Catalonia is set to vote tomorrow (Sunday). For those of you who are unfamiliar with Catalonia, it’s a region in Spain, most famous for Barcelona and its soccer team.
Normally, a regional election anywhere wouldn’t really be worthy of a post, but this is an exception. The reason is very simple: Catalonia is not simply voting on its next regional government. This election is, in effect, a referendum on independence.
Those of you who have followed CT for a while may remember that I covered the separatist movement in Catalonia last year, and explained why I support Catalonia’s right to self-determination, and why I think it would be a good idea for Catalonia to secede. In November last year, an unofficial referendum was held in which a massive majority (80 %) voted yes, but this referendum was boycotted by most loyalists and ignored by the Spanish authorities.
So why would it end any different this time around? If the Spanish authorities can ignore a referendum, why couldn’t they just ignore a regional election?
This election determines who gets to form the regional government in Catalonia. Originally, there were loads of parties running in the election, but now the two biggest parties supporting independence have joined together in a coalition (despite one of them being right-winged and the other left-winged), and if they together with another pro-independence party were to receive a majority of the seats in the election, they have promised to declare independence – unilaterally if necessary – within 18 months. This is a change of tone from the Catalan separatists, who previously have talked mainly about getting a mandate for dialogue, but once this election was called (this is a snap election), it’s been clear that they have more or less given up hope of engaging in a dialogue with the Spanish government and are fully prepared to declare independence unilaterally if that’s what it takes.
Failure to declare independence within 18 months would render the coalition between the right-winged and left-winged pro-independence parties absolutely pointless, and would effectively end the political careers of all the leaders in the respective parties.
Now, the Catalans have no delusions about what independence means – they know that to actually achieve independence, they’ll first and foremost need to collect their own revenue instead of sending it to Madrid. They’ll also need their own armed forces. Preparations have already been made for both. The current Catalan government, which is pro-independence, have long since made plans for the transition, to the point where they’ll be able to tell Spain “We’re leaving now, you’ll have to kill us to stop us”.
And the problem is, Spain just might decide to do that.
There is no doubt that Spain has the military capacity to crush Catalonia, even if we were to assume that every single soldier stationed in Catalonia and the local police force pledged their allegiance to the newly formed Catalan state. However, a military intervention is not without its drawbacks: First of all, Catalonia is likely to get the sympathy of the world in that situation, and Spain would be destroying its economic engine (by the time the civil war is over, there might not be anything in Catalonia worth keeping). A military intervention of any kind would solidify the support for independence, just like the British over-reaction against the Eastern rising turned Irish separatism from the relative fringes of the political spectrum into the mainstream.
Hence, it would make sense for Spanish politicians to avoid intervening militarily – but they might not have a choice in the matter. See, the Spanish constitution provides the armed forces with the task of preserving the unity of Spain, which at least in theory means that a Spanish general could order his troops into Catalonia without the permission of the Spanish parliament or government. Some Spanish military officials have in fact voiced such thoughts, though no-one knows whether they are serious or whether it’s just scare propaganda. If in fact a Spanish regiment invaded Catalonia, the Spanish government would be under pressure to support them even if they didn’t issue the order, as otherwise the government may be seen as weak and disloyal towards the armed forces of the country.
Most likely, what Spain will do is withdraw some or all of the powers of the regional government, as “punishment” for Catalonia voting for independence. This will of course be completely counterproductive, especially as Catalonia due to the preparations that have already been made, are pretty much ready to become an independent state anyway and does not need Spain’s permission (and, just like with a military intervention, this would only increase support for independence). And Catalonia has an ace up its sleeve: As a net contributor to the Spanish state, it can force Spain to default on its debt by simply refusing to forward any revenue to Madrid and forcing to take on a proportional share of Spain’s debt. Basically, Catalonia would be telling Spain “Recognize our independence, and we’ll take a share of your debt proportional to our population share. If you don’t, good luck paying it back yourself”.
This would be enough to reignite the Eurozone crisis, just a few months after Greece nearly defaulted. This is the very last thing the EU wants. Everybody knows that the Eurozone is fragile and the blow of a run on Spanish bonds and the likelihood of a civil war breaking out in western Europe could well be the final push that causes the house of cards to fall. In that scenario, the EU is likely going to force Spain to concede.
While it seems very likely according to opinion polls that the separatist parties will receive a majority of the seats tomorrow, it is still unclear whether they will also get a majority of the votes. While technnically a majority of seats is enough, a majority of votes would give a much stronger mandate when negotiating, as no-one would be able to claim that the outcome is just a result of a malfunctioning seat allocation system. I believe chances are good that the separatists will get a majority of the votes, if only because they are so much more prone to actually turn out and vote, but it cannot be taken for granted.
What should Spain do? If I were advising the Spanish government, I would tell them to change tactic immediately: Recognize Catalonia’s right to independence, and then immediately start to campaign against it. If the separatists win tomorrow, Spain’s best strategy would be to issue a statement along the lines that “We respect the Catalan people’s right to self-determination, however we believe that the recent election do not provide a definite mandate for independence, and we will instead hold an official referendum on this issue on [Date]”. The separatists – who until very recently were nagging on Spain to let them hold a referendum – would have no choice but to accept the offer.
While the Catalans were waiting for the referendum, they’d be governed by the separatist coalition I mentioned previously, which consists of a right-winged and a left-winged party, and these two parties have literally nothing in common except the goal of independence – suffice to say, this government would be quite unstable and may well become unpopular (which, unfortunately, may affect the popularity of the independence movement as a whole). Polling shows that Catalans are quite evenly divided on the topic of independence, so it certainly is not impossible that Spain & the loyalists could win a referendum – the problem is that so far, they have refused to campaign and make their case to the voters, as they believe that if they did so, they’d legitimize the issue of independence. If they instead recognized that the independence issue already is legitimized by the people of Catalonia, their odds would be so much better. While I believe the case for independence is stronger than the case for remaining a part of Spain, I recognize that a case for staying in exists and that if it were made, there is a chance (risk) that voters would agree with it. Especially considering that the loyalists would likely have multiple times as much funding as the separatists.
Then why won’t Spain do that? Why won’t they take the British route and say “Fine, we’ll give you independence if you want it, but before you choose to go, please consider X, Y and Z”?
The answer lies in Spain’s political DNA, which even 35 years after Franco’s death still has significant traces of Fascism. The Spanish establishment cannot accept that the people have the ultimate right to decide their own destiny. This goes against a fundamental doctrine of Fascism, which states that the state is the ultimate moral authority; while conservatives believe the State is responsible for upholding the rights granted to individuals by God, fascists believe that the State, not God, is granting the rights – and can withdraw them if it so wishes.
Interestingly, this is also the main reason why I support Catalonia’s independence movement: It makes no sense for a region with a western, democratic culture to remain part of a country that has hardly left the 1930’s behind. It makes no sense for a region with a strong sense of work ethic & animal rights to remain part of a country most famous for taking naps (siesta) and bullfighting. And it makes no sense for any region with self-respectt to remain in a country where their culture will never be treated as equal.
That is why I hope and pray that Catalonia votes for independence tomorrow. Polls close 2 PM eastern time. Thank you for reading.