Spanish parliament rejects Catalonia referendum

An independence rally in Catalonia [Reuters]

Catalonia President Artur Mas said yesterday (8 April) he would forge ahead with his region’s plans to hold a referendum on independence in November after Spain’s parliament overwhelmingly rejected the petition.

After a seven-hour debate in the national parliament in Madrid, and despite heavy support for the separatist movement in the wealthy northeastern region, 299 lawmakers voted against, 47 voted in favor, and one abstained.

The regional parliament of Catalonia, which has its own language and a long history of fighting for greater autonomy from Spain, sent the initiative to the national legislature in January asking for permission to hold a referendum.

“They are afraid that the Catalan people vote. Some would like to present this as the end of the matter but, as President of Catalonia, I say to them that it is not the end,” Mas said in a live speech in Catalan immediately after votes were counted.

“Catalan institutions will search through the legal frameworks to find a way to continue with this consultation.”

Catalan lawmakers said the movement had already gained too much momentum to stop the referendum completely.

All the major parties, including the ruling conservative People’s Party (PP), the main opposition group, the Socialists, and the centrist Union for Progress and Democracy (UPyD), voted against the petition. Catalan and Basque nationalist parties voted in favour.

“Maybe I believe in Catalonia more than you do. I love Catalonia like it was my own,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said during the debate.

“Together we all win, but separate, we all lose. This isn’t just a question of law, but of sentiment … I can’t imagine Spain without Catalonia, or Catalonia out of Europe.”

The spectre of a breakaway Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of the Spanish economy and 16% of its population, has become a big headache for Rajoy, who is battling high unemployment and the scars of a deep recession.

Mas has already set a date of 9 November for the referendum, two months after an independence vote in Scotland that is being closely watched in Catalonia.

Rajoy has said he will use the courts to block the Catalan government from holding the vote, though Mas argues that if it is a non-binding consultation, it should be legal.

Mas has also signalled he will not break the law. So if the referendum is shut down by the courts, he is expected to use the next election in Catalonia, which must be held by 2016, as a proxy vote on independence.

Business leaders cautious

Opinion polls show that roughly half of Catalans support independence, but a much higher number want the right to vote on the matter.

Catalonia, the land of artists Joan Miro and Salvador Dali and architect Antoni Gaudi, is home to some of Spain’s biggest companies, including banks Caixabank and Sabadell , global infrastructure company Abertis and utility Gas Natural.

Catalan business leaders have been cautious about taking sides on independence, fearing a backlash. But the head of Spain’s largest pharmaceutical company, Barcelona-based Grifols , broke the silence last week when he backed Mas’s drive to hold a referendum.

The view from the central government is that self-determination does not apply in Catalonia’s case, because it is not a colony and is not suffering rights violations.

Spain’s highly devolved system already gives Catalonia significant self-governing powers over its education and health systems and its police.

With the European Union backing the Spanish government, political analysts believe the endgame will likely be some sort of negotiation between Catalonia and Spain for the region to get additional fiscal powers.

A perception that Spain’s tax system is unfair to Catalonia and tussles over the Catalan-language education system have fueled the independence movement, as has the national economic crisis.

Rajoy is hoping time will be on his side. With the recovery gaining momentum in Spain, independence fervor could lose some of its heat.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine after a snap referendum staged under military occupation has done the Catalans no favours, highlighting the risk of the self-determination principle in Europe.

The Catalan government has circulated a petition paper to European governments to distance its referendum campaign from the Crimean situation. 

When Spain returned to democracy in the mid-1970s, regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country saw a vibrant resurgence of their culture and languages that had been crushed during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Catalans speak a language similar to, but distinct from, the Castillian Spanish spoken in the rest of Spain. The region accounts for 15% of Spain's population but 20% of its economy.

With Spain's economy in freefall from the euro zone debt crisis, Catalans complain of paying billions of euros more in taxes than they receive back from Madrid.

  • 18 Sept. 2014: Independence referendum in Scotland
  • 9 Nov. 2014: Independence referendum in Catalonia

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