Why Catalonia Isn’t Likely to Leave Spain Anytime Soon

Immense legal and economic roadblocks lie in the way of any move toward independence. And then of course, there are the politicians.

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JOSEP LAGO / AFP / Getty Images

The president of the Catalonian regional government Artur Mas leaves after a parliament session on Sept. 27, 2012 in Barcelona.

It has been a week of upheavals in Spain, with police violence against protestors surrounding the parliament building in Madrid, new doubts about a planned bank bailout, and the release of a national budget that requires more painful cuts in the coming year. But perhaps none of the events of the past few days has raised greater questions about Spain’s future than those occurring in Catalonia. On Tuesday, regional president Artur Mas called for early regional elections in an effort to gauge support for the pro-independence platform it was newly adopting. Two days later, the Catalan parliament went further, approving a resolution to hold a non-binding referendum on secession once the new legislature is installed. Yet for all the momentum—momentum that comes on the heels of a massive pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona two weeks ago—no one here really knows if secession is even possible.

“The voice of the street must be expressed at the polls,” Mas told the Catalan parliament on Wednesday. Explaining the snap elections as an inevitable reaction to a secessionist march that had drawn an estimated 1.5 million people into the streets of Barcelona, he signaled a new ideological direction for his party, Convergència I Unió [CiU)]. “The time has come,” he said,  “for Catalonia to exercise its right to self-determination.”

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Not everyone sees it that way. For Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, head of the Catalan Popular Party, the bid for independence is making a bad situation worse. “To call snap elections, when we’re not even halfway through the legislative term is irresponsible and proof of Mas’ failure to govern,” she says. “And by pushing for independence, he’s taking the economic crisis and adding an institutional one to it, which will only generate instability and uncertainty.”

It is also not at all clear that separation is a real option. Apart from the questions about economic viability (everything from loss of investments to membership in the European Union), there are also serious doubts about how and whether Catalonia could legitimately establish itself as an independent state. “There’s no chance,” says Enrique Alvarez, professor of constitutional law at Madrid’s University of King Juan Carlos. “The Spanish constitution doesn’t permit secession. You’d have to reform the constitution, and both of the major parties have made it clear they aren’t willing to do that.” Even if they were, reforming the constitution is an onerous process that requires, among other things, a 2/3 majority in the national legislature, the dissolution of the sitting parliament, and new elections.

Even those with doubts about the viability of secession agree, however, that a consultation of the sort that the Catalonian parliament approved on Thursday would be a critical first step. “You have to answer the big question: What percentage of Catalans really want to separate from Spain?” says Francesc de Carreras, professor of constitutional law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “We have have to clear that up. And the only way to do that is by voting.”

Yet even that is tricky. In 2008, Basque leader Juan José Ibarretxe tried to call for a similar non-binding “consultation” in his region, only to have the proposal shot down by the Spanish government as unconstitutional. And already, deputy prime minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria has vowed that the government will use its “juridical and judicial instruments to stop” a Catalan attempt to do the same.

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But the Catalan parliament is hardly backing down. “If we can do it through a referendum authorized by the Spanish government, good,” Mas said in a speech before his fellow legislators. “But if the government turns its back and doesn’t authorize any time of referendum or consultation, well, we’ll have to do it just the same.”

Some constitutional law experts think that Catalonia could pull it off by looking outside Spain. “You would have to do a good job of winning international support,” says Ferran Requejo, political scientist at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra university. “Secession is completely illegal in Spain, so you’d have to look for legitimacy outside.”

Few countries, however, are going to support a unilateral declaration of independence, especially those—like Great Britain and the Canada—that have secessionist issues of their own. And Catalonia may face other challenges in arousing international sympathies. “We’re not talking about Kosovo or Southern Sudan,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca, professor of political science at Spain’s National Distance University. “With autonomy as great as it is in Catalonia, it’s very difficult to make the case that you’re a victim, that its worth jumping over the Spanish constitution so you can liberate yourself.”

The pro-independence parties are banking on the idea that a referendum—even a non-binding one—could shift that balance, winning support for negotiation both at home and abroad. If there were a significant turnout and an overwhelming majority—not 51% but something more like 70%–voted in favor of independence, Catalonia might find itself in a position to pressure Madrid into negotiating a revision of the constitution that would allow for legal separation or, at the very least, a more federal state. “Democratically, Catalonia has to prove that a clear majority of its citizens are in favor of independence,” says De Carreras. “And if they do that, then, democratically, Spain is going to find it very difficult to say, “Ok, even though you’re the majority, we’re going to ignore you.’”

Apart from the legalities of secession, the impetus behind the move to separate may depend on Mas’ motives. Catalonia recently requested a 5 billion euro bailout from the state, and has been forced to make drastic cuts in public services. “They’ve the highest public debt in the country, and are making cuts as severe or worse as those in the rest of Spain,” says Alvarez. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that he [Mas] is pushing separatism as of way of distracting people from the economic situation.”

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Indeed, Mas and his party are recent converts to the secessionist cause.  Although nationalist, the CiU historically has confined itself—like the majority of Catalans—to supporting greater autonomy rather than outright independence. If that has changed for both the party and the population at large (recent polls say that 51% of Catalans now support secession), it is partly due to the economic crisis. “Many Catalans have constructed this idea that the cause of the crisis is with the rest of Spain,” says Torreblanca. “They figure if you get rid of the cause you solve the problem.”

The region is the most indebted in the country, but many Catalans blame the debt on what they call “fiscal looting,” a reference to the disproportionate amount of taxes they pay to the state, compared with other regions. Last week, Mas tried to wrangle a new fiscal pact from the Spanish government that would give Catalans control over tax collection. When prime minister Mariano Rajoy refused to negotiate, Mas said he had no choice but to embrace secession.

“Fiscal reform was CiU’s main platform,” says Requejo. “Once that was rejected, Mas had to legitimize his party. When you combine that with the massive demonstration [on September 11], it’s logical that he would turn to independence.”

66 comments
Moon2Mars
Moon2Mars

Spanish customer service is a joke. I bought from Spain nurseries. Crooks, no communication with customer, rip off, bait and switch. 50% unemployment in Spain and good for you! I will not buy from Spain ever again! Drown in your crisis, no one will help you with such attitudes.

somewheronthesun
somewheronthesun

.....

We are Not multinational state. We are One nation, One state, period! Officially from the times of the Isabel the Catholic. It's just Franc's Dictatorship was too much trying to alineate all of us. And those young people then who now are the big men on the power had been Dangerously romanticising everything.

And being realistic... No money, no honey.....

Economic Crisis is being too much to focus properly. I reapeat... ¡Economic Crisis is nowdays the root of eveything! Trust me.

To imagine Cataluña, in all its context, living on its own its a such a impractical joke...

All of  you is obvious you only speak of "popular feeling thing". Its not debate to try separete our 17 regions... Is the same as you tried do that in France, 'cos we have that kind of political system division. The difference is just Madrid is not so absorving as Paris.

I'm from Asturias, placed in the north, and I'm very proud of our history (we are somewhat the re-foundation), languages (we have one of own too) and subtle multicultal things (Andalucia is more "arabic" but us are more "celtic", by example)...  

Its just to criticize between us is sadly part our way to be also. No need to underestimate that.

But  we all are Spanish. Its something not easy possible to judge or understand from overseas, so i dont even try to bother explaining it.

The Romans already gives our Name "Hispania"

Dont ever compare us with other bigger and international secesion things...

And a Last thing... I love Catalonia, Barcelona.. my best friends is and lives there and i'm traveling a lot during the year to there, while Madrid its too boring, unpolite and dry to me. So... Dont try to tell me I'm biased 'cos you will look like you speak in a fandom about a famous book or something like that.

Jesus... thats its one the reasosn Ive never read foreing news/comments about our lives and country. Its just too ridiculy painful. I realized a long time ago, in part of living in Uk, that the World really doesn't know us. 

alexfndz
alexfndz

There is a book about economy (for iPad) that shows it is not only desirable but completely possible and beneficial for Catalonia to become independent. http://itun.es/es/QCDHI.l

Diogo Veiga
Diogo Veiga

Your report is AN IDIOT. It is clear that Catalans were dominated and deserve their independence. I hope AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. Cheers from Brazil. 

alansanda
alansanda

 This is not a balanced piece on the issue. 100% biased.  Thought journalism was in a healthier shape: you ONLY have interviewed non catalan Spaniards. You have to write a piece on Florida, and you just talk to Cubans in Havana? You do a piece on Ucraine, and you only talk to Russian authorities? Come one! Gimme a break.

The problem is journalists working in Madrid, pretending to do a good work on Spain from the capital of a de facto multinational state, with many different views and nations within.

So, hello there! Barcelona is 400 miles away. Yep, it's a small but very international city: a mediterranean hub, Gaudí, soccer team Football Club Barcelona, nice museums, exporting mentality, peaceful and democratic ways, the first parliament in Europe way before the English worked out one... Now I understand how deep crisis has gone in the media industry.

Last official polls in Catalonia: 51% pro independence, 20 against it, 30 let me think about it. You should have interviewed at least someone favouring the creation of this new state we want to build between France and Spain. 80% of the population might be favouring independence, and you do this piece of amateur job. 1,5 millions souls marched on the streets of Barcelona last September 11 asking for a new state in Europe: 20% of the total population of Catalonia. Imagine 62,8 americans (20% of American population) in Washington DC asking for something. Would you keep interviewing, I don't know, mexicans? Peruvians? Jesus. God Help Me. Try a different approach in the future if you aim a Pulitzer or something.

alansanda
alansanda

This is not a balanced piece on the issue. 100% biased.  Thought journalism was in a healthier shape: you ONLY have interviewed non catalan Spaniards. You have to talk about Florida, and you just talk to Cubans in Havana? You do a piece on Ucraine, and you only talk to russian authorities? Come one! Gimme a break.

The problem is journalists working in Madrid, pretending to do a good work from the capital of a multinational state, with many different views. Hello there! Barcelona is 400 miles away. Yep, its a small but very international city: mediterranean hub, Gaudí, soccer team Football Club Barcelona, nice museums, exporting mentality, peaceful and democratic ways, the first parliament in Europe way before the English worked on it... Now I understand how deep crisis has gone in the media industry.

Last official polls in Catalonia: 51% pro independence, 20 against it, 30 let me think about it. You should have interviewed at least someone favouring the creation of this new state we want to build between France and Spain. 80% of the population might be favouring independence, and you do this piece of amateur job. 1,5 millions souls marched on the streets of Barcelona asking for a new state in Europe: 20% of the total population of Catalonia. Imagine 62,8 americans in Washington DC asking for something. Would you keep interviewing, I don't know, mexicans? Jesus. God Help Me. Shame on you.

JHalen
JHalen

It certainly seems that the idea of a Greater Catalonia is going from

fringe to mainstream, at the same time that the main Catalan nationalist

parties that make up the region's ruling CiU coalition move towards

separatism. It's well explained here: http://iberosphere.com/2012/10...

JHalen
JHalen

It certainly seems that the idea of a Greater Catalonia is going from

fringe to mainstream, at the same time that the main Catalan nationalist

parties that make up the region's ruling CiU coalition move towards

separatism. It's well explained here: http://iberosphere.com/2012/10...

maresmenc4
maresmenc4

Why Catalonia should soon be a new state in Europe? 

1st because of dignity

2nd because of economical reasons

3rd because of political/social/historial reasons

4th last but not least, because of democracy !!

maresmenc4
maresmenc4

The problems in democray are solved with more democracy. So , let's vote.

Nació-hàbitat
Nació-hàbitat

As many commentators have already said, this article is so biased that it is hardly worth a comment. Ms Lisa Abend should perhaps take the Ave and visit Barcelona one of these days, instead of writing from Madrid and using the same arguments with which Spanish nationalism is intoxicating the media.

In any case, for TIME readers I would recommend to take a look at the following book, which has just come out and explains very convincingly why Catalonia IS likely to leave Spain very soon, and not only Catalonia, but Scotland, Flanders or Euskadi are going to become independent states and Europe and the world is going to be a better, more democratic and sustainable, place.

http://www.amazon.com/Habitat-...

Read it, it shows a future that might be brighter than doomsayers in Madrid or elsewhere are ready to admit:

Tatil_S
Tatil_S

A lot of the observations in this piece may actually be correct, but it does not even mention that Catalans have their own language and that many Catalans have seen themselves as having a distinct identity compared to the Spanish for a long while. It is hard to call this balanced reporting for US readers. 

Miquel Gil de Arespacochaga
Miquel Gil de Arespacochaga

It's not only about economics, the thing is Catalonia was annexed to Castile (under the new label of "Kingdom of Spain") in the aftermath of a military defeat 300 years ago. Its sovereignty was usurped and Castilian laws were imposed upon Catalans by virtue of an absolutist "right of conquest". For 300 years Catalans have seeked accomodation within Spain, while Castilians have tried to assimilate them. In recent years it's been made crystall clear Catalans have no place within Spain if they want to remain Catalans: their language is threatened, Catalans are insulted on a daily basis on Spanish broadcasting, some regional Spanish leaders are shamelessly manifesting Spanish-speaking migration to Catalonia was instigated in order to get rid of a Catalan distinct culture and most of all, a referendum-approved Catalan charter of autonomy was modified by the Spanish Constitutional Court with no respect for the Catalans' will. Castilians are more numerous, legality will always be their will and they have no intention of compromising or of creating a true plurinational state. That's why Catalans want their sovereignty back.

Desdesota
Desdesota

Your Madrid correspondant failed to answer her own question as to "why...any time soon..." Soon may not be next year, but it'll be sooner than later and the process is well under way, mainly because there is no way back. The Spanish central government has made it impossible.

As for the "300 year occupation" brought up by some commentators I remember a very old children's tune "... De Cataluña vengo de servir al rey/con licencia absoluta de mi coronel...": the Spanish Army occupied Catalonia in more than one ocassion; the last in January 1939. Now there are all gone, but from what we are hearing of some "Madrit" pundits, ready to come back.

Piti Riti
Piti Riti

independence would leave inpune crimes committed by companies, which is why so much emphasis

caesarbcn
caesarbcn

This independentist source is also an University teacher.

I am sorry for his students, and for the distort ideas that they could receive.

We must be aware of easy propaganda used by not reliable sources, interested journalists, interested economists, interested writers,... with internet, few people can make a lot of noise. 

caesarbcn
caesarbcn

It is clear that an small organized group can distort the reality by repeating lies a thousand times.

Some people that lives from politics have to look for this ideas to convince people in this crisis moments in order to get their support.

Also for the local government, in order to hide real other more important issues for the people.

Robert2011GB
Robert2011GB

Did we take a blind bit of notice when the British ruled that any attempt at secession would be illegal? No! we went ahead and did it.

Catalonia is a distinct country that has been suppressed for centuries by Spain; it deserves independence and Europe will be stronger for having an independent Catalan voice.

Liz Castro
Liz Castro

Lisa Abend is mistaken. Vivane Reding, European Commissioner, confirmed in an interview with the Diario de Sevilla this weekend that an independent Catalonia would not be forced out of the EU. She said "Come on, man, the international legislation doesn't say anything of the kind about that." More info at NewsCatalonia.com

Víctor Francisco
Víctor Francisco

" what they call “fiscal looting,” a reference to the disproportionate

amount of taxes they pay to the state, compared with other regions."

There is no such disproportionate amount of taxes. Someone living in Catalonia pays the same as someone living in Madrid or anywhere in Spain, citizens pay taxes depending on their income, not territories in Spain. But if in one place there are more rich people then they pay more taxes than the poor people. That's it.

Scotty_A
Scotty_A

Catalan culture is distinct, but not really any different than the other distinct cultures within Spain. There has been a long standing desire for independence by some Basques and Catalans over the years. However, I don't think the rest of the world is interested in seeing Spain refight its civil war again and will not support independence movements within Spain. Mas just looks like a trouble maker.

RobertSF
RobertSF

“There’s no chance,” says Enrique Alvaro, professor of constitutional law at Madrid’s University of King Juan Carlos. “The Spanish constitution doesn’t permit secession . . . "

===

I'm sure King George argued the same thing when America split off. Go, Catalonia!

GCPerez
GCPerez

Catalonia is and has always been part of Spain.  Catalonians who don't understand this have not read, and do not understand, their own history.  No serious historian believes Catalonia is or should be a separate nation.  Only Catalonian nationalists and Catalonians who believe their propaganda think Catalonia is a separate nation.  There are only two ways Catalonia will become independent.  One, if the Spanish Constitution is amended to permit its separation from Spain.  But the majority of Spaniards would have to approve it, so it will never happen.  Two, the few Catalonians who want independence will have to fight for it, literally.  Spaniards have a long, successful history of fighting wars to keep their country from being destroyed, or divided.  Catalonia will never gain independence because they would have to fight the entire Spanish nation, who will fight to the death to preserve the country.  Just like Americans did in the Civil War.  Not even Napoleon, with his brilliant generals and well trained million-man army fighting against a weakened nation, could conquer Spain , or even a part of it.    

Kurkowsky
Kurkowsky

Great article about Madrid, but I miss the view of Mourinho. I hope the next will be about Catalonia.

Marc Riera Casals
Marc Riera Casals

"Few countries, however, are going to support a unilateral declaration of independence, especially those—like Great Britain and the Canada—that have secessionist issues of their own."

Seriously? Canada allowed the Québec region twice (1980 and 1995) to settle a referendum to its population, even if Canada's Constitution didn't allow this. 

Last news I had from the Scottish independence referendum said that a rerefendum would be held in 2014, but I don't know the current status. Any updates on this will be appreciated.

Oriol Font
Oriol Font

It's really disappointing to read such an biased article from TIME but quite normal if the journalist talks from a chair based in Madrid. To understand the roots of the problem I'd suggest you to fly to Catalonia, it's just 1 hour flight. Don't doubt that you'd love to write a professional piece about this very relevant topic and that TIME has the budget. I will also do my job and fly 6,000+ Kms next 25th Nov to vote and participate actively, happily and constructively in the process of freedom of my country, Catalonia.

Ramon Vidal
Ramon Vidal

"Few countries, however, are going to support a unilateral declaration of independence". Are you a fortune teller?!

1GuirinBarcelona
1GuirinBarcelona

For christ's sake...this article is just bullsh*t... youre a journalist based in Madrid and youre giving your opinion about Catalonia without perspective and with any sense of reality.... didn't expect that from TIME... i'm really disappointed

Ramon Vidal
Ramon Vidal

It's your free option, Lisa, but the bulls in your Twitter profile don't help you to show you as an impartial journalist. It's agreeding with this kind of headline you wrote.

cataloniadirect
cataloniadirect

so, is Time magazine suggesting that Catalans don't vote for independence just because the Spanish law doesn't allow it? shocking. What if the founders of the USA had just backed off because the British law didn't contemplate secession? 

Don't you think that precisely THAT is the reason why Catalans should vote on independence? 

And finally, out of all the states in the world, how many have become independent on mutual agreement with their opressor? not many.

seny1
seny1

Unfortunately, even Time magazine does not seem to be balanced in their reporting. You can tell from the text the reporter was based in Madrid and lacked even the slightest perspective on how the problem is seen from Catalonia. Catalan society is simply tired of being constantly abused and insulted from Spain. Thinking the the main issue is of financial nature is shortsighted and plain wrong. Catalans have a different culture and different language and they feel their culture is constantly being attacked from Madrid. The economic crisis has enhanced these feelings because of the huge fiscal deficit that Catalonia suffers. Just as an example: Catalonia must send to Madrid 16 billion euros that never go back to Catalonia (this is 40% of the total taxes that Catalans pay), and despite this contribution, they have to ask the government in Madrid for a bailout of 5 billion. This does not make much sense and people are really upset, mainly because Madrid uses the bailout to impose conditions on Catalonia to take away its autonomy - in a clear strategy from Madrid to centralize the state. So, the majority of Catalans do not feel they belong to Spain (because of their different culture), they feel constantly insulted from Spain and, on top of that, they feel financially exploited. Now, the Catalan government is only asking to let the citizens in Catalonia vote what they want to do, and Madrid replies with threads of banning the vote. What kind of democracy they have in Spain that people in Catalonia are not even allowed to vote?