Heading for the exit: Catalonia

In a new series, I discuss secessionist movements across the world, starting with the Spanish region of Catalonia.

Today, Catalonians will go to the polls in the third election in the region for five years. However, this election will be more significant, as it could be the first major step in the region’s attempts to gain independence from Spain. But why are some Catalans seeking independence? Here is everything you need to know about why Catalonia might be heading for the exit…

WHY DOES CATALONIA WANT INDEPENDENCE?

The people of Catalan are distinct from the rest of Spain, in that they have a separate cultural identity and their own language, with roughly 73% of the population speaking Catalan.

The move for independence dates as far back as 1920s, however it is only in the last five years where the demand for secession has grown. 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona in July 2010 after the Spanish government attempted set limits on the autonomy the region had been granted by Madrid. Described as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘one of the biggest protests’ to occur in the region, the protests helped sway the Catalan elections  just a few months later in November, when Artur Mas was elected as President. Since then, demand for independence has surged, with growing numbers demonstrating on September 11th each year, the National Day of Catalonia.

In 2013, the Catalan Parliament voted 85-41 in favour of declaring the region a sovereign entity, saying:

‘In accordance with the democratically expressed will of the majority of the Catalan public, the Parliament of Catalonia initiates a process to bring to promote the right of the citizens of Catalonia to collectively decide their political future’.

However, the Constitutional Court of Spain ruled the declaration unconstitutional the following year, and the declaration was declared void.

Catalonia is also a major economic hub, and the 2008 financial crash has led to anger that Catalan people are sending more money to Madrid than they are getting back.

COULDN’T THEY HOLD A REFERENDUM?

Unlike the Scottish example, where the UK agreed to let Scotland hold a referendum on independence, attempts to hold a Catalan referendum on independence have failed. The Spanish government is strongly opposed to the region’s succession as independence from the Kingdom of Spain is not allowed under the constitution.

The Spanish government has a lot to lose from Catalan independence, especially as Catalonia makes up almost a fifth of its GDP and is Spain’s second largest region. Independence for Catalonia would mean Spain loses a region that attracts more tourists than any other in the country, its second-largest city, Barcelona, and major transport hubs (Barcelona’s international airport attracts 37.6 million a year and its port is Spain’s third largest). Spain also has other secessionist movements in the Basque region and Galicia, and there are fears that granting independence to Catalonia may result in further erosion to the Spanish state.

Attempts to hold unofficial referenda have been successful but attracted low turnout, due to a lack of support from the Spanish government. The last major independence referendum in the region took place in November last year, with almost 85% voting in favour of breaking away (although turnout was estimated to be around 37-42%).

SO, WHAT EXACTLY IS HAPPENING TODAY?

President Artur Mas has declared today’s election to be a de-facto referendum on independence, changing the tone of the regional election to one dominated about the debate around breaking away from the union with Spain. Two coalitions, both supporting independence have formed in the months running up to today’s referendum; ‘Together for Yes’ (Junts pel Sí) and Catalonia Yes We Can (Catalunya Sí que es Pot). Five other major parties are participating in the election, three of them rejecting independence (Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, People’s Party of Catalonia and the Citizens’ Party) and the other two in favour (Democratic Union of Catalonia and Popular Unity Candidacy).

Mas has claimed that a parliamentary majority for Together for Yes will result in a unilateral declaration of independence within 18 months (by April 2017). However, the Spanish government and influential business leaders have warned independence could cause chaos for the region, especially as Catalonia holds the highest amount of debt of all of the autonomous regions of Spain.

WHAT IS THE RESULT?

68 is the key number here – it is the number of seats needed for a majority in the Catalan Parliament. Polling from earlier this week suggests that pro-independence parties will hold as many as 91 seats, with roughly 62.5% of the vote. If accurate, Mas and the Spanish government may see this as a clear mandate for Catalan independence. Turnout, however, is vital; the credibility of previous polls has been tarnished by turnout of less than 50%.

The exit poll released tonight reveals that the pro-independence parties will have a majority in the Catalan Parliament, giving the new government the legitimacy to persue an official referendum or even declare unilateral independence. However, as this is just an exit poll, we should take this news with a pinch of salt.

SO IS INDEPENDENCE GUARANTEED IF PRO-INDEPENDENCE PARTIES HOLD A MAJORITY?

As you may be guessing by the length of this article, it is a lot more complicated than that. Succession is illegal under the Spanish constitution, so a majority vote for independence could plunge Spain into a constitutional crisis. Moreover, is unilateral independence is declared before a clear settlement is made with the Catalan and Spanish governments, it is unlikely that Catalonia may have a seat at the EU (as Spain could veto their membership), meaning a new currency would have to be found and fast. Moreover, the international community is mixed on Catalan independence, with even the United States expressing concern. A lack of international support to protect them in the vulnerable first few years could result in an independent Catalonia being a short-lived state. It is really a case of ‘who blinks first’.

COULD CATALONIA BE A VIABLE STATE?

On paper, yes. It’s GDP is comparable to Finland and Denmark at around €240 billion, and with 6,000 multinational companies calling Barcelona home, an independent Catalonia could become an economic hub. However, as discussed before, EU membership is key here, as it was in the Scottish debate on independence last year. Brussels has been reluctant to intervene, but a vote in favour of leaving may soon change that.

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