Dispatch from Catalonia

Last week I was in Barcelona for two days, giving a talk at an event on “the right to decide,” sponsored by the Centre Maurits Coppieters (nonprofit arm of the European Free Alliance, the European Parliament group for ideologically mainstream minority nationalist parties) and by the Fundació Josep Irla (nonprofit arm of the Catalan Republican Left [ERC], largest pro-independence party in Catalonia). I also did some media interviews. You can see some excerpts of my interview with Catalonia’s TV3 evening news here (in Catalan).

I was interested in going to find out more about Catalonia’s independence movement and its prospects. For background on the Catalan movement, see my post here on Pileus from September 24, 2012, two weeks after the massive Catalan National Day demonstrations that kicked off the current process. (That post, including its forecasts, has held up pretty well, I’d say.)

Now that the Spanish Constitutional Court has invalidated the consulta (consultative plebiscite) that the Catalan Government had authorized with the support of over two-thirds of Catalan MP’s and three-quarters of the Catalan electorate, the way forward is murky. An official consultation will not now happen. Instead, tens of thousands of volunteer poll workers are signing up to help with an unofficial poll that will involve ballots and ballot boxes and occur on November 9.

It remains to be seen how successful the November 9 consultation will be. The pro-independence parties and civil society organizations are trying hard to mobilize voters and volunteers for the event. The anti-independence parties are boycotting the vote, as indeed are some far-left types who hate Artur Mas, such as the leader of the ex-communist, ecosocialist party ICV-EUiA, which otherwise supports the “right to decide” and remains agnostic on independence.

If the November 9 consultation is successful, then the pro-independence parties will try to negotiate a “unitary party list” for early elections to the Catalan Parliament. They will treat this election as a plebiscite-by-proxy, and if an absolute majority of seats and votes go to the pro-independence list, Artur Mas will take it as a mandate for independence.

However, several difficulties remain. The more radically independentist party, ERC, wants to declare independence right away after a successful “plebiscitary election.” Artur Mas’ party, Convergence and Union (CiU), is divided between independentists and those favoring a solution like confederation. (Technically, the party is a long-standing alliance between two separate parties, the now-independentist Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and the autonomist Democratic Union of Catalonia.) Generally, the last few days have seen more division and acrimony among secessionist leaders than the previous two years, and if it continues, that division will alienate voters. Civil society groups continue to call for unity among the pro-independence leaders.

Another difficulty is that while a majority of Catalans with an opinion on the matter favor independence (a recent El Mundo poll had the anti-independence side ahead within the margin of error, but their polls have always been biased in an anti-independence direction), polls suggest the pro-independence parties would not together gain a majority in early elections. The reason for this is that many independentists are not in the secessionist parties. For a successful result, the “unitary list” will need to contain important leaders from civil society and non-secessionist parties.

If the Catalan process stumbles now, it will be a shame, because it will show the Spanish government that they can face down demands for more autonomy simply by standing pat and threatening to arrest politicians. Spanish autonomous communities like Catalonia enjoy far less autonomy than American states (they are not allowed, for instance, to vary the overall tax burden from a central standard).

The most likely outcome of the process now seems to be a November 9 consultation that can be spun as a successful result, followed by a petering out of the momentum as parties squabble over unitary list placements, election timing, and whether to declare independence immediately after the election. Again, this is not the outcome we should hope for. If there is a successful plebiscitary election, I don’t expect ERC to be able to win majority support for an immediate independence declaration. Instead, there will be further negotiation, until Artur Mas and other moderates decide that it is fruitless. The probability that Catalonia will actually be independent of Spain by the end of 2016 remains somewhere in the range of 20% to 40%, a bit lower than I would have said a month ago.

See also Edward Hugh’s defense of Artur Mas’ political prowess. If he is right, the independentist left would do well to unite behind him, as galling as that may be for them.

10 thoughts on “Dispatch from Catalonia

  1. You seem to be missing the essential point.

    All of the polls indicate that the desire for independence is not (yet) the wish of the majority of the Catalan people (and very few are interested if it means leaving the EU).

    Why then is there such insistence on holding the vote?

    The reason is simple. The objective is not primarily to WIN a referendum vote, but to HOLD a referendum vote.

    Catalonia has exactly the same right to hold a referendum of independence as the City of Birmingham or the State of California, i.e. NONE WHATSOEVER.

    The aim of Catalan Nationalists is to FORCE the Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy to hold a Referendum on Catalonia’s status.

    If they succeed, they will have achieved their primary objective, which is the national and international recognition of Catalonia as a Sovereign Nation, with it’s own Electoral Register, composed of Catalans with the right to vote on their future within Spain or outside of it.

    The Referendum is therefore a trap. The issue is not ‘We have a right to independence, let us vote’ but ‘If you let us vote, that will mean that we have a right’.

    Once you fall into this trap and recognise the right of a region to vote it’s secession from the nation (eg. Quebec), then you will find that the Nationalists will insist on holding referendums every few years until eventually (and inevitably) they achieve their aims.

    The third trap is in the mechanism itself. A Referendum MUST have a very simple question, such as the one on Scottish Independence. Reduce a horrendously complex issue such as the secession of a part of a state to form a separate state to a simple Yes/No question is to completely hide all logical and economical arguments for and against, leaving room only for flag-waving, tub-bashing, fire-breathing patriotic populism.

    The last trap is in the result. Catalan society would be irremediably split into two antagonistic halves, no matter who ‘wins’. What is worse is that this serious and potentially violent division would be right down the Catalan-speaking/ Spanish-speaking divide,a toxic linguistic Apartheid every bit as real as the historic one based on skin colour.

    1. 1) Of those with an opinion on independence, a significant majority of Catalans favor it, according to almost all polls from 2012 to present.

      2) Of course California could hold a referendum on independence, provided its own constitution permitted it. States are sovereign and may choose to hold referendums on whatever topic they wish. In fact, Puerto Rico has held several referendums with independence as an option. That doesn’t mean the federal government would actually give them independence, but they would be allowed to vote.

      3) The terms of the vote – periodicity, form of question, threshold, etc. – could have been negotiated with the Spanish state, but it was the Spanish state that refused all negotiations, not the Catalan government.

      4) The stuff about apartheid is just eye-rolling conspiratorial nonsense. Many Spanish-speaking Catalans favor independence, and many Catalan speakers do not. Catalan independentists say that Spanish would be co-official with Catalan after independence.

      1. 1) Not so; once voting preferences from prior elections are taken into account, none of the polls have shown a majority in favour. Check out the following post from Lluis Orriols, Doctor por la Universidad de Oxford y profesor de ciencia política- Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, showing the change in opinion regarding Right-to-decide:- https://twitter.com/pmklose/status/511541846192193536/photo/1 If you wish to rely on CEO studies, remember that they find nearly twice as many ERC voters at home than should be the case. If you do not allow for this you will only fool yourself.

        2) California (which in fact has far more real rights to have been considered a nation once than Catalonia) does not have a constitution that would allow it to leave the Union. Statesd are NOT fully sovereign and have (since the civil war) limits as to what they may or may not do. Texas has an important secessionist movement and Obama told them in no uncertain terms that the American Constitution does NOT give states a right to leave the Union. This is a lesson for Puerto Rico; if it ever decides to join fully and become the state No.51, there will be no turning back.

        3) The Spanish state has never once refused all negotiations; it simply said that it’s freedom of movement is limited by the Spanish Constitution which, like that of the United Stated of America, Canada, and just about every sovereign state in the world, does not contemplate the possibility of one of its regions leaving to become a separate state. It is the CATALAN government that has refused all negotiations.

        4) You should tell this one to the Marines! Current polls give support for Independence at about 10% in Spanish mother-tongue Catalans and about 70% in those whose mother-tongue is Catalan. Remember that it is impossible for parents to have their children receive even 25% of their classes in Spanish, when by law it should be near 50%. That is why no-one believes those few Catalans who promise equal rights to Spanish-speakers. This is one of the main reasons why Catalonia will never be independent. Think about it, would you vote to have your mother-tongue illegalised?

      2. 1) You’re showing me a tweet, but no details about these polls are available. [Are the percentages of everyone surveyed or of those with an opinion? How many options were there?] CEO polls might be biased in one direction, but El Mundo polls are biased in the other. The average of polls shows a significant majority in favor of independence, among those who have an opinion, since 2011 or 2012: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalan_independence#Polls

        2) Read what I wrote again. Also read this: https://pileusblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/02/will-the-u-s-ever-see-a-strong-secession-movement/ . Secession is not currently illegal in the U.S., although unilateral secession is.

        3) Constitutions can be amended. The Spanish state has refused even to consider the possibility. Moreover, the party in power, the PP, sought – successfully – to overturn in the courts even the limited steps toward greater autonomy that Catalonia achieved in 2006.

        4) I’m sure there will be linguistic disputes over petty issues like the ones you describe. And after independence, Catalan will surely have a preeminent place in Catalonia, just as Spanish has a preeminent place in Spain. But describing this as “illegalizing” the mother tongue of Spaniards is, again, hyperbolic nonsense.

      3. 1) The graphic shows clearly that this is from the government CIS and measures Right-to-Decide (i.e. sovereignty, not Independence). The Catalan Government CEO polls do NOT take into account the voting record of each polled person when calculating pro-independence sentiment. i.e. it assumes that PP voters are just as likely to be pro independence as ERC voters. Hence it does NOT make ANY reasonable adjustment to the poll ratings, leaving them completely flat, unadjusted. These base figures are available on their website, so go ahead, check the raw data for yourself. Bear in mind that Arthur Mas has himself admitted to CNN that there is NOT a majority in favour of independence.

        2) The US Constitution does not contemplate the secession of any of it’s incorporated states, unilateral or otherwise. It does not FORBID it, it siomply soed not contemplate it. The Spanish Constitution is exactly the same. Puerto Rico is NOT an incorporated state and has it’s own, rather special, status and has it’s own constitution and the Puerto Rico Federal Relations Act of 1950. Even so, residents of the island are still subject to the plenary jurisdiction of the U.S. Congress. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that the purpose of Congress in the 1950 and 1952 legislation was to accord to Puerto Rico the degree of autonomy and independence normally associated with a State of the Union.

        3) Of course constitutions can be amended. That does NOT imply that an amendment is necessary every time a group of voters ask for it.
        Remember, in the United States of America there have been approximately 11,539 proposals to amend the Constitution have been introduced in Congress since 1789. Only 27 have prospered. In the US it requires a national convention or 2/3 majority of Congress, followed by ratification by 3/4 of the States within 7 years. The Spanish Constitution is MUCH easier to amend. It does NOT require amendments to be ratified by 3/4 of the 17 Autonomous Communities, for example.

        Regarding the 2010 Estatut. Have you ever bothered to look at it? It has SEVENTY TIMES more articles than the US Constitution (223 vs 7), occupies near 400 pages of small typescript pages rather than 21 in large typescript, and is extremely complex (nit-picking if you like). Yet JUST ONE article was overturned, number 97 which created a parallel and independent judicial system, and some related sub-clauses in other articles. And the reason given was not that it was inconstitutional but that it was a change that should be part of an ordinary law and not part of a Statute of Autonomy. The Estatut was otherwise practically unchanged. Check it out for yourself here:- http://www.parlament.cat/activitat/estatut.pdf

        4) You very obviously do not live in Catalonia. Check out the Catalan Llei de Política Lingüística and both Lleis de Comerç, also the LEC (Llei d’Ensenyament de Catalunya). Shops could be fined up to 100.000€ for having their shop front in Spanish and not in Catalan. Thankfully, the Constitutional Tribunal has made it clear that these fines were unconstitutional. It also specifies that all Catalan schoolchildren should receive about the same number of classes in Spanish as they receive in Catalan. This obvious and reasonable judgement has yet to be applied by the recalcitrant Catalan Government.

      4. 1) Without details, there’s no way to evaluate this chart. How many are answering “don’t know”? Do these polls ask the actual plebiscite question, or do they include multiple options that will not be on the ballot, in which case “moderation bias” is at play? (Voters are more likely to pick a middle option than an “extreme” one in surveys.)

        2) The Spanish Constitution declares the “Spanish Nation” to be “indissoluble” and “indivisible.” That’s a pretty clear prohibition on secession. But in any case, there’s nothing in U.S. law to prevent a state from holding a nonbinding plebiscite on independence, which is all Artur Mas wanted to do.

        3) So if it’s much easier to amend, why won’t the Spanish government even talk about the possibility? Regarding the Statute of Autonomy, we can go back and forth on how significant the Constitutional Court’s changes were, but the changes were certainly seen to be significant in Catalonia, which is why the independence movement immediately took a leap forward.

        4) I talked to Catalans about the sign laws when I was there last week. Here’s what they told me: a) no law prohibits a shop from using Spanish in addition to Catalan; b) no law regulates the language of intraoffice communications; c) no law prevents a shop from naming itself whatever it wants, even if that name is Spanish or some other language. In those respects, the sign laws are much less strict than those found in Quebec. I don’t support such regulations on private property, but again, it’s not a huge violation of Spanish speakers’ rights to have to see Catalan on signs.

  2. 1) A quick google with ‘encuestas cis independencia cataluña’ and I came up with the latest hot-off-the press poll of 1,000 Catalan residents:-
    http://elpais.com/elpais/2014/10/04/media/1412440213_362460.html

    You will see that when a middle option is available, Pro-independence support drops to only 29% and is only the majority opinion for voters of the Nationalist ERC party.

    2) You are more expert than I on American law. Please note however, that my first post was based on a synopsis of the article written by the Chair of Madrid University’s Philosophy of Law, Francisco J Laporta, in Monday’s El Pais.

    3) You are right in that the Catalan Government controlled press, TV and Radio has persuaded millions of people that the Statute of Autonomy had been completely overturned. NOTHING is further from the truth. But hey, don’t believe me, just check it out for yourself. http://www.parlament.cat/porteso/estatut/estatut_angles_100506.pdf is the English version of the unamended text and is near identical to the finally approved one.

    The thing that most upset the Nationalists was the footnote under the Preamble that indicated that the references to ‘Catalonia as a Nation’ and ‘the National reality of Catalonia’ had no juridic effect at all.

    4a) If you put the shop name only in Spanish you could get fined. Very libertarian. One shop was fined 10,000€ for a hand-written note in the shop window ‘Guantes (gloves) 5 Euros’.

    b) Some local councils imposed a Catalan-only rule on their staff, thankfully overturned by the courts.

    c) Correct

    1. 1) “new and exclusive reinforced competencies”? Vague and not on offer. It’s natural that voters will plump for an idealized moderate solution if you offer it to them. (That was part of my presentation at Josep Irla – rational secessionism is conditional. That doesn’t mean secession can’t get majority support.) I find it suspicious that they didn’t poll the actual consultation questions. Had they done so, they would have undoubtedly found, as all polls on those questions save one have found, that a majority of those with an opinion favors Yes and Yes.

      2) OK.

      3) No one claims that the reform to the “Statute of Autonomy” was completely overturned, let alone that the statute itself was completely abolished. But the changes to the fiscal and judicial reforms were perceived by most Catalans as significant. In the U.S., for instance, it is uncontroversial that states can establish their own constitutions and have their own court systems, to which elected state officials make appointments or allow direct popular election. State courts are not controlled by the federal courts or Congress. The TC’s ruling against Catalonia’s judicial autonomy shows how Spain really isn’t a federal country. In general, I don’t think you can explain broad changes in public opinion in democracies by reference to the evil machinations of political leaders.

      4) a) I don’t like that, but it’s a relatively small thing. You can have signs in Spanish so long as they are also in Catalan – most shops would probably do this anyway because it is good for business. It’s not as if Spain itself is libertarian on language law.

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