Why Catalans Are So Determined to Hold a Referendum

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Written by Nick Ottens

In a rowdy 16-hour session, the Catalan parliament this week approved legislation for an October 1st independence referendum from Spain. Opposition lawmakers walked out in protest. The central government in Madrid immediately announced it would appeal the law to the Constitutional Court. Prosecutors have filed charges of disobedience against the speaker of parliament and her deputies for allowing the vote to happen. Meanwhile, polls show only a minority of Catalans actually want to secede. So why go to all the trouble?’

The answer has something to do with the response from Madrid. Rather than appeal to the Catalans to remain in Spain, the central government’s first instinct was to try to overturn their regional parliament’s decision.

Bad blood between the Catalans and Spaniards goes back centuries, but one only has to go back to 2010 to understand the current crisis.

That year, the Constitutional Court—the same body that will now have to rule on the legality of the referendum—threw out most of Catalonia’s autonomy statute, which had been approved by 78 percent of voters in a 2006 referendum.

Adding insult to injury, the court declared that Catalonia’s description as a “nation” had no legal standing.

At the time, only one in five Catalans wanted their own state. That rose to over 50 percent in the following years.

Spain’s economic crisis didn’t help. Catalonia, the richest part of the country, had long subsidized other regions. That suddenly felt unfair when its own economy contracted.

Support for independence is now hovering north of 40 percent—when Catalans are given only two options. When becoming a federal state inside Spain is added as an alternative, support for independence falls to 35 percent and only 30 percent would still pick the status quo.

Whatever their views on independence, 80 percent of Catalans want a referendum.

These numbers point to a solution: A new autonomy statute, negotiated in good faith between the governments in Barcelona and Madrid, put to Catalan voters in a referendum. That way, secession is taken off the table but the Catalans get to have their say.

We know this could work, because it did in Scotland.

Three years ago, the British government allowed Scots to have an independence referendum. Surveys suggested the vote would be close. In an attempt to undermine support for the separatists, the mainstream British parties teamed up to offer Scots more autonomy if they voted to remain in the United Kingdom. It worked. Fifty five percent rejected independence, more than the polls had projected. The regional government in Edinburgh received more power. The Scottish National Party, the driving force behind the independence movement, was punished by voters in the most recent election.

Most Catalans don’t want to leave Spain. They have family and friends in the rest of the country. Some of Spain’s largest companies are based in Catalonia. More residents of Barcelona speak Spanish as their first language than Catalan. Independence would mean leaving the European Union and the euro and then reapplying for membership, which could take years.

All the rest of Spain needs to do prevent secession is learn to live with the fact that the Catalans feel separate, give them more power over their own finances and infrastructure (similar to what the Basque Country and Navarre have) and trust them to make the right decision in the end.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like that will happen between now and October.

About the author: Nick Ottens is a Dutch political analyst living in Barcelona, Spain. He specializes in political trends in Europe and North America and edits the transatlantic opinion website Atlantic Sentinel.