Catalan independence: Fears mount amongst separatist critics

Polls have shown that Catalans are in favour of independence, but at what cost would it come? [SBA73/Flickr]

As the run up to the Catalan elections gets under way, Spain and Europe are starting to consider what impact independence for Catalonia would have. EURACTIV Spain reports.

Four months out from its general election, Spain is abuzz with excitement. The emergence of new parties, such as the leftist Podemos and the centrist Ciudadanos party, is dramatically changing the political map. This is coming at the expense of the two major traditional parties, the Popular Party (PP) and the Socialist Party (PSOE), the primary political forces in Spain.

But recent surveys suggest that agreements are going to have to be struck, since nobody is likely to gain an absolute majority. If the pro-indendence block wins the 27 September Catalan elections, then its leaders might decide to secede, redrawing Spain’s boundaries, politically as well as geographically.

>>Read: Ciudadanos and Podemos: A new era in Spanish politics?

In mid-August, an anti-corruption prosecutor found evidence that the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), the party of Catalan president, and champion of the pro-independence movement, Artur Mas, supposedly took commissions of 3% from companies in return for awarding public contracts.

The news hit just after the formation of the Together for Yes coalition running in the “27-S” elections. Formed by the CDC, Oriol Junqueras, president of the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and several civic associations; it is a cross-political platform that even has support from former FC Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola.

Catalonia independence due to eurozone crisis

What would a potential sovereignist victory cost Spain and Catalonia?  “The government has let things go too far. Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, will have to fight the media on the back foot regarding the risk of Catalan independence, meaning several months of bad news for Spain and for the government, during an election cycle,” Steen Jakobsen, chief economist at Saxo Bank, told El Pais.

In the same vein, a recent report from Goldman Sachs analysed the causes and the possible impact of the rise of independence movements throughout Europe. Adrian Paul and Huw Pill, investment banking analysts and authors of the study, say that the increased appetite for independence is largely due to the austerity policies implemented during the eurozone crisis. “The regional elections in Catalonia will be a de facto referendum on the dependence on Spain,” they said.

One of the direct consequences of a hypothetical exit would result in the 7.5 million inhabitants of Catalonia being placed outside the euro area. Their banks would not have access to liquidity from the European Central Bank (ECB). Catalonia would become an “island” in the EU.

>>Read: Ignacio Molina: Catalan separatists will never gain EU support

Anti-independence business sentiment can be felt in Catalonia itself. Three years ago, Jose Manuel Lara, president of Grupo Planeta, one of the most important multimedia publishing houses in Spain, headquartered in Barcelona, ??said that, “if Catalonia were to gain independence, Grupo Planeta would have to go to Zaragoza, Madrid or Cuenca (…). There aren’t any publishing houses that have their headquarters in a foreign country, that speaks another language,” he said back in 2012.

A war of words

Former Prime Minister Felipe González (PSOE), who served between 1982 and 1996, entered the Catalan independence debate in an open letter entitled “To the Catalans “, which was published in El País on 30 August, where he warned of the dangers of Catalonia being “dragged into an illegal and irresponsible venture”.

“How can they want to take the Catalan people into isolation, into a kind of 21st-century version of what Albania once was?” asked Gonzalez, while recalling that Spaniards managed to overcome, following the death in 1975 of Francisco Franco, “the heavy legacy of the dictatorship.”

The reply from Artur Mas came on 6 September, in the same newspaper, entitled “To the Spanish”, in which he said, “The problem is not Spain, it is the Spanish state, which treats us (the Catalans) as subjects (…) In the new country that we want (Catalonia), you will be able to live as Spaniards without any problem. At the moment, it is almost impossible to be Catalan in the Spanish state.”

Constitutional Court as a shield against independence

Another example of the hectic return to Spanish political life came just days ago, when the ruling PP proposed a bill to reform the Constitutional Court, with the objective of giving the body the power to fine and even suspend officials and leaders who do not carry out their rulings.

According to analysts, this measure is clearly designed to counter the perceived threat of Catalan independence. In this regard, Artur Mas replied in his letter in El Pais that, “there’s no turning back, neither from the Constitutional Court that limits democracy, nor from governments that would circumvent the will of the Catalans”.

An absolute majority?

As the electoral campaign in Catalonia officially kicked off on Catalan National day, the latest polls point to a victory for the secessionists, but without an absolute majority (68 seats required) that would enable them to initiate a process of unilateral independence.

However, some analysts warn that although an absolute majority with less than 50% of votes could be mathematically possible, the separatists’ democratic mandate to eventually try to secede from Spain could be called into question.

But the regional elections have much deeper connotations. The Generalitat (the Catalan regional government) and its president will seek to use them to test the waters and gauge the voting public’s appetite from an independence referendum, which, according to the Spanish Constitution of 1978, is illegal. 

In the most extreme scenario, as many experts on constitutional law point out, the Spanish government could activate Article 155 of the constitution, “suspending” Catalan autonomy, although this would be under very exceptional circumstances.

General elections to be characterised by pacts

If the Catalan elections are generating controversy and renewed friction between Catalonia and Madrid, the national elections promise to be just as lively. They could lead to the radical transformation of the Spanish political scene, with the rise of the leftist and anti-austerity Podemos party, which some analysts have compared with Syriza in Greece, led by Pablo Iglesias and Ciudadanos, led by Albert Rivera, which has positioned itself in the moderate centre. Both groups are trying to carve out some space near their closest ideological rivals, the PSOE and the PP respectively.

Analysts believe that neither of the two major parties will get enough support to form a government alone, but they will continue to play a key role when the time comes to form coalitions and pacts. Theoretically, it is these two new parties that will provide any future stability. As both will bring their own list of conditions to the negotiating table, they will perhaps not make the easiest of partners for either the conservatives or the Socialists.

With so many doubts and questions, for now there only seems to be one certainty: the PP would be bottom of the PSOE’s list of preferred allies, according to Pedro Sanchez, general secretary of the PSOE and candidate for prime minister.

Paraphrasing a famous speech by Adolfo Suarez, the late first prime minister of Spain, the PSOE leader told radio station La Sexta that, “I can promise and I do promise not to do a deal with the PP.” Regarding the possible agreements that his party could make, Sanchez would not provide comment. Neither Iglesias nor Rivera has provided much in the way of clues, although they have stressed that they would require a certain “price” of their potential partners.

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