Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia: a new country in the making?

A few years ago, independence supporters like me were a minority in parliament. Now I feel we are just a small step away from an independent Catalan state.

Jordi Sole i Ferrando
19 August 2015

Independence supporters. Flickr/Joan Campderrós-i-Canas. Some rights reserved.How did we reach the point of being just a step away from an independent Catalan state when only a few years ago independentists were a parliamentary minority?

Firstly, because Catalonia’s strong sense of nationhood is shared by the majority of the population and rooted in a history of having its own language and cultural traditions. This is inextricably linked to the collective willingness of its people to build a common future.

This sense of nationhood has overcome many hurdles throughout the last three centuries and is very much alive today. Without it any independence movement would be too inorganic.

Secondly, the Spanish state has never accepted its national diversity or acted as a multi-national state. Perhaps, if the distinctive nations in Spain such as Basque Country or Catalonia could have found fair accommodation within the institutional structure of a democratic Spain then things would be different.

For instance if their languages, cultures and institutions had been better respected and even promoted; if a bilateral relationship between these countries and the central state had emerged, there may not have been the strong drive towards independence we see today as there would have been no build up of bitterness and grievance over many years.

Moreover, in recent times there has been a clear attempt to recentralise political power in Madrid. The Spanish Government is systematically eroding the powers of Catalonia by passing laws that clearly clash with devolved powers, or by constantly challenging laws passed by the Catalan Parliament.

The central government also uses its financial powers to cut the Catalan Government’s room for manoeuvre, and together with certain parties has been playing games with highly sensitive issues such as the language system in Catalan schools, a system that works very well but is constantly attacked by Spanish political actors and from the judiciary. 

Spain’s standards of democracy are quite low compared to other EU countries. One example of this would be the incident regarding the new ‘Statute of Autonomy’ or Catalan basic law. The drafting of a new Statute in 2006 was an invitation to Spain to move towards the path of federal reform. The proposal was everything but a breakaway, but the process ended with what was perceived in Catalonia as a huge humiliation. Despite being passed by the Spanish and Catalan Parliaments and ratified by referendum in Catalonia, the text was severely altered by ten judges in the Constitutional Court – all directly nominated by the main Spanish political parties – four years after it had entered into force.

Another example of low-quality democracy, and of a political culture that doesn’t accept nor respect political diversity, is the way Spanish institutions chose to deal with Catalonia’s request to organise a legal referendum on its political future – a referendum supported by more than 80 per cent of Catalans and by a clear parliamentary majority in Barcelona.

Despite all attempts by the Catalan Government and Parliament, Madrid has refused Catalans the opportunity to decide their political future. It is not so much about lack of legal scope in the framework of the Spanish Constitution; rather, there is no political will to recognise Catalonia as a distinct political entity. Spanish nationalism, shared by all relevant political parties, old and new, continues to see Spain as one nation, and a unity that cannot be questioned by even the most democratic procedures.

Those who think that the current push for ndependence will disappear once the economic crisis in Spain is gone are bitterly mistaken. A large proportion of Catalan society has lost confidence in Spanish institutions forever, mainly because agreements between Catalonia and the Spanish State have ended in nothing or have too often been broken by central government.

Some observers may think that the prospect of huge political change in Madrid after the upcoming Spanish elections will alter attitudes in terms of the institutional structure of the state and recognition of Catalonia as a national political entity within Spain.

Well, we feel this is very unlikely because no mainstream Spanish political party – not even the new left, Podemos – is proposing such a deal. Such a proposal, which in many aspects would seem reasonable, would be punished by the Spanish voters. After all that has happened, the Catalan people would never accept any deal with Spain that fails to recognise Catalonia as a nation with the full legal and political capacity to decide its own future.

To better understand the Catalan Independence movement one should keep in mind that for the Catalans, independence is a project of hope and change. Hope for a fairer, more advanced and more prosperous country, where democracy works better and corruption is eradicated. Change for a country that, given the opportunity to manage its own resources, can become one of the most dynamic in Europe.

The key to the success of the independence movement is the link between Independence and socio-economic improvement. Independence is not the end of the road but rather the starting point, the best opportunity we will ever have to improve our country.

The Catalan Independence movement has nothing to do with old-fashioned, introverted, exclusive nationalism. It is not about defending a monolithic identity within the walls of a new border because Catalonia is an extremely diverse country with many cultures, languages and origins, and we are proud of this diversity.

We want independence because without the tools of our own state, we will never be able to use and develop our potential to the fullest. We have not reached this conclusion lightly but only after decades of trying in vain to change the nature of the Spanish state, in order to better accommodate our country within it. 

The independence movement is a grassroots one; a ‘bottom-up’ project. It originated in the streets and changed the minds of many political actors, not least the very same Catalan Government.

Civil society played a pivotal role mobilising people around the idea of independence which highlights the real strength of the movement. It is a popular and, ideologically speaking, a very cross-cutting one. Contrary to other independence movements, the goal of independence is now clearly shared and defended by political positions, from left to centre-right, which clearly makes it more complex but simultaneously stronger. The combined efforts of both civic society and the political establishment are amongst its key successes.

Our movement is largely pro-European. We are and will continue to be European citizens. We want to become the next EU member state, a state born in the ballot boxes, through the free expression of the democratic will of its citizens. EU institutions will not close the door to such a state; that would be like turning their backs to democracy, one of the core values of the European project.

All we have tried to achieve over the past two years is a democratic mandate from the Catalan people to discover if there is a majority in favour of becoming a state or not. Unfortunately, this has proved impossible as a legal and binding referendum has been consistently refused by the Spanish authorities.

Last November’s vote – a wide participatory process without any legal basis – was declared unconstitutional, and charges against the Catalan President and two Ministers have been pressed. 2.3 million people voted in the referendum despite all the intimidation and threats made by the Spanish Government. But instead of taking note and try to deal with it, Spain opted to go to the courts.

The only legal mechanism we are left with is to turn the Catalan parliamentary elections on September 27 into the referendum we could not have. In other words, to transform a normal election into a plebiscitary one.

A joint pro-independence list will compete in the elections with a clear commitment to independence in its programme. Voting for that list or for any other pro-independence parties would be the equivalent of casting a Yes vote in a normal, Scottish-style referendum.

Then, if pro-independence MPs make up the majority in the new parliament, we will go ahead and exercise our right to self-determination by proclaiming independence within 18 months. If no such majority occurs, then a good opportunity will have been missed.

Nevertheless, as was said in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, our dream of an independent Catalonia shall never die. We will never give up. We will continue trying to build a democratic majority that sees independence as the best solution. We are independentists, but first and above all, we are democrats.

Nevertheless, we will do our utmost to make use of the best opportunity we have ever had to build our free and modern state.

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