Will Catalonia Hold a Referendum on Whether to Break Away From Spain?

An independence vote was slated for November 9, but Madrid declared it illegal. Who will win the tug-of-war?
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Catalan separatist flags brighten a gathering of thousands in central Barcelona on September 11 to mark Diada—Catalonia Day. A decision is imminent on whether an independence referendum will go ahead on November 9.

On Saturday, September 27, in a solemn ceremony in Barcelona's ornate, 15th- century government palace, surrounded by the great and the good of Catalan politics, Artur Mas i Gavarró, the stylish president of the rich, northeastern Spanish province of Catalonia, took a momentous step in the long march toward the dream of an independent Catalonia: He signed a decree formally calling for a referendum to be held on November 9.

"Like all the nations of the world," Mas said, "Catalonia has the right to decide its political future. We want to vote, and we want to decide, and now we have to means to do so."

It was arguably the most serious challenge to the Spanish state since the civil war tore that country apart from 1936 to 1939.

Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was quick to respond, declaring the proposed Catalonia referendum "illegal" and announcing that he had referred the matter to the constitutional court in Madrid. "It's false that the right to vote can be assigned unilaterally to one region about a matter that affects all Spaniards," he said in a statement following an emergency cabinet meeting. "It's profoundly antidemocratic."

"Madrid pressed the red button," explains Xavier Arbós Marín, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Barcelona and a prominent voice against independence. "The constitutional court can suspend any law from a region. And the Spanish constitution does not recognize the right of self-determination. So there would have to be a change to the constitution for a referendum to take place."

That, Arbós says, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. "The constitutional court could decide in two months, but for complex political issues, like the question of a Basque referendum in 2008, it generally takes much longer."

After nearly a year of deliberations, the court ruled against the Basque referendum. Now Catalonia's hangs in the balance. A Catalan government spokesman said recently that the government would decide by October 15 whether to hold the referendum.

In the meantime, 800 mayors, representing 96 percent of Catalonia's municipalities, have signed certificates in support of 9-N, as the referendum is known.

"It's a very fluid situation," Arbós says. "On the one hand, the political parties that support independence are pushing the president [Artur Mas] to hold the referendum. But this could have ugly consequences. Civil servants organizing the ballot could face legal sanctions. The main police union in Catalonia has stated that its members would not be prepared to work if the referendum were declared illegal."

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On September 27, 2014, Catalonia’s President Artur Mas i Gavarró leaves the Government Palace after signing a decree calling for an independence referendum for the province.

Why the Urge to Break Away?

For Jordi Major, a 45-year-old special education teacher in Banyoles, the intransigence of the Madrid government has been a crucial factor pushing him toward a si vote if next month's referendum goes ahead.

"I feel myself to be Catalan," he says. "It's something more than a nationality. It's a tradition that you feel inside and that identifies you as if it were a tribe. And this situation was not provoked by Catalonia but by the current government. We lived for many years within the Spanish state without problems. But more and more laws have been passed that subtly smother our Catalan traditions."

It's a complaint you hear often from the pro-independence side. "There have been many promises from Madrid," says Carles Boix, a professor of political economy now teaching at Princeton University. "Catalonia was granted exclusive powers over all rivers in Catalonian territory. But at the same time the Spanish government passed a law regulating the rivers-and that law takes precedence."

Also, he says, "the management of health and education was transferred to Catalonia, but in reality the central government still determines everything. The only solution now is sovereignty."

"Keep Calm Speak Catalan"

"We want to be like everyone else," chimes in Josep Ganyet, a media consultant in Barcelona who grew up in Lleida, in western Catalonia. "We're a nation. We have our own customs and traditions. I've been pro-independence all my life. It's not a romantic idea. We want to have the right to decide who we want to be."

Ganyet had his 15 minutes of fame two years ago when he adapted a British World War II slogan into a pro-independence Tweet: Keep Calm Speak Catalan.

"I was on the train, tweeting," he recalls, "and this Spanish minister was talking about the need to increase 'the Hispanicization' of Catalan children, by promoting Spanish language and history in schools.

"That phrase 'Hispanicize' sounded like something from the Franco era. Everyone was outraged. But I thought, That's not the way to go. I'd been in London shortly before and seen the phrase 'Keep Calm.' So I put it on Tumblr, and it went viral."

Language and politics are deeply intertwined in Catalonia. As George Orwell recorded in his Spanish Civil War classic, Homage to Catalonia, Barcelona was the beating heart of the struggle against fascism. General Francisco Franco's victory, after a huge loss of life and much trauma, was followed by a bitter campaign to suppress the language.

It didn't succeed. And today Catalan is in ruder health than it has been since the golden age of the 14th and 15th centuries, when it was the official language of the Crown of Aragon.

Spoken by some ten million people, Catalan is closer to French than to Spanish, which isn't surprising when you consider that Catalonia once formed part of an autonomous region that stretched across the Pyrenees into France.

There are also Catalan television stations and, as of 2005, a designated Internet domain name: .cat.

Above all, Catalans feel different. They have their own dance, the sardana, their own world-beating soccer team, FC Barcelona, and their own culture heroes, like Salvador Dalí or NBA star Pau Gasol.

They pride themselves on their seny, or common sense (as opposed to the machismo and emotionalism of the Spaniards), and on their work ethic.

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Building human towers—castells—has long been a cultural tradition throughout Catalonia. At this year’s competition, the 25th, held in Tarragona and attended by President Mas, the red team took second place.

Engine of Wealth

Despite its louche image today, Barcelona has always been the center of industrial and technological innovation in Spain. (The first submarine with a combustion engine and an oxygen source was invented here.)

Catalonia's economic heft has given the greatest momentum to secessionism. With roughly 7.5 million inhabitants, the Autonomous Community of Catalonia (Comunitat Autònoma), as it was designated in the Spanish constitution of 1978, has nearly as many people as Switzerland. Like the Swiss, the Catalans are hardworking and thrifty.

The region is home to 4,000 multinational companies and, with a GDP of 220 billion euros, generates about a fifth of Spain's entire output.

Because of its wealth, Catalonia also pulls in people from the rest of Spain-and the world. As of 2012, 18.6 percent of Catalans were born abroad, and another 18 percent were born in other regions of Spain.

What particularly irks Catalans is the yawning economic imbalance between Madrid and Catalonia. As of 2012, the region was handing over 12 billion to 16 billion euros more in taxes annually than it got back from Madrid.

As with the recent Scottish referendum, one of the planks of Mas's pro-independence campaign is the demand that Catalonia collect its own taxes and have control over how they're spent.

Yet like Scotland, an independent Catalonia would face many economic hurdles.

"It's not clear what the currency arrangements would be," says Callum Williams of the Economist. "Companies might move to Spain to retain easy access to EU markets. Catalonia would also no longer have access to European Central Bank initiatives, like the new one-trillion-euro scheme to lend to banks at very low interest in order to boost lending to small businesses. Spain will be hurt too, of course, through the loss of tax revenues and Catalonia's contribution to GDP. But basically it's a lose-lose proposition."

Will Catalonia Go the Way of Scotland?

The Scottish referendum highlighted the acrimonious relations between Catalonia and Madrid. A cartoon doing the rounds on the Internet shows two panels. On the left, under the heading "London to Scotland," two hands politely extend a ballot box. On the right, under the heading "Madrid to Catalonia," a raised middle finger jabs into the air.

"The referendum [in Scotland] was seen by Catalans as an example of a democratic attempt by the Scottish and British governments to find a political solution to a political demand," says Josep Reniu, a professor of political science at the University of Barcelona and an active supporter of independence. "By referring the question to the constitutional court, the Spanish government, by contrast, has decided to transform a political issue into a legal issue."

So who will win on November 9, assuming the referendum goes ahead? At the beginning of the year, when the Catalan parliament voted to hold a referendum, the mood was buoyant. Polls showed that 80 percent of Catalans wanted a referendum and that given the chance, roughly 50 percent would vote yes, only 30 percent no.

But since then the political winds have been blowing in the opposite direction. In August 84-year-old Jordi Pujol, six-time president of the province and a moving force behind Catalan autonomy, suffered a devastating fall from grace when he admitted that for the past 35 years he and his family had been squirreling money away in Switzerland.

Overnight the narrative changed from the billions stolen in taxes each year by the evil Madrid to the financial peccadillos of a man whose name was on a Barcelona institute that focused on ethics. (It closed in September.)

Then came the decisive defeat of the pro-independence Scots by what became known as the "silent spiral"-the invisible majority who didn't make their voices heard until polling day.

Will the same happen in Catalonia? Business interests are generally anti-independence, as in Scotland. Isidre Fainé, the president of one of Spain's largest banks, Barcelona-based CaixaBank, is known to be against secession and has called on Spanish and Catalan political leaders to negotiate a "grand pact."

José Maria Lara, the head of Spain's largest publishing house, Grupo Planeta, has vowed to move his business out of Catalonia if the region votes for independence.

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Pro-independence Catalans show their fervor outside parliament in Barcelona on September 19.

What About European Unity?

For some Catalans, the idea of separatism is at odds with their sense of a larger European identity.

"I come from a small village in Catalonia called La Mustera," says Sara Pardo Costa, a 28-year-old financial consultant now living in Madrid. "All my family is Catalan and most of my friends. The first time I ever spoke Spanish was when I moved to Barcelona to study. I feel Catalan first and European second.

"I used to be a hundred percent for independence when I was a teenager. Now I think the best solution would be a federal system. That's the idea of Europe. And that's what most Catalans originally wanted-more autonomy. Because it was denied, people became even more firmly for independence."

Even if an official referendum is not held, there will almost certainly be mass demonstrations in support of the right to vote.

The Catalan government may also call for a "stealth" referendum-a plebiscite uniting all pro-independence parties on one ticket with a simple yes or no voting option. The outcome wouldn't be legally binding, but it would send a powerful message to Madrid.

Whatever happens, few believe the struggle for Catalan independence will be over.

"This is the outcome of a long history of struggle for political autonomy stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century," Carles Boix says. "One of the reasons for the coup in 1936 that brought Franco to power was because a measure of autonomy had been granted to Catalonia. When you live in an open, globalized, democratic era, it's difficult to place obstacles in the way of the popular will."

Josep Ganyet invokes the notoriously foggy weather of his native Lleida to express his conviction that one day he will live in an independent Catalonia. "My father's generation felt defeated after the civil war. They were taught not to express political opinions, not to discuss the war. Now that generation has lost its fear-my parents have come to all the big demonstrations. Recently my mother said to me, 'We have lived in the fog all these years. Now we can see the horizon.'"

Follow Simon Worrall on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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