Why Madrid Must Allow Catalans to Vote


A great number of Spanish rulers have attempted to quash Catalan identity, wary of Catalonia’s historically small but potent independence movement. In 1716, the Spanish government banned the Catalan language and implemented a series of restrictions on Catalan identity, only to spark a rebellion in Barcelona a century later. In 1919, Madrid blocked a union of Catalan separatists from petitioning US President Woodrow Wilson for backing. And the infamous Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain for 36 years, tried relentlessly to erase the Catalan culture and language.

Yet, despite these efforts – or, more likely, because of them – the Catalan separatist movement is stronger now than any other time in recent history.

Today, independence is in vogue in Catalonia. Support among Catalans for separation from Spain has nearly doubled since 2008, and now stands at around half the population. Although the sudden rise six years ago was largely sparked by a financial crisis, the independence movement has since taken on a life of its own. It is fueled by a vibrant pro-independence civil society movement, substantial youth support, and the rising use of the Catalan language. The numbers tell an inescapable truth: the independentista movement has staying power.

Catalans have called for a non-binding consultation on independence to decide their region’s future. The proposed consultation would ask voters two questions: Do you want Catalonia to be a State? If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent State? The formation of the questions is designed to allow the voter to express shades of grey – for instance, a yes-no may indicate a federalist position. Even so, the consultation has sliced deep into Spain’s longstanding nationalist schism with Catalonia.

The proposed date – November 9 – looms, arousing the streets of Barcelona and alarming Madrid. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has declared the consultation unconstitutional, leaving the Catalan President Artur Mas with little room for movement.

Madrid’s refusal to allow Catalans to vote – especially while London is allowing a similar referendum in Scotland – is only incensing secessionist zeal. The vast majority of Catalans – 75% — want the right to vote in a consultation. That number is far higher than those who currently say they would vote yes-yes. As Alfred Bosch, a Catalan independence movement-aligned member of the Spanish Congress, said: “The more they deny us [the consultation], the more we will want it.”

Consider one likely scenario. If Madrid does not relent, Mr. Mas will likely be cornered into calling off the consultation for lack of legality. If he backs down on the consultation, pressure will rise in Catalonia for early regional elections. In those elections, Mr. Mas’s pro-autonomy Convergència i Unió (CiU) will likely lose votes to the more radically pro-independence party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). “In other words,” said Ferran Requejo, a professor at Pompeu Fabra University, “The political decision will be to substitute the consultation with the elections.” If CiU loses the next Catalan elections to ERC, Rajoy may soon face a new partner in Barcelona who is less willing than Mas to negotiate.

Madrid and Barcelona are on a collision course, and the contours of the final showdown will be determined on November 9. A last-ditch effort to backpedal failed last July when Rajoy and Mas, meeting for the first time since Catalonia’s government announced the consultation date, left with their respective positions wholly intact.

The fastest and easiest way for Madrid to reverse course would be to allow a non-binding consultation, demonstrating its good faith to the growing number of Catalans who are frustrated with what they see as the central government’s insulting patronization. Of course, holding a consultation risks allowing independentistas to win it. But denying it will only bolster the secessionist cause, and encourage Catalans to seek an alternative – for example, early elections — which may have even more serious implications than a non-binding consultation would have.

The Spanish government should look to history to grasp that “no” will not resign Catalans to silence. Madrid’s refusal to let Catalans vote may swing many undecided would-be voters toward the independence movement, and sway moderately pro-autonomy Catalans toward supporting outright independence. At this stage, the ERC and other pro-independence political groups need only sit back and wait – for them, Madrid is the gift that keeps on giving.

For more on Catalonia, see my paper Catalonia’s Separatist Swell, just published in the German Council on Foreign Relations.

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