Spain must embrace compromise over Catalan referendum
30 November 2012
Spain's ruling Popular Party has been quick to capitalise on the poor showing of Artur Mas's Convergence and Union (CiU) federation in Sunday's Catalan elections. As was to be expected, the PP has declared the result convincingly proves there is no mandate for Mas to hold a referendum on Catalan independence, and has made him look "ridiculous".
But it would be a mistake for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to believe his party's own rhetoric. The voters who gave CiU 62 seats in 2010 were not voting for a pro-independence party, since at that point Mas's preference was for a fiscal pact along the lines of the Basque Country, which collects its own taxes and pays an agreed amount for central services. CiU's 50 seats in the new parliament come from voters who knew perfectly well that this meant they were signalling their support for independence.
If we add to this the success of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which more than doubled its seats to 21, plus the smaller pro-independence parties, there is nearly a two-thirds majority in the Catalan parliament in favour of independence. The beleaguered Catalan Socialists (PSC), despite preferring a federal solution, support Catalonia's "right to decide" and would therefore like to see a democratic vote on the alternatives.
Mas has acknowledged CiU's disappointing showing and the need to find allies to help take his referendum project forward. He is looking squarely in the direction of ERC, which has long been in favour of independence, unlike Mas's rather recent conversion to the cause. While both want a referendum, their differences on crucial issues such as economic policy make a formal coalition unlikely. Nevertheless, ERC's leader Oriol Junqueras seems willing to offer much-needed support to CiU without actually taking his party into the government.
This support will come with conditions, most crucially a commitment from Mas to speed up the timetable for a referendum. Mas has simply promised to hold one in the next four years, whereas ERC would no doubt like to capitalise on the current enthusiasm that was revealed by the massive pro-independence demonstration on September 11. There is also the appealing symbolic resonance of the year 2014, the 300th anniversary of the end of the Spanish War of Succession which saw Catalonia defeated by Spain's new Bourbon monarch and stripped of its independent institutions.
All this means that if ERC agrees to back a CiU government there is likely to be more pressure for an early and decisive move towards a referendum than there would have been if CiU had won an absolute majority.
The unexpected rise in pro-independence sentiment in Catalonia has presented Rajoy with another serious problem to add to Spain's economic woes and the popular outcry against his austerity measures. At the moment, his response is to continue his firm stance against further Catalan autonomy. Rajoy's rhetoric relies on the fact that the Spanish Constitution protects the unity of Spain and any attempt at secession would therefore be illegal. But this is a fundamentally political crisis requiring a political solution arrived at through negotiation.
Although an unlikely scenario, the biggest danger given Rajoy's unresponsiveness is that the Catalans decide there is no point in attempting to negotiate a referendum and simply make a unilateral declaration of independence.
Patricia Gabancho explored this possibility in her "journalistic fiction" The Chronicle of Independence, published in 2008. In her version, the leader of the Catalan government is expected to make a speech calling for a referendum but instead presents the parliament with a motion for a unilateral declaration, which is carried by 83 votes to 52. (The real Catalan parliament will now have 87 pro-sovereignty MPs to 48 "unionists".) The Spanish government suspends Catalonia's autonomy, but the Catalans simply ignore this since they have already declared independence. The decision is ratified in a referendum held in Catalonia with the support of the EU, which acts as a mediator throughout the negotiations.
Fiction, yes, and it will probably remain that way, but Rajoy would do well to act as though this scenario were possible. Continuing denial of the Catalans' demands will only worsen political divisions at a time when all minds should be focused on economic recovery. It's time Rajoy took a leaf out of British Prime Minister David Cameron's book and realised the possible consequences of failing to compromise.
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