform,” says Requejo. “Once that was  rejected, Mas had to legitimize his party. When you combine that with the  massive demonstration [on September 11], it’s logical that he would turn to  independence.”

 

Read more: http://world.time.com/2012/09/28/why-catalonia-isnt-likely-to-leave-spain-anytime-soon/

 

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