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.”