Catalans flirt with independence from Spain

Referendum on independence still a possibility as nationalists gain majority in parliament following elections.

This past weekend, all eyes in Europe were on Catalonia.

After voting in regional elections on Sunday in Barcelona, Catalan President Artur Mas declared, “These are the most decisive and significant elections in Catalonia’s history”.

Mas’ promise to call a referendum on independence from Spain if he won a majority made international headlines, especially because the result could pose serious challenges to both Madrid and Brussels.

But with all the votes counted, it’s clear that Mas’ governing Convergència i Unió party suffered a major setback, going down from 62 to 50 parliamentary seats.

The referendum could still go ahead because the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which also supports independence, enjoyed a spectacular rise by doubling its members from 10 to 21, meaning that nationalist parties now have a majority.

Long-standing nationalism

Nationalism has always been a part of Catalan politics – Catalonia’s “Independistas” took force during decades of oppression under the late Spanish leader General Francisco Franco, who banned national symbols and suppressed its language and culture.

During Franco’s rule, FC Barcelona, the region’s football team, became a symbol of freedom and democracy after Francoist troops arrested and executed its left-leaning President Josep Sunyol in the first month of the Spanish Civil War.

Carles Vilarrubí, the club’s current vice president, told Al Jazeera that the stadium was the only place where people could gather to express their views and speak their own language.

“In some way, as well as being a football club, Barca is a way to express the will for freedom and our pride in being Catalans in front of the world,” he said.

During October’s “Clasico” – the name of any match played between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona – a mosaic of 98,000 cardboard posters turned the stadium into a giant Catalan flag, and the crowd shouted “In – Inde -Independència” around the Nou Camp before and during the game.

That sentiment has echoed in recent times, and gained new potency when seen through the prism of Europe’s economic crisis.

With 7.5 million people, Catalonia’s GDP per capita is 20 percent higher than the rest of Spain. Without it, the rest of Spain would be one of the most impoverished countries in the euro, on par with Greece and Portugal.

As a result, many Catalans feel they don’t get a fair deal from the government in Madrid and that their taxes are being used to subsidise poorer regions.

Tarek Mafouz, a doctor in Barcelona, told Al Jazeera, “After paying, the receiving zones have better public services than we Catalans do. Can you believe it? We even had to ask the Spanish government for economic help to pay Catalan bills, when we contribute with a lot more money.”

New ground

Madrid says the referendum would be unconstitutional, but the European Union would also be in new territory: It has never had a member state split up.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, has warned that if Catalonia secedes from Spain, they will have to join the queue and negotiate EU membership from scratch.

His statements are based on the position formulated by Romano Prodi, his predecessor, who said: “When a part of the territory of a Member State ceases to be part of that State, for example because the territory becomes an independent state, the treaties will no longer apply.”

In Barcelona, it has become a standing joke that if they declare independence, they will also be excluded from the solar system.

Politicians in Scotland in particular are watching this debate very closely, as the Scottish government also has ambitions to redraw the map of Europe. It plans to hold its own referendum on independence from the United Kingdom in 2014.

Like the Catalans, Scots are being told that European citizenship is non-transferable, and that they will no longer be part of the EU if they secede. On a recent visit to Scotland, former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband warned that independence would leave the country “in limbo in Europe”.

The Scottish government has retorted by saying that Scotland has been an integral part of the European Union for four decades, and that the people of Scotland will remain EU citizens even if they gain independence. 

This debate held by Scots and Catalans seems to get to the heart of what being European means, and begs the question of whether citizenship resides with the people or their governments.

Source of stability

For decades, nationalists in both Catalonia and Scotland have looked to the European Union as a source of stability, offering a safety net to voters concerned about the uncertainty created by independence. 

At a widely attended independence rally in Barcelona on September 11, hundreds of thousands of people cried, “Catalonia, a new European state”.

Miquel Strubell, who helped to organise the demonstration, says he believes that “Europe embodies sensibility, where Spain is widely seen as irrational”.

Grau Garcia, an artist from Barcelona, likewise echoed a European sentiment among Catalans.

“Catalan people feel 100 percent European; we feel that we are part of European history, we feel part of the European Union,” he said. 

Follow Andrew McFadyen on Twitter: @apmcfadyen