On the 11th of September 2012 (Diada Nacional de Catalunya or Catalonia National Day) thousands upon thousands of people – some estimates put the figure as high as 600,000, others at over a million – marched through the streets of Barcelona carrying the Estelada, the flag of the Catalan independence movement. It was an unprecedented show of support for the movement, and what made it especially notable was that Artur Mas, then-regional President of Catalonia, became the primary political spokesperson for Independence where before he had been rather more tepid on the matter. In front of the large crowd, he declared: “Outside Catalonia, they must pay attention to what is going to happen today. To what the people ask for, what they want, and what they feel.” Soon after, there would be open talk of consulting the Catalan people on the possibility of holding a referendum to determine whether or not Catalonia should separate from Spain and become a separate nation. To a journalist during the Diada, Mas affirmed: “The road to independence is open.”
FIVE YEARS LATER
September 2017 will mark the five-year anniversary of that remarkable day. A lot has happened since then, but perhaps not what many had imagined: Artur Mas’ group, the Political federation CiU composed of two different Parties, lost its absolute majority in the Catalan parliament and, after undergoing a crisis in 2015, split back into two separate groups. ERC, a far left-wing Republican Party, came into considerable prominence by gaining seats in the Catalan parliament. A consultation on a referendum was held and the vote came overwhelmingly in favour of the referendum. Now, its organizers are embroiled in a lengthy legal battle where the legality of that consultation is being called into question. Those involved have defended themselves in a myriad of fashions: Some affirm that they had no idea it was illegal, others that it is covered by their rights of free speech, or that it is a nation’s sovereign right which, as they state emphatically, Catalonia has.
“Outside Catalonia, they must pay attention to what is going to happen today. To what the people ask for, what they want, and what they feel.”
Mas is no longer the Catalan President, having been asked to leave by the very coalition he once led. The young Carles Puigdemont, designated by Mas as his successor, now stands as the public face of the Catalan government and its calls for an independence referendum. A referendum which, as the Spanish government has insisted since the beginning, would be unconstitutional and illegal, and any result null and void. Initial claims that Catalonia would be prosperous if it separated from Spain have been undermined both by businesses in Catalonia as well as by international sources (see the section on the Forbes article for more details). For its part, the EU has continued to state the same message: If Catalonia becomes an independent nation, it must go through the same process as every other country to apply for membership. While there continues to be support for independence, there is a vigorous pro-Spain opposition movement formed by the Catalan branches of the PP and PSOE, and surveys conducted have indicated growing numbers of Catalans who are just getting fed up with the whole situation.
The PP, meanwhile, has held to a constant yet much-criticized position: It has refused to even debate the possibility of independence. Meetings between Catalan and PP leaders have thus far been limited and the discussions therein even more so. No serious attempt has been made to approach the matter in long negotiations or with diplomacy. Rather, President Rajoy and his cabinet have insisted on the importance of adhering to the law, and on the impracticality of an independent Catalonia. If nothing else, at least, the position has been consistent.
This year, Puigdemont has made clear his mission to hold the independence referendum in September, which is the same month of the Diada which in 2012 brought so many people to the streets. The government has held to its stance: Any referendum would be unconstitutional, and its result illegal and non-binding. Both the independence movement and the government are locked in a legal and rhetorical battle which, over the years, has certainly become louder while lacking any significant evolution.
FORBES: “NOT IN CATALONIA’S INTEREST.”
In 2012, one of the most commonly-used arguments by Catalan Independence leaders was that Catalonia would indisputably be economically better off as an independent nation: The region is – and historically has usually been – one of the wealthiest in Spain, making up 20% of the country’s GNP, while Barcelona in particular is a hub that attracts tourists, businessmen and financiers. Supporters at street-level would sometimes go farther: Independence would not only improve the quality of the Catalan people’s lives, it would impact negatively the rest of Spain by taking away one of its richest regions.
Yet in 2015, Forbes published an article titled ‘Catalonia and the Costs of Independence’. In its very first paragraph, the article painted a bleak picture of independence: “A potential breakup of Spain is not in the U.S interest, not in Spain’s interest and ultimately, not in Catalonia’s interest.” And it went further. Mas’ effort, stated the article “Should be viewed with considerable scepticism.” An independent Catalonia would have to assume a significant part of Spain’s debts while dealing with a mass exodus of Spanish and multinational companies. The article went on to state that Catalan leaders, Mas included, were not being honest in presenting these costs to their voters.
The article certainly did not help Mas’ reputation at the time, particularly as he was being heavily criticized of using Catalan independence at a time when the region is the most heavily indebted in Spain and has required large bailouts, a circumstance used by many as an accusation that Mas was wielding the question of independence not as a genuinely-held ideology, but as a cynical negotiation tactic.
CATALONIA AND EUROPE
If the Catalan situation has a European comparison, the first that comes to mind is the Scottish independence movement. The SNP was able to hold a referendum in 2014, and in April of this year the Scottish Parliament passed a motion to petition the government in Westminster to hold a second referendum, citing that the significant change in the situation within the UK – specifically Brexit, which a majority of Scots voted against.
There is, however, a significant difference between the Catalan independence movement and the Scottish one: Through consistent internal policies, the SNP has been able to present a largely united front to the public. Catalonia, however, has seen internal divisions in its own structure which have been seized upon by the media: Artus Mas’ own CiU was general a Centre-Right organization tending to conservatism, which saw itself creating a coalition with far-left Republicans, whose ideals for an independent Catalonia were not always the same as those of Mas and his colleagues. Not only that, Mas also had to deal with finding himself drawn into the controversial case of his mentor: Jordi Pujol, the former president of Catalonia and once one of the region’s most significant political figures, now caught in a large and notorious corruption scandal of such a scale that several legal prosecutors have dubbed the Pujol family a “Criminal organization”. Pujol’s close relationship to Mas, along with the scandal of the charges brought against him, has appeared to cause visible internal divisions in the independence movement in a way that the Scottish independence movement has, for the moment, been careful to avoid.
Then there is the final matter of the EU. Whether one is inside or outside of Catalonia, the fact remains that all of Spain is strongly pro-European Union. The leaders of Independence movement have done their best to assure their voters that an independent Catalonia will have a secure place in Europe. The EU, for its part, has simply stated that Catalonia – along with Scotland – would have to go through the entire legal process to apply to the EU if they should become an independent entity. Given the possible economic implications of independence as claimed by Forbes – coupled with the limited success Catalan leaders have had in attracting international support – this may not be an appealing prospect for the Catalan government or the Catalan people.
A WHEEL SPINNING IN THE MUD
Right now, the Catalan government is locked in a continuous legal battle with the PP government, the Constitutional Court of Spain, and other legal entities, in its drive to create a legal framework to hold its Independence Referendum in September of this year. The back-and-forth disputes continue to yield little to no result other than threats, promises, recriminations, affirmations, legal pablum and populist rhetoric. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the Catalan government will, indeed, hold its referendum as it has repeatedly stated it will, and it is equally likely that such an action will be classified by the government as illegal and not worth considering. From there, two things may happen: The result comes out in favour of Catalan independence, in which case the PP government will hold to its rhetoric that the referendum was conducted illegally and that its result is invalid, while the pro-independence movement will hail it as a landmark and will continue to push for separation from Spain. This will, to all practical effects, do nothing save prolong the already too-long legal battle and verbal war between the pro-Independence and pro-Spanish sides, with likely little of substance being accomplished for a long time.
The second possibility is that the referendum will come out in favour of remaining in Spain, in which case Puigdemont’s government, the pro-independence parties, and the pro-independence movement as a whole will face a similarly uncertain reality as the Scottish National Party after the 2014 referendum results: not giving up their rhetoric or statements, but now dependent on the relationship with the rest of Spain changing noticeably, in a way that is not to the liking of the Catalan people. In the meantime, the PP government could perhaps conveniently reverse a key part of its stance and claim that, while the referendum was illegal, its result is in fact valid, and hold to that.
As the situation currently stands, if one puts aside the flags and grandiose speeches or the promises and threats, one finds that the issue of Catalonia’s independence can be summed up in a simple visual metaphor: A wheel, not turning but rather spinning in a mudhole. Neither retreating nor advancing, but sinking deeper into the quagmire as it flings muck onto anyone close to it, even those only tangentially so.
And it shows no sign of stopping its spinning.
Image: ‘Estelada blava’ ‘La estelada azul, una variación de la bandera independentista de Cataluña’ by Wikipedia user Huhsunqu, Wikipedia, Wikimedia Commons, free content.