The Catalan government has now announced that the independence referendum will be held on 9 November 2014. The question will be in two parts, the first part asking whether Catalans agree that Catalonia should form a state, the second asking whether this state should be independent.
Madrid has vowed that it will not permit the referendum, citing article 2 of the Spanish constitution which states that Spain is one indissoluble nation.
So what happens next?
The first step is for the Catalan government to make a formal request to the central government in Madrid for the legal authority to hold a referendum, as in el caso escocés ‘the Scottish case’. The Catalan Parliament can achieve it through two possible routes. The first is for representatives of catalanista parties in the Spanish Parliament, the Cortes, to table a debate on a law allowing the referendum to happen. The second is by making a formal request to the government of Mariano Rajoy that his government transfer the legal competence to the Catalan Parliament to give it the authority to hold the referendum.
Neither of these routes is going to succeed. Both the ruling Partido Popular and the main opposition PSOE have said that they would refuse any requests. The Cortes will refuse to give time to any proposed law, and Rajoy has repeatedly said he would not give permission. There will be no Spanish version of the Edinburgh Agreement between Westminster and Holyrood.
This leaves the Catalan Parliament a number of other options. The Catalan pro-sovereignty parties have agreed to bring forward a law in the Catalan Parliament which would give the Parliament the right to hold a consultative ballot on Catalan independence. This new law would be based upon article 122 of Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which gives the Catalan government the authority to hold consultative votes on matters relating to Catalonia.
The vote would not be legally binding, but it would provide the Catalan Parliament with a strong political mandate to negotiate Catalan statehood with la Moncloa.
However there are a number of practical problems with this route. The Partido Popular and the Spanish Government have already stated their intention to proceed with court action to overturn the Catalan ballot law. It is quite likely that the Spanish Supreme Court would rule that the question of Catalan independence is not a matter relating solely to Catalonia and strike the law down.
Catalans ask quite reasonably how can it be illegal in a democracy to ask people for their opinion, all the more so since Madrid constantly says that the referendum has no legal validity. If it has no legal validity, then what exactly is the problem? Measures from Madrid to block the referendum will only create deeper disquiet, and further alienate an already alienated Catalan public opinion.
Another possible strategy discussed in the Spanish media would be for a series of municipal consultations. Each local authority within Catalonia would simultaneously hold a referendum on the same day and with the same questions. However some local authorities, although not a majority, are politically controlled by non-sovereignty parties such as the PP or the PRC (the Catalan branch of the PSOE). These local authorities are unlikely to give their backing to local votes, meaning this type of referendum would lose legitimacy as not all Catalans could participate. It’s unlikely that this is a serious option.
The Catalan Parliament could press on with its consultation plans irrespective of court rulings from Madrid. This opens the door to legal sanctions against members of the Catalan Parliament.
Threats have already been made by some powerful Partido Popular representatives to arrest Artur Mas and other leading Catalan politicians on charges of violating the constitution. Last month, former Prime Minister J0sé María Aznar reminded the Catalans that when he was in power his government approved a law outlawing independence referendums. The law was overturned by the succeeding government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the PSOE and was not reintroduced when the Partido Popular returned to power under Mariano Rajoy. According to this law, Artur Mas would be liable to a prison sentence of 5 years, a fact which Aznar took care to point out.
The Catalan government responded to Aznar’s comments by saying that Aznar’s type of discourse was representative of “another epoch”. Which is Spanish political code for “fascist and Francoist.”
The arrest of most members of the Catalan Parliament would have gravely serious political consequences. It would do nothing to quash Catalan aspirations to independence, instead it would create political martyrs and risk driving the campaign out onto the streets in the form of a mass campaign of civil disobedience. With the 1.6 million attendance at the recent Via Catalana, the Catalan independence movement has already demonstrated its capacity for public mobilisation.
A civil disobedience campaign would create immense political instability and cause massive economic damage, and not just to Catalonia. It would put the fragile Eurozone recovery at great risk. Angela Merkel would not be best pleased. It’s in the interests of all parties to avoid it.
Artur Mas and the CiU have always made a point of stating that they must operate within the laws and the Spanish Constitution. Although the ERC and CUP would likely support going ahead with the ballot despite a legal prohibition from Madrid, the CiU is more reluctant. Tensions between these different wings of the pro-independence movement have already become evident, with signs that the ERC is losing patience with CiU caution. Without CiU support, an “illegal consultation” is unlikely to get the go-ahead. However the CiU is also aware of growing public support for the ERC and its insistence on a vote on independence as soon as possible. This gives Mas less room for political movement.
The next option is to hold a plebiscite election. In this scenario, the Catalan government dissolves itself, and calls an election. In the election the pro-independence parties stand on an platform of the referendum question. Voting for these parties is then taken as an explicit indication of the voters’ support for the proposition of independence.
Since it’s an obligation of the Spanish Constitution that elections must be held for the parliaments of autonomous communities, the central government could not prevent these elections from taking place. The new Catalan Goverment would then have a direct mandate from the Catalan people to negotiate independence with Madrid, or even to make a unilateral declaration of independence. Plebiscite elections would not give the Catalan Parliament a legal mandate for independence recognised by the Spanish constitution, but like a consultative referendum it would grant a powerful political mandate.
Prior to this week’s agreement on the question and date for the ballot, Artur Mas had argued in favour of plebiscite elections in 2016 – when Catalonia is due to hold its next Parliamentary elections. Faced with the numerous political obstacles the Spanish Government and opposition parties are putting up to other routes to any ballot, the dissolution of the Catalan Government followed by plebiscite elections in November 2014 are probably the most likely outcome.
Whatever events transpire, Madrid will refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the ballot or its outcome. Despite this, a referendum or a plebiscite election will have immense political significance in Catalonia, and further afield in the European Union. Madrid will come under enormous international pressure to find a rapid and peaceful resolution to the problem.
What is quite certain, is that if the vote is held then there will be a huge majority in favour of Catalan independence. Madrid knows this, which is why it is desperately trying to hold the line against any vote ever taking place.