Where is Catalonia's Rubicon on the road to independence?

So the gradual creep towards independence continues in Catalonia. A referendum remains highly unlikely as the only remote possibility of one being held is it being approved in the Congreso in Madrid, which won't happen because the PP has an absolute majority (and anyway, the PSOE is in total disarray, and so can't be relied on, except to be unreliable). Duran i Lleida – 'king troll' – warns frequently of the risks and possibilities of a unilateral declaration of independence. CiU is trying to slow the process, probably at least partly so it can carry on privatising everything in Catalonia, and ERC is chomping at the bit.

Legal consequences

All of this has me thinking: if we know, more or less, that a referendum cannot be legally held (the Catalan parliament will pass a law allowing it but this is understood to not be within an autonomous region's capacities), then maybe we start to see the Spanish strategy. They want to force Catalonia into acting illegally if they want to proceed towards independence. The question is: is Artur Mas really willing to take this step? And if he is, when will it come?

For Mas, I imagine it must be tempting. If everything went according to plan, he'd be remembered by Catalans for taking a stand, not for corruption and the destruction of Catalonia's social services. He'd be like a new Jordi Pujol! On the other hand, if there's an expert at saving his own skin, it's Artur Mas. We can be sure that some of the time he spends drumming up contracts on foreign visits is dedicated to establishing Artur Mas as a Reasonable Man in the eyes of foreign officials.

Where is the Rubicon?

In the end, Catalonia's Rubicon has two potential locations: an illegal referendum or a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI). If Catalonia attempts to hold a referendum without Spain's permission, the vote will not be accepted as legal by the Spanish government. This would probably damage the potential turnout, currently reckoned to be really large. I can't see Madrid suddenly agreeing to a referendum. But would it act to prevent one? It's difficult to say. Spain's already pretty unpopular in the EU, and preventing a referendum from being held, even though it would be an internal, legal issue, wouldn't look good. But that probably wouldn't be enough to stop Spain from intervening.

Unilateral declaration of independence

I expect that if Catalonia says it will hold a referendum, the Spanish authorities will warn that to proceed would lead to grave legal consequences. I also suspect that if Catalonia insisted, Madrid would find itself under enormous pressure to intervene. In the end, I'm not sure that a referendum will ever be held. I think it's much more likely that fresh elections will be held with a UDI as the deciding factor. If this happens, expect ERC to win, CiU to drop, C's to rise, ICV to remain more or less in place, and the CUP to see a rise. The PSC and PPC will both decline even further.

But a UDI is also illegal and far more so than a referendum. Surely Spain would have to act against a UDI, but how? Suspending Catalonia's autonomy? Arresting the president and govern?

I've always been against UDIs because while I agree that sovereignty resides in the people, not in the Spanish crown, I feel that international support will be difficult to obtain without a clear, free and fair referendum. If Spain blocks a referendum, then, it is of prime importance for Catalonia to make clear that it has exhausted the legal possibilities open to it.

International opinion will be vital and, while not exactly popular, Spain has far more clout in that area than Catalonia does. 2014 might still be an interesting year.

7 thoughts on “Where is Catalonia's Rubicon on the road to independence?

  1. Your post raises many important questions, Tom. You could break it down into three issues:
    1) Which political movement (party or alliance of parties) would have the nerve to take an action defined under the Spanish Constitution as an illegal insurrection? For either a referendum without the blessing of Congress or a UDI would be construed as rebellion, and those that took that action would be prosecuted as rebels and terrorists.

    2) What would be the response of the PP government to such defiance?

    3) What would be the response of the international community, and would this response be in any way decisive?

    On question 1), the answer is clear. Looking around the Catalan political landscape, CiU and PSC are deeply divided on the independence issue, and CiU's commitment to a referendum is suspect at best, being possibly no more than a variation of their traditional pressure tactics to gain more power within the Spanish state. ICV has never prioritised independence and in any case is still far from becoming a force in the Catalan parliament.
    This means that only a majority government of ERC (perhaps in alliance with CUP) would be willing to take such a drastic step. But in fact to be credible, their result would have to be greater than a simple majority, with a two-thirds majority necessary for a vote (either for referendum or UDI) to be effective within the context of the Catalan Estatut-constitution.
    The likelihood of such a convincing result for ERC and CUP is not high at present, though perhaps in the growing indignation among Catalan voters at the PP's intransigence, it could possibly be achieved in 2014 or 2015.
    Though this scenario (2/3 majority for ERC-CUP alliance) seems unlikely in the extreme, it is still more likely than the scenario of a CiU government defying the authority of the Spanish state. The CiU just haven't got it in them.

    2) If such a vote were made in Catalan parliament, either to hold a referendum in defiance of Madrid, or to declare UDI, the response from the PP government would be draconian. You could expect them to suspend the autonomy of Catalonia, arrest all the leaders, and nominate their own governors within a week. Civil rights would be suspended, martial law imposed, and leading figures in independence movements would be interned and/or made to disappear.
    This is where the proverbial shit would hit the fan.

    3) In response to such a drastic action, the international community would bleat a little about human rights, but quickly accept that Madrid had the right to defend its "territorial integrity" – after all this is what nation-states are for, and members of the UN, EU, NATO, G20, etc are all nation states.
    International public opinion might side for a while with the plucky Catalan underdogs, but, let's face it, international public opinion by itself doesn't amount to anything at all in the gritty world of politics. Public opinion never helped Tibet gain freedom or halted a single day's fighting in Syria, and is easily distracted by the Next Great Issue. Statesmen need only wait for the furore to die down and get back to business as usual.

    Conclusion: the likelihood of any Catalan political force crossing this Rubicon is extremely slight, and the chances of anything positive coming from such a move are outweighed by the almost-certain outcome of a forcible repression imposed of Catalonia by Madrid with the implicit blessing of the international community.

    My thoughts on this issue are conditioned by my own family's background in Irish nationalism. Both recorded history and family anecdotes show that Irish independence – compromised and partial as it turned out to be, and still incomplete to this day – was achieved only at a terrible cost after plunging into unprecedented violence.

    And in general this is how it always must be, because nation-states claim the monopoly of force, and sole juridical legitimacy, in defence of their integrity. Only prolonged resistance by force, or at least enormous self-sacrifice, can challenge the power of the nation-state. Exceptions to this rule, such as Slovakia and the Baltic Republics in 1990, come only in rare moments of massive upheaval, when the controlling nation sees an advantage in conceding independence to the seceding nation. Nothing like that can be imagined in the Spanish case.

    Better by far for Catalan nationalism to be patient, build international contacts, and play a longer game in which Catalan interests are recognised around the world. Meanwhile Catalan separatists must watch and wait for a moment of vulnerability in the Spanish state, when they can exert pressure toward their own goals.

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  2. If all the politicians know it's not going to happen, for whose benefit do they continue to say that it will, and when will they explain to all the really dumb believers out there that they were lying?

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    1. I think the question is: to what degree will Rajoy act against a referendum being held? Or in other words, how illegal does he want to make it? I think it's pretty obvious that Mas won't send himself to jail. But it's hardly unusual for a Spanish or Catalan politician to break the law… a cynic might even call it a job requirement for leadership of certain parties.

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  3. As Bru de la Sala put it, the picture we're after is that of a peaceful crowd going to vote being stopped by the Spanish riot police. I would agree with him. The referendum must go on, even if there is little chance of it actually taking place in the end. If it does take place, everybody will be happy. If it doesn't, it will still be a colossal PR disaster for Spanish nationalists and a victory for democracy and human rights.

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    1. The thing is, though: if a referendum is held and the Spanish government and media bombard Catalonia with messages that it is 'unofficial' and 'won't be recognized', don't you think that could affect turnout? What if the PSC, PP and C's call on people to boycott it? Won't that render it useless?

      I agree that a referendum must be held but I don't think it's quite as simple as just standing firm and everything will be OK. The unionist wing has a lot of 'soft' options for derailing a referendum.

      I also have reason to believe that Catalans aren't being 'lied to' as Trevor suggests, but that there are genuine preparations underway for statehood. The softly-softly approach seems to be favored to try and garner international support and not paint Mas as a firebrand in the international media. Things are certainly afoot.

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  4. Little seen but important info.

    By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in Brussels
    12:00AM BST 19 Sep 2000

    DECLASSIFIED American government documents show that the US intelligence community ran a campaign in the Fifties and Sixties to build momentum for a united Europe. It funded and directed the European federalist movement.

    The documents confirm suspicions voiced at the time that America was working aggressively behind the scenes to push Britain into a European state. One memorandum, dated July 26, 1950, gives instructions for a campaign to promote a fully fledged European parliament. It is signed by Gen William J Donovan, head of the American wartime Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA.

    The documents were found by Joshua Paul, a researcher at Georgetown University in Washington. They include files released by the US National Archives. Washington’s main tool for shaping the European agenda was the American Committee for a United Europe, created in 1948. The chairman was Donovan, ostensibly a private lawyer by then.

    The vice-chairman was Allen Dulles, the CIA director in the Fifties. The board included Walter Bedell Smith, the CIA’s first director, and a roster of ex-OSS figures and officials who moved in and out of the CIA. The documents show that ACUE financed the European Movement, the most important federalist organisation in the post-war years. In 1958, for example, it provided 53.5 per cent of the movement’s funds.

    The European Youth Campaign, an arm of the European Movement, was wholly funded and controlled by Washington. The Belgian director, Baron Boel, received monthly payments into a special account. When the head of the European Movement, Polish-born Joseph Retinger, bridled at this degree of American control and tried to raise money in Europe, he was quickly reprimanded.

    The leaders of the European Movement – Retinger, the visionary Robert Schuman and the former Belgian prime minister Paul-Henri Spaak – were all treated as hired hands by their American sponsors. The US role was handled as a covert operation. ACUE’s funding came from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations as well as business groups with close ties to the US government.

    The head of the Ford Foundation, ex-OSS officer Paul Hoffman, doubled as head of ACUE in the late Fifties. The State Department also played a role. A memo from the European section, dated June 11, 1965, advises the vice-president of the European Economic Community, Robert Marjolin, to pursue monetary union by stealth.
    It recommends suppressing debate until the point at which “adoption of such proposals would become virtually inescapable”.

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