Jacob Dirnhuber reports on the changing political landscape of Spain, in the light of a Catalan shift towards independence
Catalonia moved one step closer to autonomy last week after its citizens voted overwhelmingly for pro-independence parties in a recent election.
Catalonia is a small region in north-western Spain that has long desired independence. Although tensions between Barcelona and the Madrid-based central government have increased in recent years due to the financial crisis, the Catalan separatists have so far avoided emulating their Basque cousins by using acts of terrorism to put pressure on the Spanish government. The Basque separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) has gained international notoriety for an audacious terrorist campaign against Madrid, but following the recent election, it is unlikely that the Catalans will need to resort to such acts.
However, the party of Artur Mas, the incumbent Catalan president, will need to form a coalition with some of the more radical parties if the region is to stand any chance of successfully pressuring Madrid into allowing a referendum.
Mas’ Convergència i Unió (CiU) party won only 50 seats, down from 62 last election and a considerable distance from the number required for an outright majority, 68. It is likely that Mas will now have to ally himself with the second placed Esquerra party, a separatist group whose electoral campaign consisted mostly of attacking the perceived ineffectiveness of Mas’ government.
As two thirds of the parties elected are pro-independence, in has been suggested that Catalonia can legitimately declare independence within 24 months. If the parties are unable to agree, Mas could conceivably dissolve the parliament and hold a new election explicitly on the issue of independence.
Angels Folch, a co-ordinator for the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC), a pro-independence pressure group, believes that the ideological differences in the Catalan parliament mean that it will have to be dissolved if independence it so be achieved.
“The new parliament will vote and then declare independence”, Folch says. “There would probably also be a follow-up referendum, a plebiscite, maybe two or three years later, allowing the people to say that yes, this is what they wanted”.
However, further delays could cripple the independence push. “It cannot take too long”, Folch says. “It will have to be done step by step, but it must happen fast – I think within the next 24 months. And once it has started it cannot stop”.
Although the majority of Catalans are in favour of independence, a split from Spain could have a catastrophic effect upon the local economy, as well as that of Spain itself. One fifth of Spain’s economic output comes from Catalonia, and a split would mean that many Catalan businesses would lose revenue as the Spanish market becomes less accessible.
José Manuel Lara, head of the Catalan publisher Planeta, has threatened to move the world’s sixth-largest publisher to Spain if Catalonia secedes.”There is no publishing business that has its headquarters in a foreign country, or one that speaks another language. It would be nonsensical.”
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, criticised the descision to hold an election in an interview after the EU summit at Brussels. “There was no point holding elections when the priority should have been fighting the crisis”.
Rajoy has in the past sworn to block any attempts by Catalonia to declare independence, and history suggests that he will succeed. In 2008, the Basque Country was denied a similar plebiscite by a constitutional court by Rajoy’s government, while the same court radically altered a new Catalan constitution to the degree that a the original draft was given an elaborate and much-publicised funeral by the Catalan activist group Act of Sovereignty in 2010.