Catalonia: Which Way Forward?


3 Desembre 2012 per Oriol Vidal-Aparicio

[Article for a New York City-based “institutional research and brokerage firm” looking for some historical and political context to better understand the current events in Catalonia. / Article per a una “companyia de recerca institucional i d’agents de borsa” de la ciutat de Nova York que volia tenir una mica de context històric i polític per entendre millor el que està passant a Catalunya.]

0008_ConstitucionsCatalanes1704CATALONIA: WHICH WAY FORWARD?

What does the Catalan push for independence mean for the European Union?

Since the massive pro-independence demonstration of September 11th, 2012 in Barcelona, Catalonia’s political future has been more discussed than ever in the international press. Some historical context first: Catalonia is an old European nation with its own language, traditions, and (perhaps most importantly) political culture. It has been part of Spain since the beginning of the 18th century (we should distinguish here between the dynastic union with Castile, which occurred in 1479, and actual political integration, which occurred after the War of the Spanish Succession, in 1714); Catalonia’s northern territory had been annexed to France in 1659 following the Treaty of the Pyrenees. Before the centralizing, homogenizing efforts undertaken in the early 18th century by Philip V, of the French House of Bourbon, Spanish monarchs had only reigned over Catalonia after promising to abide by the Catalan Constitutions, a body of fundamental laws and bills of rights which the Catalan courts had been compiling since 1283.

Fast forward to the last quarter of the 20th century. After Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 ended a dictatorship which had been highly repressive of the Catalan language and culture, a transition to democracy started. The bulk of Catalan nationalism initially supported the idea of strengthening democracy in Spain and helping the least developed Spanish regions modernize. Today this is no longer the case. 37 years later, most Catalans seem to feel shortchanged in their effort to make Spain work as a mutually beneficial political project, and are increasingly convinced that the current juridical framework is suffocating Catalan society. Indeed, Catalans have traditionally had a highly entrepreneurial spirit and an anti-bureaucratic mindset,[1] which collided with Madrid’s imperial, rentier state mentality. Polls, both official and unofficial, now reveal that pro-independence sentiment has been growing steadily in recent years,[2] especially since June 2010, when the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that key parts of the Catalan Autonomy Charter (roughly equivalent to a state constitution in the U.S.) were unconstitutional.

The main Catalan nationalist party, Convergència i Unió (CiU)—a center-right federation of two parties—has been in power for the most part of the 33 years since political autonomy was restored in Catalonia. After losing power in 2003, in 2010 CiU ran mainly on the proposal of a new fiscal deal with Spain; despite falling slightly short of an absolute majority in the Catalan Parliament, CiU’s leader Artur Mas became the new Catalan President in December 2010.

Meanwhile, in March 2012 the biggest partner in the two-party federation, Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya (CDC), officially approved a change of strategy and voted to start pursuing statehood for Catalonia within the European Union. After 1.5 million Catalans took to the streets in Barcelona to call for independence on September 11th, 2012, and after a new fiscal deal for Catalonia was clearly rejected by Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy shortly after, Artur Mas decided to call a snap election in October 2012, this time asking for “wide support” to organize a referendum on independence. Among other things, Mas said that since the governing party in Catalonia (his party) had made such a decisive move—now supporting Catalan independence—”a new legitimacy” was needed to continue governing and undertake such an ambitious project for Catalonia.

The November 25 election

Although CiU actually lost seats, the November 25, 2012 election produced (1) a clear majority for parties supporting independence, (2) an even a greater majority for parties supporting a referendum on independence, and (3) very moderate gains for the parties clearly opposing both independence and a referendum.[3] A few figures should help us understand what happened in this last election (keeping in mind that Catalonia, like Spain or the UK, has a parliamentary system—i.e. the legislative branch elects the executive). The Catalan Parliament has 135 MPs, now distributed as follows:

  1. CiU (pro-independence): 50
  2. ERC (pro-independence): 21
  3. PSC (federalist & unionist): 20
  4. PP (status-quo unionist): 19
  5. ICV (primarily federalist, conditionally pro-independence): 13
  6. Cs (status-quo unionist): 9
  7. CUP (pro-independence):  3


To sum up:

  • 74 MPs (54.8%) are pro-independence
  • 48 MPs (35.6%) are unionist
  • 87 MPs (64.4%) clearly support a referendum on independence
  • 20 additional MPs would support a referendum if a formula could be found to hold it under the Spanish legal framework (this would bring the number of MPs supporting a referendum to 107, or 79.3%)
  • 28 MPs (20.7%) clearly oppose a referendum on independence


What now?

The most likely scenario as of December 1st is that ERC (the Republican Left of Catalonia) will lend its votes in Parliament to elect Artur Mas president once again, while both parties will negotiate a legislative agenda and will agree on a path to the referendum on independence.

Regarding the referendum, and if all options within the Spanish framework are to be exhausted, the first step will have to be drafting a referendum proposal, which should pass easily in the Catalan Parliament, and then submitting it to the Spanish Congress, which can either approve the proposal or reject it. Unless the European Union exerts some pressure on the Spanish government, the Catalan proposal to hold a referendum on independence will be rejected in the Spanish Congress.

In response, the Catalan Parliament can then try to pass a law to authorize some sort of non-binding plebiscite so that it passes constitutional muster in Spain—let’s call this plan B. If that is challenged or prohibited by the Spanish government, there might still be a plan C, which would involve each Catalan municipality (there are 947 of them) individually holding non-binding plebiscites, which would be added together and be presented as an unofficial Catalan referendum, thus providing the independence bid with some measure of international legitimacy.

The European Union’s role

One thing seems clear: if the conflict is to be resolved, and given that scenarios of violence are fortunately inconceivable at this point, it will ultimately be necessary for Catalans (and Spaniards) to turn to the European Union. Although the European Commission has been inconsistent when asked about the legal standing of a region seceding from a European member state, common sense dictates that, in any given scenario, the EU will always opt for the solution that generates the least uncertainty, the least social unrest, the least economic instability.

The Catalan government, which is hoping that the European Union will ultimately help resolve the conflict, will surely point to international precedent supporting the right of nations to self-determination, and will be quick to draw a contrast with how the British government is handling similar demands by Scotland: London and Edinburgh have already agreed on the conditions for a referendum on Scottish independence, to be held some time before the end of 2014. After signing the agreement, British prime minister David Cameron declared that “you can’t haul the country of the United Kingdom against the will of its people. Scotland voted for a party that wanted to hold a referendum … . I want to be the prime minister that keeps the United Kingdom together, but I believe in showing respect to people in Scotland.”[4] Indeed, compared to the British government’s attitude, the Spanish government appears to be using what Gideon Rachman (Financial Times) called “legalistic ways” to deny the Catalans a say in their future.[5]

On the other hand, let’s not forget that the European Union was already the key international arbiter in the 2006 separation of Serbia and Montenegro: on that occasion the EU Special Envoy recommended that a 55% threshold be set for Montenegrin independence to be recognized, a threshold that both Serbia and Montenegro ultimately accepted.[6] It should be obvious that the way the British government is handling the push for independence in Scotland, the way the Canadian government has handled the push for independence in Quebec so far, or the way the EU handled the push for independence in Montenegro, generate less uncertainty, less social unrest, less economic instability than systematically opposing the right of a people (especially when we are dealing with a territorially-concentrated minority) to freely decide their future through a referendum, a position that is ultimately untenable in a liberal democracy.

Whatever the case may be, if the Catalans continue bent on establishing their own independent state, resolving this standoff will come down to political will. Since the Lisbon Treaty does not say anything about the legal standing of a region that secedes from a member state, the EU could eliminate a lot of the current uncertainty by creating some sort of protocol by which any region-turned-new-state within the EU could be immediately confirmed as a new member state—unless the government of the new state opposed EU membership. After all, those regions-turned-new-state would be already in the EU, and ratifying the status quo would surely prove much less disruptive than forcing those regions out of the EU (following a logic that does not seem clear anyway). If the EU were to establish such a protocol, an eventual secession of Catalonia or Scotland, or even the breakup of Belgium, should not bring about major economic disruption—which no-one wants—but just the diffusion of political power from certain centers (London, Madrid) to others (Edinburgh, Barcelona) within the EU. Insofar as shifts in political power may respond to a demand for greater administrative efficiency in certain regions, the idea does not sound so crazy after all.

[1] It is no coincidence that Catalonia is the Spanish region with the least government employees per capita. (See Iñaki Ellakuría, “Cataluña es la comunidad con menos funcionarios por persona, y Extremadura, la que tiene más.” La Vanguardia, Nov. 7, 2005.) This anti-bureaucratic mindset presents a stark contrast with what De Vries described as the “growth of Madrid as the parasitic administrative center of a vast empire” thanks to “the European and colonial empire of the Habsburgs” (Jan De Vries, European Urbanization 1500-1800. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984:108). David Ringrose, an economic historian, described Madrid as having “a stable inner core of nobles, merchants, government officials and artisans … enjoying the stable economic benefits that flowed from long-distance trade and the imperial government” from the 17th century until the mid-19th century (Madrid and the Spanish Economy, 1560-1850. Berkeley & L.A., 1983:183). Citing Ringrose, De Vries (1984:185) added that “Barcelona … possessed a more diversified economy than did imperial Madrid and as a consequence it provided more opportunities for immigrants to achieve economic stability and to form families.”

[2] See a chart showing pro- and anti-independence sentiment in the official CEO polls:

[4] Severin Carrell and Nicholas Watt, “Alex Salmond hails historic day for Scotland after referendum deal.” The Guardian, October 15, 2012. URL:

[5] Gideon Rachman, “Spain, Britain and forbidden fruit of vote on independence.” Financial Times, Oct. 16, 2012. Rachman added: “No marriage can survive simply by declaring divorce illegal.”

[6] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, “Republic of Montenegro. Serbia and Montenegro Referendum, 21 May 2006.” OSCE/ODIHR Needs Assessment Mission Report, 7-9 March 2006. Warsaw, Mar. 14, 2006. URL:


4 thoughts on “Catalonia: Which Way Forward?

  1. ramon pitarg ha dit:

    Considero inconsistent que Unio Democratica de Catalunya ( Sr Duran Lleida), sigui contrari (encara que fa dos papers, a la realitat de que siguem un nou estat d’Europa), per tant considero que s’hauria de segregar i aixi aclarir de forma mes nitida el paper clar de cadas-cu
    ramon p.

  2. Miquel Strubell ha dit:

    Com a @mstrubell_EN he fet aquesta piulada.

    Walker Hammond recommends article with helpful historical bckgrnd: “#Catalonia: Which Way Forward” Oriol Vidal-Aparicio

    Efectivament, un article que ajuda a entendre el present!

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