Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Stalling for Time

By David G. Young

Madrid, September 30, 2014 --  

Madrid is using the law as a tool for delaying a legitimate vote on Catalonian independence.

When fireworks erupted over Barcelona's Plaza Espana last Wednesday, the celebration was about much more than the city's annual Merce festival.  Fireworks streaked in the red and gold colors of the Catalonian flag.  A  video presentation carried nationalistic images that riled the crowd, six weeks ahead of a planned non-binding referendum on independence from Spain.

That referendum was felt a blow yesterday when the Spain's highest court agreed to hear a future case on the legality of the referendum, requiring the separatist Catalonian government halt preparations on the vote while the case is pending.1  The Catalonian government has said it will comply by suspending preparations for the referendum while pursuing legal challenges.

Even if the case does end up stopping the vote planned for November 9, it is unlikely to change Catalonians' drive for independence from Spain, which it perceives as having repressed them repeatedly in the past.  The city is filled with windows that drape the Catalonian flag, and sites that commemorate the 1714  defeat by Spanish forces that subjugated their nation.  Museum exhibits (in the Catalonian language of course) extol a sense of serial victimhood.

The thick nationalist rhetoric can be a bit much, but it is hard to deny the Catalans' case for independence.  The region's distinct language and history as well as its strong industrial economy makes it as viable as many existing European states.  And given that Spain is already on the Euro, the financial disruptions of a divorce with Spain would be minimal compared with Scotland, which uses a currency specific to the United Kingdom, and is a poorer region than the combined country.

Unlike the United Kingdom, which gave Scotland permission for its narrowly lost independence referendum, Madrid shows no willingness to grant a similar vote.  The nonbinding referendum sought by the Catalonian government is designed to create legitimacy and momentum for the independence cause.  And a nonbinding referendum vote would be even more likely than a binding one to get a large majority, because voters know there are no immediate negative consequences.  (Consequences that probably killed the Scottish nationalists' chance of victory.)

For Madrid, the loss of its richest region to its treasury would be a blow disproportionate to its 7.5 million inhabitants.  For Catalans, who perceive themselves as subsidizing a poorer country, independence would remove a financial drain.  And given the likely presumption that an independent Catalan would be admitted to the EU, keeping its currency, trade ties and visa free travel to its neighbors, it is hard to see the downside.

That is why the Spanish government clings to the law to keep Catalonia from leaving.  The government knows it has no moral authority to suppress Catalonian will and little chance of winning a debate with voters of the region.  A legalistic approach to stopping the vote is the best it can do.

But having imposed a law that forbids secession on Catalan, and showing no willingness to ever change it, Madrid's legalistic strategy risks coming across as antidemocratic repression.

That would leave Catalan with the obvious choices of civil disobedience, an extra-legal independence vote,  and ultimately a unilateral declaration of independence.

Spain's only hope of stopping this outcome is to stall for time and pray that its economic difficulties  and the nationalistic feelings of Catalans mellow before the split has a chance to come. 


The Telegraph, Spain Blocks Catalonia Referendum on Independence, September 29, 2014