A Brits guide to the Catalonia independence referendum

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Left-wing protesters demonstrate in solidarity with Catalonia, Puerta del Sol, Madrid. ©Jake Threadgould

I thought that by leaving Scotland for Spain I would be spared constant referenda. Alas, no. Catalonia, a northeastern region of Spain home to some 7.5 million people, plans to go ahead with a separatist poll on October 1.

Rolling news coverage of the events here in Spain is non-stop, but it has also garnered considerable international attention. The other day, I replied to a tweet shared by the Scottish National Party’s Westminster spokesman (and my MP) Angus Robertson in which I argued that the Catalan referendum was not the same as the 2014 indyref in Scotland.  I was swiftly set-up on by a small group of SNP voters telling me what to think about the situation in Catalonia. It got me to thinking: how are they so informed about what’s going on here? Or are they?

I don’t know where I stand on the independence vote in Catalonia, and thankfully, being neither Catalan nor Spanish, I don’t have to. That’s good, I’m all “referendumed“ out. However, some of you — especially those watching on from the post-Brexit ashes of Britain where ‘referendum’ is a swear word — may be wondering, what is going on exactly? ¿Qué coño está pasando? ¿Què està passant?

Like Scotland, Catalonia has a devolved government. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia’s first minister, or in this case president, is a bloke. A bloke who goes by the name of Carles Puigdemont. He presides over a regional pro-independence party called Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes, JxS) which has a slight majority in the local parliament — with a little help from his leftist friends.

Puigdemont has long dreamed of Catalonia being an independent republic so, earlier this month, he used that slim majority of his to push the referendum through parliament and write it into local law. Sí voters in Catalonia are a vocal bunch and their movement is intrinsically linked to their distinct culture, language and heritage. Furthermore, the number of pro-unity voters in Catalonia is hard to accurately gauge. Those against independence tend to shy away from even non-binding referenda, which they do not consider to be legitimate. Most polls tentatively suggest a roughly even split. This keeps the Spanish government on its toes.

Another engine driving the independence movement is the fact that many Catalans feel they are unfairly picking up the economic slack of underperforming Spanish regions such. Separatists would rather see their money re-invested in Catalonia, which is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest regions of Spain, jostling for top-spot with the industrial Basque Country and the capital, Madrid.

Some might see a compelling case in Catalonia’s bid for nationhood. It already has many of the foundations required of an independent state: a regional police force (the Mossos d’Esquadra), a judiciary and an autonomous government with all the mod-cons. However, Catalonia’s regional institutions are attached to strings held by officials in Madrid. The process of becoming an independent Catalan state would mean severing those tendrils of power. That hits a nerve. That triggers a response.

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Protesters in solidarity with Catalonia face-off with a group of far-right demonstrators, Puerta del Sol, Madrid. ©Jake Threadgould

The vast majority of Spaniards do not think the referendum should go ahead and this sentiment is reflected in the country’s largest political parties and in the judiciary, which has ruled the referendum to be unconstitutional and suspended the legislation. According to the Constitution (which also enshrines Catalonia’s autonomous status), the separatist ballot would need to be greenlighted by the Madrid-based national parliament. This did not happen.

The Spanish government is currently run as a minority by the right-wing Popular Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (think: Jacob Rees-Mogg/Nigel Farage lovechild). The PP will not sign off a referendum in Catalonia in case it back-fires Brexit-style. Remember those silent pro-unity voters in Catalonia? They are the PP’s damsels in distress.

So, what has the Spanish state done in retaliation to the unilateral independence developments in Catalonia? Several things. First, around 700 Catalan mayors who agreed to make polling stations available for the vote were issued court summons. The militarized Guardia Civil moved in to confiscate all referendum-related material. While ransacking the regional government offices, they took the opportunity to arrest a dozen or so Catalan officials on suspicion that they were involved in preparing the vote. The Spanish interior ministry activated a mechanism to assume control of the Mossos. There was even talk of sedition charges.

How did Catalonia react to this? The mayors kept quiet. The detainees were freed or fired by their peers to avoid fines. The Mossos rejected the national police takeover bid (although that one still hangs ambiguously in the balance). The sedition chat has been put on the back-burner for now.

If it sounds heavy-handed, it’s because it probably is. Yet, although it may be presented by some in the international press as a hark back to the days of Franco, it raises very few eyebrows among Spaniards. Part of that may have something to do with how it is normalized in the national press but another part comes down to the fact that the vast majority of people outside Catalonia simply disagree with the referendum. To them, Catalonia is a region of Spain. A region of Spain cannot just unilaterally declare independence and wander off.

Imagine if Nicola Sturgeon used her Holyrood majority to push through an indyref2 bill and write a separatist poll into local law. Imagine the SNP then vowed to unilaterally declare independence with immediate effect, even if yes voters only won by 1%. How would it feel for the no voters being whisked away from their beloved Blighty? The rest of the UK would be up in arms because you can’t just do that. That’s not how things work.

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Iñigo Errejón, a key strategist and on of the most recognizable faces in Podemos, attends a Catalonia solidatrity rally in Puerta del Sol, Madrid. ©Jake Threadguould

Surely not everyone outside of Catalonia is against the referendum? Correct, there is a group of mainly left-wing movements that have advocated for dialogue and the negotiated legalization of the vote. The grassroots Podemos, the third political force in the national parliament, occupies a funny half-way position between the regional separatists and the common narrative in Spain. They do not back a unilateral referendum, however. The main opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) and the center-right, freshly ironed suit types in Ciudadanos – Spain’s fourth largest party – are in agreement with the PP government on the topic. That puts PSOE in a slightly awkward position.

But the Catalan referendum transcends traditional left-right politics in Spain. It sends shudders down the spine national identity in a country where, for many, even flying the national flag conjures up connotations of the dictatorship.

What is certain is that a huge portion of people in Catalonia have never felt comfortable in Spanish skin. What is also certain is that a huge portion of people in Spain cannot bear to see Catalonia walk away. There’s a good chance the referendum will be blocked. How that will happen is yet to be established — as has my opinion.

If they ever build a fence between Spain and Catalonia, I’ll be on it.

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