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.
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.