The cause of independence in Catalonia was emboldened Thursday when, by an indisputable majority, Scotland decided to continue its 307-year union with what has bec0me the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK). Although the vote in Scotland rejected self-rule, regions and countries like Catalonia which are seeking their own independence received a shot in the arm from the effort.
South of the island of Great Britain (which contains Scotland and England) is Spain, where nationalist sentiments brew in more than one of its own contained nations. Front and center is Catalonia in the northeast corner of the country, which contains a large chunk of the spectacular Pyrenees mountains and the vibrant and diverse Barcelona, an economic powerhouse.
A strong Catalan identity has been around at least since the 10th century, when earldoms in the area consolidated into the County of Barcelona, the nucleus of today’s Catalonia. The Count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer I, brought other local leaders under his rule, thus subjugating an unstable feudal system and germinating the beginnings of the Catalan identity.
The question of whether Catalonia is actually, like Scotland, a separate country operating in unity with a larger one, has gone back and forth in Spanish courts. But despite the legal technicalities, a relatively large proportion of Catalans reportedly support the notions outlined by nationalists who insist not only that Catalonia is a separate nation, but also promote either greater autonomy or a complete secession from Spain.
The rising battle in Catalonia promises good drama as, unlike Scotland (where that country’s referendum vote was generously allowed by London), the powers that be in Spain’s capital, Madrid, have refused to grant a referendum. Even a non-binding vote (which could happen Nov. 9) would be a violation of Spain’s constitution, they say, and pledges have been made to block it in court. Defiantly, Arturo Mas i Gavarró, the president of Spain’s Catalonia region, said Friday that he and his country would ignore Madrid’s rejection, emphasizing that Catalans have the same right to decide their destiny as Scots did in Thursday’s historic vote.
The culture and language of Catalans is distinct from the rest of Spain. In recent years, as the economy has suffered both in Catalonia and in Spain generally, the pro-independence movement has gathered momentum. As a result, Catalonia has sought a non-binding independence referendum, not unlike Scotland’s on Thursday, but without teeth.
Political leaders in Spain praised the successful “no” vote in Scotland, saying it was a demonstration to Catalans of the value of unity. Mas, however, rejected the thought that Scotland’s rejection was hurtful to Catalonia’s cause. What is most important now, he says, is the opportunity to vote on the matter, binding or not. In fact, Catalonia’s regional government was scheduled to decide on a bill Friday giving Mas the power to initiate a non-binding referendum. That vote would be held Sunday, Nov. 9.
In its final weeks, as the independence movement in Scotland gained unexpected steam, financiers and others warned voters of the economic consequences and unknowns should that country leave the UK. Similar and different predictions are bound to emerge if Catalonia’s referendum makes it to the polling stations. Spain will certainly do all it can to keep one of the world’s leading cities, Barcelona, under its wing. Hundreds of thousands marched there last week, demanding a plebiscite on the issue.
The latest polls show about 80 percent of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people want a say on the issue of secession. Polls can be unreliable in such situations, as witnessed by those leading up to Scotland’s vote yesterday, where a statistical tie between both sides was the conventional wisdom. In the official vote, however, those against independence exceeded those in favor by up to ten percentage points.
Mas faces a tough decision. On one hand, his constituency clearly wants to vote on the issue. On the other, if Spain’s courts continue to declare the referendum illegal, he would likely lose international credibility by doing as he has promised and defiantly giving a green light to the vote.
Opinion by Gregory Baskin