On 25 November Catalans will go to the polls in what will be their 11th regional elections since Spain’s return to democracy after Franco’s death in 1975. This time, however, Catalans will be voting much more than a Parliament: they will be in effect deciding whether they want Catalonia to secede from Spain.
When Artur Mas (leader of centre-right coalition Convergència i Unió) won the previous Catalan elections in 2010, he ran on a platform that blamed fiscal arrangements with Spain for Catalonia’s growing debt and requested an urgent renegotiation of Catalonia’s contribution to Spanish central Treasury. Unable to reach a “fiscal pact” with the also centre-right Partido Popular (in Government in Spain since 2011), Mas called a snap election last September 25th, only a few days after up to 1.5 million citizens took to the streets of Barcelona to celebrate La Diada (Catalan National Day) and call for independence for Catalonia under the slogan “Catalonia, new European Nation”. This time, Artur Mas has promised to call a referendum in a maximum of four years, with the slogan question already in circulation: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state within the European Union?”
Since polls show that Convergència i Unió will win the 25 November elections (although Mas will not be able to form the majority government that he would have wished for), the issue will soon become a legal one. Article 92 of the Spanish Constitution states that a referendum can only be called by the King, at the proposal of the Prime Minister, following prior authorization by the Spanish Parliament. Thus, if Artur Mas is re-elected and he calls a referendum, even if he does so as Head of the Catalan government and with the support of the Catalan Parliament, he will be breaking the law and taking the issue to a new, unpredictable level (and an ultra-right wing group has already announced that if Mas calls the referendum, they would sue him for “high treason to the state”, a crime typified in Spanish military legislation).
But how has all this arisen?
Catalan independentism, of course, is not a new phenomenon, and can be traced back for centuries. More recently, however, it had been replaced by autonomismo, a generalized backing of the devolution process initiated in Spain after Franco’s death: in 1984, the major independentist party (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, Catalan Republican Left) received only 4% of votes. In the past few years, the Spanish economic crisis, which seems to worsen by the day, has fuelled a new, somehow different wave of independentism. If previously Catalan independentist feeling was mainly based on the perception of Catalan national identity as intrinsically different to Spanish national identity, nowadays most of the arguments revolve around fiscal deficit, taxes and the amount of Catalan money that ends up elsewhere in Spain through the very controversial and outdated interterritorial funding arrangement currently in place.
While Spain is not a federal state like Australia, both countries operate on the basis of interterritorial solidarity and horizontal fiscal equalisation. The latter is defined by the Australian government as “the making of payments [by the Federal government] to State governments with the objective of equalising their fiscal capacities to provide public services”, with the aim “to reduce the inequalities in the fiscal capacities of sub-national governments arising from the differences in their geography, demography, natural endowments and economies.” Also in both countries, most taxes are collected centrally (by the ATO and its Spanish equivalent), with the Canberra and Madrid governments deciding, in consultation with State or regional governments, the amount each State or Autonomous Community receives every year.
For some years now, Catalan governments (regardless of political leanings) have claimed that Catalan fiscal deficit was too high compared to that of other regions outside Spain with a similar GSP, and an interterritorial national funding arrangement comparable to Spain’s. More recently, and given the current context, the Catalan government has been claiming that such a deficit is more than unfair; it is simply unsustainable for Catalonia, with independence the obvious solution.
While I remain unconvinced that independence will solve Catalonia’s problems and that it will almost certainly lead to new ones, the refusal by most major Spanish parties to support a referendum seems uncompromising and hardly democratic.
For further information and discussion on this topic, you can hear a seminar given recently by Dr Carlos Uxo and Gillian Darcy.