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'There's No Going Back': Why Spain and Catalonia Are on Immediate Collision Course Over Independence

This month's election in the Spanish region of Catalonia will function as a mongrel referendum on independence. The opening shots have just been fired and over 1 million people are gathering in Barcelona.

by Sam Edwards
Sep 11 2015, 11:55am

Photo by Toni Garriga/EPA

Catalonia now stands on the brink of a historic election that will serve as a de-facto referendum on the Spanish region's independence. The electoral campaign begins today — somewhat fittingly on September 11, the National Day of Catalonia — and over 1 million independence supporters will gather on the streets of Barcelona. 

On September 27, the region will take to the voting booths and if the separatist parties win an absolute majority many are predicting that they will begin preparation to secede unilaterally from Spain within 18 months.

Nominally, Catalonia will simply elect its third parliament in five years, but with the major pro-independence parties all campaigning under a joint secessionist banner and unionists obliged to campaign against this position, the election will function as a kind of mongrel independence referendum — only months before a general election is due.

The pro-independence faction sees the election as a unique opportunity to begin the emancipation of the Catalan people from the bullying, centralist Madrid government. Unionists see Catalan nationalism as a dangerous form of populism doomed to divide a region and cripple the economy. What both agree on, however, is that a unilateral declaration of independence would be a watershed moment in history, not only for Catalonia, but also Spain itself, Europe's fifth largest economy.

'The government is scared. They don't really understand what's going on here'

"It would be huge," said Alejandro Quiroga, a Spanish historian at Newcastle University in the UK. "It's never happened in the Western world that a country has unilaterally decided to quit in a peaceful manner and without any agreement with the other country. When we think about other referenda in Scotland or Quebec they were based on a previous agreement. But in the case of Spain there is no previous agreement."

And the opening salvos will be fired today.

More than 1.5 million demonstrators are expected to arrive in Barcelona from across the wealthy, northeastern region to celebrate its national day. In Catalonia, September 11 commemorates the fall of Barcelona in 1714 during the War of Spanish Succession and the subsequent obliteration of many of region's prized long-standing democratic institutions. The protest will begin, officially at least, at 17:14, exactly and see huge crowds fill the Meridiana avenue for more than three miles, stretching from the working-class northern neighborhoods to the Catalan Parliament downtown.

Thousands attend a gathering to support independence referendum, at the Catalonia Square in Barcelona, Spain, October 19, 2014. Photo by Toni Garriga/EPA

Mass demonstrations attended by up to 1.8 million people — almost a quarter of Catalonia's population — have become a regular occurrence. These meticulously organized grassroots protests are the bedrock of separatist legitimacy, raising the independence movement's profile and pressuring politicians to push forward with the nationalist agenda.

Catalan Regional President Artur Mas responded first by trying to lessen the region's considerable contribution to the Spanish national tax base and later holding an ultimately symbolic referendum in November 2014, but each step has been frustrated by a right-wing Spanish government for whom any weakening of national unity is anathema.

With large popular support for independence but little practical prospect of changing Catalonia's position as one of 17 regions in Spain's partially-federal system, Mas then gambled, calling snap regional elections to force the issue.

'It would be terrible for Spain as a whole. It would interrupt economic recovery and the creation of jobs'

Mas's conservative Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) party is campaigning alongside its longtime rival and traditional second political force in the region, the left-wing Catalan Republican Left (ERC) under the banner Together for Yes. The marrying of these two parties (as well as several smaller parties and civil society organizations) has not been without controversy, but efforts to put differences aside have largely been a success. With this in mind, the pact is headed by non-affiliated figures, with Raul Romeva, a former Member of the European Parliament, as the named leader. However, should they win, Mas would likely be reinstated as president — a point not lost on unionists who accuse him of duplicity.

Together for Yes will most likely be the biggest single force in the election and win a slim absolute majority in the parliament — though it may well require the support of a much smaller, far-left separatist Popular Unity Candidates (CUP) pact. The two groups could still fall short of the ballot majority required in a standard referendum, however, though plans for a traditional plebiscite within a year have been announced should they pass the first hurdle and manage to form a government.

All this comes at a delicate moment for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy who is hoping that gradual economic recovery will help his right-wing Popular Party (PP) win another term at the general election due before the end of the year.

Rajoy has taken a hardline on the Catalan question, warning voters against the "virus of disunity" and endowing Spain's Constitutional Court with further powers to neuter any unilateral attempt to secede.

But according to Ferran Requejo, political scientist at Barcelona's Pompeu Fabra University and member of the Advisory Council for National Transition (CATN), these judicial tools are of limited use.

Related: Catalonia Vows to Move Forward After Resounding Vote for Split from Spain

"These measures can be applied in the short term, but cannot remain in place for 20 years," he explained. "They are unstable and could be counterproductive for the central government."

Defense Minister Pedro Morénes went further this week, suggesting that the military would play no role in the Catalan secession movement, given one condition — that "everyone complies with their duty."

Liz Castro, International Committee Chair for the Catalan National Assembly, the pro-independence organization behind today's mass protest, said that the national government's threats only served to increase support for independence.

"[The government] is scared," she said. "They don't really understand what's going on here."

The other argument against secession is economic. With Together for Yes' hopes of gaining a majority dangling by a thread, the unionists hope that warning of the alleged dire consequences of independence will turn the tide.

Catalan business elites have been equally pessimistic. Josep Bou, president of Businessmen of Catalonia, an association of entrepreneurs that opposes independence, claims that independence would create "great social uncertainty" and "guarantee instability."

Thousands attend a gathering to support independence referendum, at the Catalonia Square in Barcelona, Spain, October 19 2014. Photo by Toni Garriga/EPA

But what is often overlooked is that Catalonia declaring independence could be just as destabilizing for Spain.

Minister for Finance and Public Administration Cristóbal Montoro suggested that a Catalan secession would not only be damaging economically for the new nation, as his PP party has consistently insisted, but also for the central government.

"It would be terrible for Spain as a whole," he told press in Madrid last week. "It would interrupt economic recovery and the creation of jobs, the figures are unsustainable."

Given the likelihood of a separatist victory and the instability that unilateral secession would create for both factions, many impartial experts agree compromise is the best option.

Related: Residents of England's Northernmost Town Share Their Thoughts on Scottish Independence

Earlier this week Mas called for negotiations in the event of secession to avoid "economic wounds" for both factions. Similarly, a campaign group called the Third Way organized for high-ranking Socialist Party (PSOE) figures to call for a negotiation to avert disaster. But many are skeptical of the possibility of compromise.

"There is no culture of pacts [with the Catalans] in Spain," Requejo said. "Pacting is seen as weakness. Any Spanish party that pacts with a Catalan government will be attacked from all sides, including from within their own party,"

The choice of speakers of the Third Way campaign offered little more hope for reconciliation.Among their ranks was former Prime Minister Felipe González who only last week drew heavy rebuke for likening Catalan nationalism to German Nazism and Italian Fascism.

Catalan nationalists feel they have been fooled too many times and have little faith in any Spanish national party following years of fruitless debate.

Asked whether a pro-independence Catalan government might negotiate a compromise with Madrid, Castro was adamant."No. It's too late. I think there is no going back." 

Follow Sam Edwards on Twitter: @samshepedwards