As expected, the political climate will be hotting up in Catalonia over the next few months, not only because a nationalist party (the moderate centre-right Convergence and Union) took office following the Catalan general election which was held on November 28th but because the unofficial local referendums on Catalan independence reach their climax in the capital, Barcelona, on April 10th, around which time, as was announced yesterday, according to unverified reports, a Catalan independence bill sponsored by the minority sovereignist party known as Catalan Solidarity for Independence (4 seats) may be supported in the Catalan Parliament by the governing party (62 seats), which is just 6 seats short of an overall majority in the autonomous community’s legislature.
For the first time in its history the Catalan Parliament is apparently preparing to organize an internal vote on the independence of its territory, which was taken over by Spain in 1714 as a result of the War of the Spanish Succession, just 7 years after Scotland lost its independence. The 135 members of the Catalan Parliament are to be invited to vote on a proposal to create a Catalan state, independent of Spain, within the European Union. Unsurprisingly, this proposal will be opposed by the Catalan Socialist Party, which led the governing coalition which was defeated in November, and by the right-wing (Spanish nationalist) Popular Party, which is about as popular in Catalonia as death and taxes. For the bill to be passed the support of the left-wing republican sovereignist party known as Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (10 seats), which was a member of the coalition which left office last year, would seem to be required.
A week, as they say, is a long time in politics, and a great deal of (troubled) water may flow under the bridge between now and April. What one knows for certain at present, at least, on the subject of support for Catalan independence is that attitudes towards the concept have changed and are continuing to change, not least in the governing party. Its grand old man, Jordi Pujol, a former President of the Generalitat, blogged on this as follows on January 25th:
“(…) right now it would be naïve to think that the pressure being piled on the autonomic system, and indeed on Catalonia’s identity, self-government and economy, could be stopped with new negotiations, as some Catalan socialists pretend. At present any change in this matter will more likely be for the worse than for the better. Thus the only alternative would be independence.
As we have often said, for many years the majority of the Catalan nationalist movement has not looked to independence. It has played its hand for autonomy with a high level of economically viable political and administrative competencies and with a guarantee of Catalan identity. And it has rejected the demands of those sectors that called for independence. It had reasons for doing so. Now it no longer has them (…)
Independence is difficult to achieve. The alternative, the one imposed by Spain, the Spanish parties and Spanish institutions, is not difficult; it is merely tantamount to surrender. And to accepting the marginalization and downfall of Catalonia. It is easy. But it would mean our collective demise. Should it come to it, people who previously never dreamt of it would vote for independence.”
When Mr Pujol refers to “pressure being piled on the autonomic system, and indeed on Catalonia’s identity, self-government and economy”, what he is alluding to in part is the centrally preoccupying issue of the status of Catalonia as a fiscally contributing region within the Spanish state’s current system of asymmetric devolution, which in the present dire economic circumstances of Spain is increasingly a bone of contention among Catalans. A Catalan News Agency article on Spanish and Catalan public debt in this connection may throw some light on the matter, as does a recent post at Col·lectiu Emma, which is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their business to try and set the record straight on news items published in the international press relating to various aspects of Catalan society:
“(…) the Spanish devolution system doesn’t contemplate any measure of fiscal responsibility by those who get to spend the money. Since most regions are net recipients, their governments have little incentive for wisely managing their budgets, while net contributors like Catalonia have no say in the way that funds are distributed and are required to foot the bill regardless.
(…) the Catalan debt (around 40 billion euros at the end of 2010) amounts to twice the sum that the central government collects from Catalonia every year and uses for its own purposes outside the region – a total estimated at over 20 billion euros, or 10% of the region’s GDP. If Catalans had a chance to spend that money for their own needs, their deficit could be easily squared up, and in very little time. This, more than anything else, explains the present difficulties in Catalonia and also points the way to their solution.When former Spanish premier Aznar said recently that a state with 17 regional governments was not viable, implying that the autonomous system in place needs to be rolled back, he failed to explain how a recentralized Spain could be made to work. Catalan president Artur Mas replied that he couldn’t speak for Spain, but that he knew for sure that Catalonia was viable. Especially, one might add, if Catalans didn’t have to bear the cost of a system that is stacked against them.”When Mr Pujol refers to the fact that “for many years the majority of the Catalan nationalist movement has not looked to independence”, he suggests that the current governing party, Convergence and Union (CiU), has been driven by force of circumstance, in view of the fiscal, economic and constitutional impasse which it has now reached within the Spanish state, to contemplate abandoning devolution in favour of independence. If the CiU joins forces with the primarily independentist groups in the Catalan Parliament, Solidaritat Catalana and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, there is majority parliamentary support for independence. Whether the measure which Solidaritat Catalana has brought forward for consideration in the near future can rally such support behind it remains to be seen. At the very least the CiU can conceivably obtain concessions from the Spanish government by showing itself to be at least ambivalent about such issues. As the CNA report referred to above indicates, the Spanish nationalist Popular Party is accusing Catalonia of obtaining preferential treatment by such means. Significantly, perhaps, a split appears to have opened up within that party, as the leader of the PP in Catalonia, Alícia Sánchez-Camacho, has come out against her party’s Madrid leadership on this matter.
What is happening in Catalonia, translated into Scottish terms, might be said to be roughly as follows. The largest pro-devolution anti-independence political party – that would be the group that calls itself the Scottish Labour Party – increasingly asserts that devolution is not serving the best interests of the country and that further attempts to develop it are not likely to be beneficial. Accordingly, it is flirting with the more alluring prospects which independence appears to offer in comparison and is drawing nearer to the SNP. Clearly, as things stand, that would be nothing short of a fantasy. In Catalonia, on the other hand, what would not so long ago have been regarded as fantastical is in the process of transforming itself into a reality the contours of which will become clearer over the coming months.