Current Affairs Politics

Catalonia’s Hesitant Nationalists

An Chatalóin (Catalonia)
An Chatalóin (Catalonia)
An Chatalóin (Catalonia)

If anyone can the Catalans can” or so goes the saying amongst political activists in those minority communities of the European Union seeking greater autonomy or outright independence from Europe’s major nation-states. Unlike the recent independence referendum in Scotland where there were always doubts about the aspirations of the majority (and where appeals to people’s insecurities or regressive British nationalism carried the weight of state and media) in Catalonia those favouring the status quo are very much in the minority.  If “devo-max” was the most that a majority of Scots wanted “independence-lite” is the least that many Catalans expect (though in fairness 45% of Scots voted for full sovereignty when given the option, a far higher number than most observers expected). The other contrast with Scotland is the inverted nature of Catalan nationalism. Whereas the SNP led from the top, with the Scottish Greens and other organisations rallying behind, in Catalonia the surge for separation has grown from the bottom-up. While Scottish nationalists counted their rallies in the thousands the Catalans count theirs in the hundreds of thousands, a surer indicator of popular feeling than most. The regional establishment in Barcelona, in particular the ruling and conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition, has been more pushed than rushed into a confrontation with the hostile authorities in Madrid. Catalan president and CiU leader Artur Mas is no Alex Salmond though he may have no choice but to follow the latter’s desired route or face the prospect of his alliance being eclipsed at the ballot box by more progressive forces such as the resurgent ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia).

Mas’ latest move, a consultative referendum of Catalan voters on whether or not the Barcelona government should pursue negotiations with Madrid over greater autonomy, seems to be little more than a stalling exercise, a half-way house that pleases no one. From the Wall Street Journal:

“Catalonia’s government outlined a plan to poll the wealthy region’s 5.4 million voters in a nonbinding referendum on independence, even as Spain’s prime minister prepared to hold an emergency cabinet meeting Monday to launch a lawsuit aimed at blocking the vote.

Tensions between Barcelona and Madrid rose sharply on Saturday after Catalan leader Artur Mas signed a decree formally convoking a Nov. 9 referendum, defying warnings by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that the vote would be unconstitutional.

Catalans age 16 and over will be eligible to vote, she said. The government unveiled an informational online video with the slogan: “Remember you have an appointment on Nov. 9. You decide.” A big electronic clock was installed in downtown Barcelona over the weekend, counting down the days and hours to the poll.

Should the court agree to hear the case, Catalonia would be barred by injunction from holding the vote until a final decision is rendered, and that could take months.

Mr. Mas has dropped hints that he would abide by a court decision, but he is facing pressure at home from many citizens groups that want to go ahead with the referendum regardless of the circumstances. Some Catalans didn’t approve of the direction Mr. Mas’s government was moving in. Catalan Civil Society, an anti-independence group, issued a statement describing the election decree as “an abuse of the law since its intention is to lend an appearance of legality to acts that are clearly contrary to the Spanish Constitution.”

Mr. Mas has indicated that if it is impossible to hold the referendum, he might call early parliamentary elections to serve as a proxy, allowing voters an opportunity to choose a slate of pro-secession candidates.”

While many Catalan politicians favour a formal plebiscite on independence (which the proposed referendum is not) a small number believe that a simple majority vote in Catalonia’s regional assembly should be enough to secure a unilateral declaration of independence in the event of a referendum not being possible. That of course would follow new elections in the Catalan territory, elections that the regionalist CiU would likely loose to more avowedly nationalist rivals. As always there is far more to independence movements than simply the external struggle. There are the internal struggles too.

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