Roadmaps and Gridlock: The drive for Catalan independence

Daniel Cetrà discusses yesterday's gathering in Catalonia. He explains that the Catalan pro-independence camp remains highly mobilised and that the Catalan and Spanish political situations are complex and interconnected.

Hundreds of thousands of Catalans gathered yesterday in five cities, including Barcelona, to demand independence. It is the fifth consecutive year that, on the national day of Catalonia, the pro-independence camp takes the streets in huge numbers.

catalan march

Under the slogan ‘ready’ and in a festive atmosphere, participants waved yellow banners that symbolised a beating heart for an independent Catalan republic. The event was organised by civil society organisations Òmnium Cultural and Catalan National Assembly. The Catalan government, formed by the secessionist coalition Together for Yes, encouraged attendance and took part in the gathering. According to the police, in Barcelona alone some 540,000 people participated.

The success of the event confirms the remarkable capacity of the pro-independence camp to mobilise massively and persistently.

The novelty about this year’s gathering is the political context in which it takes place. At the Catalan political level, there is since January an openly secessionist government that has a roadmap to unilateral independence in its manifesto. The Together for Yes government is extraordinary in that it brings together the two main secessionist parties, ERC and PDC (previously CDC), and several public figures with the only common goal of obtaining independence.

But things are complex: there are internal disagreements within the pro-independence camp. There is a debate about whether the Catalan government should follow the 18-month roadmap to independence set out by Together for Yes or, instead, should organise a ‘unilateral referendum of independence’. The latter would be different from the symbolic vote held in November 2014 in that it would be binding, but the crucial problems of how to mobilise non-secessionists and how to accomplish unilateral independence would remain. Some secessionists are increasingly frustrated because they think that the process towards independence is going too slowly. The Together for Yes coalition needs the parliamentary support of the far-left and also pro-independence CUP, which demands unequivocal ‘acts of disobedience’ and a ‘more social’ budget. There will be a vote of confidence to president Puigdemont later this month, although the CUP recently announced that they will give him support.

catalan march

So, the pro-independence camp is ideologically heterogeneous and strategically divided about how to achieve the enormous challenge of unilateral independence. They are unanimous in supporting the holding of a negotiated independence referendum following ‘the Scottish model’, but the Spanish government (and all Spanish parties but Unidos Podemos) oppose this.

Which brings us to the Spanish political arena. There has been a Conservative PP-led interim government since December. The two general elections in December and June were inconclusive as parties were unable to form a coalition government. The Spanish political deadlock has many causes, and one of them is precisely the salience of the independence issue in the Catalan political agenda. Catalan nationalist parties will not give support to any Spanish government that does not commit to the holding of an independence referendum. Further, one of the reasons why the Spanish Socialist party and Unidos Podemos do not join forces is that the former opposes a referendum in Catalonia and the latter supports it.

Over the past five years the strategy of the Spanish government has been to oppose the demand for a referendum and to resort to challenges via the constitutional court. This strategy has not been effective in reducing the support for secession and the success of the independence mobilisations. Nor has it helped to unblock the government formation process in Spain, since neither PP nor PSOE are willing to negotiate a referendum. Indeed, the political deadlock in Spain could lead to an astonishing third election in December. Constitutional change could be a way out, but there is not a political majority willing to channel the standstill through territorial reform.

In conclusion, the Catalan pro-independence camp remains highly mobilised and the Catalan and Spanish political situations are complex and interconnected. The Spanish government’s unaltered position against a referendum has shifted the focus of the Catalan demand, from a referendum to unilateral independence. But the discrepancies within the secessionist camp and the gigantic difficulties of achieving unilateral independence are also factors in play. Negotiated constitutional change seems impossible, and the unilateral way might be unfeasible. Amidst political deadlocks and seemingly dead-end streets, yesterday’s gathering shows once more that the issue of Catalan independence is not going away.

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post by Daniel Cetrà
University of Edinburgh (3.05 St John's Land)
12th September 2016
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