Can Europe Make It?

Catalan independence: the necessary choice

After many years of beating our heads against the wall of the Spanish state, trying to reform it into something more multi-national, we’ve come to the conclusion that it is best to simply jump over that wall. Interview with the Catalan National Assembly (Assemblea Nacional Catalana).

Fernando Betancor
20 June 2014

Catalan National Assembly. Wikimedia commons. Public domain.

I had the opportunity to interview members of the Catalan National Assembly and ask them questions regarding the “Catalan way”, the current state of Spanish politics and their vision of the future. We met in their headquarters in Barcelona and conversed in Spanish. The following is a summary of our interview, not a verbatim transcription. The opinions expressed in this article are not mine and none of the factual statements made have been verified by me. Any errors or misrepresentations of the statements of the speakers are entirely my own responsibility. This transcription has been reviewed and approved by the participant.


  • Ricard Gené, Secretariat
  • Maarten de Jongh, Economy Sectorial
  • Irene Martín, National Secretariat Nacional and coordinator of “El País de Tots”
  • Josep Pedrol, Secretariat
  • Anna Salvans, Public Relations
  • Josep Vazquez, Economy Sectorial

Section: Politics


1. What is the Catalan National Assembly?

We are a voluntary association of individuals who are dedicated to obtaining the independence of Catalonia. It is a citizens’ organization with between 500 and 550 territorial assemblies in Catalonia, more than 30 abroad and more than 50 sectorial assemblies. The territorial assemblies are constituted through local initiatives and require 20 signatures in order to be recognized. The foundational assembly was constituted on the 10th of March, 2012 and has since grown to include 32,000 to 33,000 dues paying members and more than 20,000 associate members who cooperate with us, but do not pay dues.

We leave ideology at the door. Above party politics, the ANC is composed of people dedicated to the common project of building up the nation. Almost all of the Catalan parties are represented in our ranks, but no one is allowed to take a partisan position in any official act or statement for the Assembly. This has been a tremendously enriching experience which has opened the minds of many of our members; it has obliged us to work with other Catalans that may have radically different opinions from ou own, except on the question of independence.

Five years ago, for many of us, independence would have inconceivable. The decision by the Constitutional Court to reject large parts of the Catalan Statutory Reform in 2010 acted as a catalyst to convince many people that there was no longer any other solution open to the Catalan people. It began before that even, when the People’s Party organized a campaign to gather signatures against the statutory reform. The People’s Party tried to convince Spaniards through these campaigns that “Catalonia is trying to rob us” which was humiliating and served to increase tensions. Although the People’s Party was aiming to score points against the governing Socialist Party, they were actually slapping the Catalan people in the face. There have been many other deceptions and disillusionments, but that one was the worst: it was the one that made us realize that there could never be an understanding with the rest of Spain.

In truth, the situation had begun to deteriorate rapidly in 2003, which is when we finally decided that it was necessary to reform our Statute of Autonomy; precisely because the old charter was being whittled away and ignored from some time. There are many laws the government is not complying with, such as the law returning the archives of the Civil War years to Catalonia from the National Archives in Salamanca. Or the ruling by the Constitutional Court in favor of the Generalitat in the management of university grant; that ruling still hasn’t been implemented. We could give many more examples. The Council of Statutory Guarantees (Consejo de Garantía Estutaria) publishes a list of infractions and violations of the competencies pertaining to the Autonomous Communities, which now amounts to a very sizeable tome. Foreigners can’t believe that this is true, that no one demands accountability or are ignored, but that is how it is. When some people say that the demand for a referendum is principally due to the impact of the financial crisis, it is a lie: it might have exacerbated the situation for some people, but it was never the principal motivation.

2. What does the ANC do?

We have lots of very capable volunteers who are collaborating with us in our work.

In the Secretariat, we organize official acts and events, prepare and send out communications. We work with the very practical objective of trying to convince the public. Basically, we are working on five projects at this time:

  • · “El País de Tots”(Everyone’s Country):  a space where we want to provide information and arguments to convince undecided and uninformed voters, as well as for maintaining social cohesion, something that Catalonia has always enjoyed;
  • · “El País que Volem” (The Country You Want): an open platform where any and all citizens can participate, leaving their views on what they would like a new Catalan state to look like. It was launched three weeks ago and is starting to gain traction. Anyone can propose anything, and these ideas will be presented for consideration to the first Parliament of an independent Catalonia;
  • · “Cataluña al Mundo” (Catalonia to the World): we are trying to capture international attention, working with journalists – or with anyone interested in speaking with us – not with the purpose of convincing them, it’s not about that; rather with the goal of explaining our point of view and our reasons for believing what we believe. We’ve come to realize that understanding can often depend on cultural context. Anglo-Saxons tend to understand us quite well, because they are cultures focused on democracy and citizen empowerment; while Italians and Germans, because of their recent history of national consolidation, sometimes see things differently;
  • · “Signa un Vot” (Sign For Your Vote): we propose to collect signatures to present a mass petition to the Catalan government and elected officials, based on our right to petition government; which is a fundamental civil right codified in Spanish law, in European law and in International law;
  • · “De La Desobediencia a la Soberanía” (From Disobedience to Sovereignty): we are trying to paint the picture of the change that is coming in order to prepare people for it. They are going to go from being accused of civil disobedience by the Spanish state, to being sovereigns in their own new Catalan state. This is a big change in perspective and takes some getting used to.

Our basic and most important objective is to remain true to our democratic and non-violent principles. After that, we obviously want to secure the right to vote; and once we secure the right to vote, we want to convince citizens to vote “yes”.

In the Economy Assembly, we have volunteer economists working to analyze relevant economic information, especially to clear up the doubts and uncertainties that the people entertain. We work closely to help our colleagues in the other assemblies by preparing different types of analysis regarding the most interesting and frequently asked topics: what will happen to jobs, to pensions, to infrastructure. There is much more we’d like to do, but it is still slow going. Our biggest success came at the end of March, we organized a forum in Barcelona of internationally recognized Catalan economists; this event was very successful and had a global reach.

The territorial assemblies are in touch with the people; the sectorial assemblies provide the information and analysis that the local assemblies request; we prepare documents, presentations, we’ve even written a book, though it is not yet translated into English. One of the principle studies we are currently undertaking is the analysis of the Catalan contribution to the Spanish budget and how much of it is returned to Catalonia as investment.

Another of our current campaigns is “Declárate a Cataluña” (Declare Yourself Catalonia): once our citizens have filed their income tax returns to the Spanish Treasury, we are asking them to share that information with the Catalan government. This is so that a future Catalan Treasury would have the necessary tax data for its own citizens, something that the Spanish Tax Authority refuses to share. Even when it is the Catalan Parliament that asks for the information.  There is a provision in the reformed Catalan statute which requires the joint management of Catalan fiscal matters by the Generalitat and the Spanish Tax Authority by means of a consortium. This provision was not among those annulled by the Constitutional Court’s ruling; notwithstanding, there has not been the slightest effort made to develop it.

The statute also established a bilateral commission between the Spanish and Catalan governments whose purpose was to oversee the transfer of those competencies which were to be devolved to the Generalitat. During what was left of the PSOE’s second administration, the commission did meet, though with meager results. The commission has not met even a single time in two and a half years, ever since the People’s Party won an absolute majority in the last general elections; despite repeated and insistent petitions by the Generalitat that it should do so. It is curious to us that the People’s Party should demand that Spanish laws be obeyed, when they are the first to ignore and violate them. After all, the Catalan Statute is a Spanish fundamental law (Ley Orgánica), approved by the Spanish Parliament; it is not an invention of the Catalan Parliament. It is also a political pact, and that pact is not being respected.

3. The Spanish government insists that, in 1978, Catalans voted in favor of the current Spanish Constitution and cannot unilaterally ignore it.

Yes, in ’78 we voted in favor of the Constitution, because Catalans wanted to recover their democratic rights and put an end to Francoism. Since then, however, what we have seen is that promises are broken, the legal framework doesn’t protect us and since we are a minority – and always will be – we have no possibility of reforming the constitution. What does it matter that our fathers’ generation voted in favor of the constitution thirty years ago? The majority of the Basques voted against it; so? Does that mean they can leave anytime they want? Apparently not. That argument suffers from a grave legal fallacy: the right to self-determination is not exercised a single time and then lost, it is a perpetual right. A new generation of Catalans now claims that right in order to decide whether or not they will live under the same constitution.

After many years of beating our heads against the wall of the Spanish state, trying to reform it into something more multi-national, we’ve come to the conclusion that it is best to simply jump over that wall. A country where the rule of law is treated so frivolously – not just towards Catalans, but towards all Spaniards – is not a serious country.

4. What is the relationship of the ANC with the Catalan government?

There is a commission in the Secretariat that meets once a month with all political parties that support the referendum; evidently we don’t meet with the People’s Party or Citizens. With the Catalan government there are no official ties, only through our dialogue with the parties. There could be personal contacts between members of the ANC and the government, but nothing official and there is no political coordination. Nobody here wants to make trouble for the government, they have worries enough as it is. It is not true, as some suggest, that the ANC is setting anyone’s agenda in the government.

5. How do you evaluate the results of the European elections? The Republican Left (Esquerra Republicana) won a historic victory over their partners in government, CiU: what lessons do you take from these results?

It’s not exactly true that CiU lost the election – they ended up winning 100.000 more votes. But Esquerar did win a higher percentage than CiU.

The reading we have is that people voted on the basis of each party’s stance on the referendum and the party that gives the best guarantees of that is ERC. These elections were turned into a sort of “pre-vote” on the referendum and that’s how people saw it. With CiU, people have more doubts about their commitment to the consultation, especially after some comments made by Mr. Durán I Lleida. Also, one of the euro deputies from CiU (the one from Unió) will be sitting with the People’s Party delegates in the same European Party alignment, which generates even more doubts in people’s heads.

6. What impact will the abdication of King Juan Carlos I and the succession of his son as Felipe VI have on the “Catalan way?” Has this event change the political calculus in Catalonia?

The ANC doesn’t have an official position on the king’s abdication. It is obvious that the Prince will want to offer an alternative – a “third way” – and perhaps to introduce some rationality and moderation to the situation. The fact that he speaks Catalan is well and good; but when the Prince came to Catalonia last time, he met with a very small group of Catalan businessmen, primarily those with substantial business interests in the rest of Spain. Very good: but if he really wants to participate in the debate as a good faith negotiator, he ought to meet with the people that actually want independence, and explain to us why we should change our minds. The monarchy talks about changing its image, but the day after the abdication announcement, they celebrate an official event with the King and Prince in military uniform, surrounded by military officers, Civil Guards and priests. That is very much the old and disreputable image of the monarchy; they ought to have done a better job of scheduling events! It won’t be enough to speak Catalan with a certain degree of proficiency to convince the people to give up their rights.

We don’t expect much to change; at least those of us in the Assembly have no interest in maintaining any link to Spain or the monarchy. If their purpose was to distract us, they will not succeed. If the monarchy had really wanted to make progress in Catalonia, they should have taken steps a long time ago: now we really can’t see that there is anything they could do to change the situation. Our objective is to continue organizing the independence referendum in accord with our firm conviction that the Catalan people have a right to decide their own future.  We say that with all due respect to the Spanish Crown and the Spanish Key, but that’s how we see them: as pertaining to Spain, not Catalonia.

7. The new party Podemos has erupted onto the political scene as a potential third force at a national level, yet it received almost no votes in the Catalan provinces. What is the CNA’s position with respect to Podemos and their program? To what do you attribute the lack of support for Podemos in Catalonia?

Primarily because Catalonia has the added dimension of the independence movement and so the traditional (Catalan) parties were not punished as severely as in the rest of Spain, as was the case with the People’s Party and the Socialists.  In fact, CiU ended up winning more votes in absolute terms, thought they lost in relative terms to ERC.

8. The performance of the Catalan human castles was just celebrated in 7 European cities in support of a Catalan referendum. How do you see international opinion towards the plebiscite? Has it evolved or is it still the same?

The objective of the castellers  was to reach places we had not yet reached, to be seen on front pages and on TV in countries that had little or no knowledge of the objectives of the Catalan process. In Germany, for example, we had a lot of coverage thanks to the unexpected appearance of Pep Guardiola; in London, there was a great photo of the castellers in front of London Bridge; in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower; in Brussels, in front of the European Parliament. The idea was also to demonstrate the values of the independence movement; of a human project, working together, as a team, with great effort and coordination; in the end, more than 5,000 castellers gathered in over 80 cities, though it was the performances in the seven European cities that received the most attention because they were staged simultaneously and were thus easier to communicate to the local press.

Compared to 2 years ago, yes, there is a lot more international awareness; before there were no articles in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Financial Times or the Guardian, but now there are. Besides, the international press is starting to understand the important issues at stake, like democracy: why can’t there be a democratic referendum in Catalonia like there is in Scotland? It’s also true that a few years ago, lots of international papers depended on their local correspondents in Madrid, who had a very definite opinion. They accused of us being a bunch of wealthy elites who wanted our independence in order to pay less in taxes; but bit by bit, the international press is changing its message and focusing on the Catalans arguments.

9. Is there any acceptable alternative to independence? Is there any possibility or interest of maintaining some link to Spain – for example, a dynastic union under the Bourbon crown or a Federalist model?

At the end of the First World War, the last Kaiser of Austria-Hungary, Karl I, brought together the representatives of the Slavic people of the Empire and proposed to them a pact to change the Dual Monarchy into a Triple Monarchy and so avoid the fragmentation of the Empire. But the Slav delegates answered: “Your Majesty, that is what we have been asking for all these years; but now it is too late.”

From our point of view in the Assembly, no other possibility exists. A dynastic union between the two states as independent and equal, rather than confederal, is simply not credible: they would not offer it and we would not want it. Such an offer might have been acceptable years ago, but not anymore. Regarding a constitutional reform to create a new federal structure for the state: if they don’t even obey the current constitution, why should we believe that they would obey a new one? Independence is the only guarantee that we have – that they’ve left us – of our rights.

10. How would you explain the “Catalan way” to an American audience?

We are in a situation where our constitutional right to autonomy is not and never has been respected. Not only is there a complete lack of willingness to develop the degree of autonomy in Catalonia that had been agreed upon, there is in fact a grave regression in terms of powers that had already devolved. Some examples of these include: the new Education Law; the Law on Market Unification; the Law on Rationalization of Local Administrations (municipalities and provinces); the Law on Commercial Operating Hours; the obstruction of the restitution of the archives stolen and relocated by Franco; the proposal to re-centralize responsibility for workplace and labor conditions inspections; the protection of the centralized and monopolistic airport administration prior to a partial privatization in the future; and the reform of the Law of Ports.

There is also the question of incompatible values. New laws that are examples of political and social regression that affect all of Spain such as: the proposed Law on Abortion; the proposed reform of the Administration of Justice; the promotion of bullfighting; the limitations imposed on free access to the justice system; among others.

Since we are a minority in the country, and always will be, and faced with the definitive rejection of negotiation by the Spanish government, we recognize the utter impossibility of reforming the status quo. For these reasons, the solution is independence. We’re not talking about changes in national ideology, shifts to the left or the right that might suit us more or less; we are dealing with a situation in which we either submit to permanent political and cultural subjugation or else we free ourselves. With the former, we face the extinction of our freedom, of our language and of our culture.

In the end, our political cohesion has been broken: but it has been broken by the Spanish government, not by the Catalans.

Section: Economy and Business


11. Recently there has been good news about private investment in Catalonia. How do you see the evolution of the Catalan economy this year? Which are the most attractive sectors for American investors?

Catalonia is a technological leader in Spain. For example, the sectors of medical research and development, the bio-pharmaceutical industry, the agro-food sector, the automotive industry, the audio-visual industry. This information is available to foreign investors on the webpage: “Invest in Catalonia”.

12. Certain Spanish politicians and analysts have said that the independence of Catalonia would ruin the Catalans. How do you view this forecast? If you disagree with it, could you please explain why?

The only one who could ruin the Catalan people is the Spanish government. None of the calamities these people warn of come directly out of our independence, rather they would be the fruits of the Spanish government’s revenge. The expulsion of Catalonia from the Euro, the imposition of frontiers and trade barriers where none exist; all of these would be imposed by the Spanish government as they certainly don’t interest the Catalan government in the least. In other words, the pain inflicted on the Catalans would come from the settling of accounts of a vengeful Spain. But if there is a negotiated solution, there will be no catastrophe: and it is in the Spanish government’s best interest to negotiate so as not to be saddled with the entire national debt, which they could not repay.

13. The same authors warn of massive capital and deposit flight in the event of a declaration of independence. How do you evaluate this possibility’ What guarantees or measures are being contemplated by the Catalan government in the event of a “yes” victory to prevent this from occurring?

There would be greater legal guarantees in an independent Catalonia than in Spain today, where no one respects the laws or signed covenants, like in the energy sector. In any case, the Catalans haven’t lost their minds and our objective isn’t revolutionary, it is democratic. Private investments would continue to be treated according to the existing laws and would be protected absolutely. It should be obvious that the multinationals that are investing in Catalonia today aren’t in the least bit worried: it is simply not credible that they would have started so many important projects in 2013 -   nearly half of all industrial investment in the whole of Spain for that year – if the investors were worried about what might happen in Catalonia. In spite of the scare tactics employed by the Spanish government, we should add.

Spanish legislation is already adapted to European standards; and any new legislation or standards adopted subsequently by an independent Catalonia would also be in accordance with European norms. That is why investors don’t care whether Catalonia is independent or not; nothing would change. What might matter more is the possibility of a Spanish boycott on Catalan products after independence; but in fact, we are already living with this boycott since 2005/2006. One study done a few years ago estimated that the boycott could be costing us as much as 2% of our GDP every year. But, in some sense, this has actually benefited Catalan businesses, who had to turn to exports and were thus better prepared to deal with the crisis when it came.

14. What would be the attitude of the Catalan government with respect to the Catalan public debt and the Spanish public debt in the event of independence? What guarantees could the new state offer to protect invested capital and assure the payment of interest?

That is more properly a question for the Generalitat, we can’t answer it from the Assembly. Nevertheless, it is probable that the Spanish government will have to negotiate: European and international creditors will want what is owed them, and so they will put pressure to come to an agreement on how to divide the public debt. What’s more, what happens in Spain will affect the rest of Europe and the Euro. It is hard to believe that the Spanish government’s intransigence will be allowed to ruin the whole European Union.

Thank you for this interview.

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