Catalan leaders seek independence vote, legal or not


Will Catalonia say adios to Spain and become independent? Watch Paul Mason's full Newsnight report

If Catalonia does, one day, get its own air force, it will probably be able to afford something better than Spitfires.

For now the kit-built replica planes zoom acrobatically across the beach in Barcelona, the crowd's "oohs and ahhs" moderated by that essential Catalan characteristic: cool.

They shelter under umbrellas to avoid getting tanned. And they chat. And what they chat about is beginning to cause a quiet terror in Madrid, and in Brussels. Leaving Spain.

Start Quote

It's no longer about what people are feeling in their hearts, it's what they feel in their pockets too. And the feeling is that they would be a lot better off if they were not a part of Spain”

End Quote Eduard Castells Barcelona resident

"My feeling is that the Spanish government has totally rejected what is happening here," says Jorge Fernandez, who has come here to watch the show. "They have spread rejection and hate with comments calling us 'the damn Catalans that don't want to collaborate'."

Another spectator, Eduard Castells, says: "The situation has evidently changed a lot. It's no longer about what people are feeling in their hearts, it's what they feel in their pockets too. And the feeling is that they would be a lot better off if they were not a part of Spain."

Three weeks ago one and a half million Catalans went on the streets, with outright demands for independence much higher in the mix than ever.

When the government in Madrid refused the region's demand for a new fiscal settlement, allowing it to keep more of the tax it raises, its government, led by the Convergence and Union (CiU) parties, called snap elections.

They want a referendum on Catalonia's future: through legal means or otherwise.

Oriol Pujol, the general secretary of Convergence, tells me: "We have an enormous fiscal transfer to Spain - about 8% or 9% of GDP - and never returns, year after year. And we could agree to carry on with that: there's no problem with agreeing to show solidarity with the rest of Spain. But when we have to make double cuts in services, when taxes are double - we have to make a change."

But he is keen to stress this is not just the result of the economic problems that have seen the region demand a 5bn euro bailout from Madrid:

"One cause of it is the crisis, but the crisis just gave the last push. It's the addition of obstacles, one on top of the other by Madrid, over the past two years. Political obstacles - and obstacles to identity, which really says to us there is no option to have Catalonia as we imagine it inside the Spanish state."

'Germany of Spain'

If, as expected the CiU wins the regional election on 25 November, then the clash over a referendum could crucially affect the course of the coming sovereign bailout for Spain.

Start Quote

If we exhaust all legal routes to get a referendum we won't stop”

End Quote Oriol Pujol General secretary of Convergence party

"If we exhaust all legal routes to get a referendum we won't stop," says Mr Pujol.

I ask him, point blank if the region will call a referendum in defiance of the national courts and constitution.

"There will be no way to avoid it. If we don't deliver it someone else will. More radical parties. But in a negotiation," he smiles, "it's not the best thing to reveal what you are going to do next."

Bond markets, which have for 12 months tried to price the risk of a eurozone breakup, now have to calculate the possibility of the breakup of the Spanish state - for secession in Barcelona would surely prompt centrifugal tendencies in the Basque region, and exacerbate the fiscal crisis in the poorest regions.

Mr Pujol says that an independent Catalonia - often called the "Germany of Spain", for its high GDP and industrial base - could play a role in turning around the image north Europe has of southern Europe.

But the rise of Catalan nationalism is provoking tension in Spain itself. When I vox-popped villagers in neighbouring Valencia this week, about the impact of the crisis there, talk turned among the oldsters, who had lived through the Civil War, to "the Catalans" - the word is almost spat.

"It's outrageous!" one elderly lady smacked her fist into her palm. "We'll never let them leave!'

Last week a serving officer in the Spanish army, Colonel Francisco Aleman, upped the stakes, telling a website "Catalan independence? Over my dead body and that of many soldiers". Adding that the crisis was already "like 1936" - the year the Civil War began - "only without the blood".

Mr Pujol smiles painfully when I put this to him. It's not exactly laughable he says; it has to be taken seriously:

"There are no other options than democratic answers - knowing the whole EU and international community are observing what Spain answers. It's not the moment: we passed that some years ago."

"The politics of fear, not only the comment of this person from the army, will appear: we know that. But the process is so driven by enthusiasm that we think such comments show how weak Spain is faced with the process in Catalonia."

National sentiment

If they ever do become a country, they will of course have no trouble fielding a football team. At Barcelona fans' bar, the supporters watching their team trounce Benfica are adamant, the region will leave Spain:

"Two or three years ago people would tell you 'hey, that independence thing will never happen, don't get too excited about it and don't expect too much'. And now, after what has happened in the month and a half it is amazing."

Artus Mas in Catalan parliament The Catalan parliament recently voted for an independence referendum

"I feel Catalan," insists another. "My passport and ID card say I'm Spanish, but I just don't feel Spanish."

And here is the problem. You can dispute the economic costs of Catalan independence, but at least you can measure it with facts and figures. What you cannot measure is feeling: and there's a huge wave of national sentiment in Catalonia, sparked by the austerity, but drawing above all on anger at Madrid's perceived power grab.

"For the past 10 years Spain constructed its relationship with Catalonia on the separation of powers," Raul Ramos, an economics professor at Barcelona University, tells me"; "economic power in Barcelona, political power in Madrid. But now, to impose the bailout conditions, Madrid has to concentrate economic power in the centre. That's what's driven Catalan politicians to act."

Two years ago, when I put footage of a million strong Catalan demonstration into a report about the economic crisis, I had tweets back saying "the two aren't linked".

For years the threat of Catalan recession has been rhetorical; always producing a fiscal compromise with Madrid. But now Madrid has nothing left to offer.

Under Franco people died for the right to speak their own language, sing their own folk songs, dance the Sardana in the shade of the old cathedral. And in the years after, this cultural freedom has been enough to contain demands for independence.

But the crisis changes everything. And we still don't know where the crisis ends.

Paul Mason Article written by Paul Mason Paul Mason Former economics editor, Newsnight

End of an era

After 12 years on Newsnight, Economics editor Paul Mason has moved on to pastures new and this blog is now closed.

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Reflecting further, the Catalan dynamic is, potentially, the face of that which corporate, banking and their governmental partners can not control.

    Austerity coupled with distinct cultural identity leading to community and the will for shared struggle for the right to dance the Sardana in the shade of the cathedral or have your own currency ....

    Follow your spirit and upon this charge shout ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    You are looking very well Paul. Spain seems to agree with you.

    The authorities are becoming increasingly adept at keeping the lid on this slow burn post 2008 crisis. I keep wondering what, if anything will breach their defences.

    This Catalan story is interesting... The Germany of Spain eh.. Like Germany I bet they want to keep the euro "subsidy" on their exports too with no broader social liabi

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Here's the thing: Spain will never allow Catalonia to secede, regardless of referendum. The Catalans are not serious enough to go to war over the issue. The end result will be a thicker, more respectable bailout and economic management plan for the region (possibly at the polite 'recommendation' of Chancellor Merkel) that will make [almost] everybody happy. At least, that's my prediction. Adeu!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Paul, congrats on getting so much into so few words.Since the demo there has not been one single offer of negotiation from Madrid. Guns, tanks, boycotts and expulsion from Eden.
    Of course independence isn't a magic solution! But after 300 years of Spanish domination, we're hardly in good health. Catalunya has a far bigger economy than many other independents, so why shouldn't we make a go of it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    From now on, everything I say is right and you are wrong. This is
    because I am more intelligent than you , younger than you , a lot sexy-
    er than you- and you are intellectually inferior. I vote UKip because
    she has a point


    Most regions seeking independance fail to realise whAT ? what about being free people ? Can we fail ztat ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Most regions seeking independance fail to realise their size and how vunerable they would be on their own

    Many large commercial organisations are very much larger.

    It is an emotional feeling not an interlerlectual process.

    The grass is allways greener inthe next field.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    seems obvious to me that, the more Europe tries more to integrate, the more that regions will attempt to pull away from the nation states that they are already unhappy with. If you are an independent minded region struggling to break from its nation state, then surely being swallowed up to be an even less significant part of a wider Europe, when things are so tough economically, makes no sense

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I am from Transylvania and I like to think that I have moral values. My mother was a saint and my father an alcoholic.

    I did learn something from them - loyalty, fairness and good alcohol. Catalonia, Transylvania, Tyrol, etc - we are not every man for himself on sinking ships, we have moral values.

    By the age of 14 yo - I was an orphan. For people like me, loyalty is very important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Catalonia, Transylvania, Tyrol, etc. We all want what its best best for us.
    Are we rats ? Sinking Ships ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Nationalism = more politicians? Same or less than now.
    If you really want to reduce them, start by the central government; next one, the autonomous communities of Spain; the region administrative divisions... And finally, to the cities and villages.

    You'll find out how much stupid and innecesary (apart of the politicians) things are over here. So please, stop confusing things with nationalisms.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Economic hardships always help to higlights the cracks, and in this case it is highlighting the cracks in another 'forced' state. Spain is not a voluntary union state. It is not alone in Europe either. The UK, France, Italy all have regions/countries which are there under duress either by centuries old dynastic unions or by territorial conquest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @Danaos: The Catalan government already pays for public services, police, etc. and Catalans pay through their taxes for the army and justice system (competencies that belong to the central government). It's not like the existance of a central government means that Catalans don't pay for those things. So could you tell me what are you talking about?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The prospect of Catalan succession is but one manifestation of the crumbling stability of Spain under the austerity programme. Austerity will be seen as the policy that wrecks the EU because it pits one member against another and the idea of sharing burdens has been completely abandoned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Nobody knows (don't get fooled with the news in catalonia or other spain territories) if it'd be better or not Catalonia to become a country, but with statistics on hand, there is a major probably it'd success than fail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.


    The problem resides in the nature of the state whether it be central or local. If more politicians is the answer then the question is irrational.

    It boils down into who is in control of the common wealth? The people as society or the state as an elite?

    If European history has not taught us that nationalism is the coin of petty tyranny then we are doomed.

    Divide and rule: an old trick!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Separists/nationalists thrive on economic hardship.

    I don't believe the ruling CIU, the bourgeois class of Catalonia, really wants independence. A Catalonian application to enter the EU will likely be blocked not only by Spain but several other EEC countries anxious to avoid greedy rich regions following suit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    10: Local nationalism is more about gangs carving out fiefdoms against the interests of the common people.

    Ehh ? As opposed to larger nationalist powers ignoring specific peoples in their continued policies of imperialism and colonialism. It seems to me that the 'threat' from 'gangs' seems to be coming from Madrid, not Barcelona.

    Myth and legend - Great Britain ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I've lived in Catalonia for the last 17 years and I can assure people that Catalan aspirations for independence have been around for a long time and the economic crisis has only brought things to a head. The central government in Spain has been systematically undermining Catalan rights for years now and people have finally had enough. The Catalans deserve their independence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    There is a choice today: are you going to to control this crisis or let the crisis control you?

    The people across Europe should be banding together against the elites whose stupidity has put us in this mess rather than indugling romantic provincial fantasies based on myth and legend.

    Local nationalism is more about gangs carving out fiefdoms against the interests of the common people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I ignore how Spain suppresses ethnic Catalan culture but on the financial side of the story, the event of Catalan independence will not guarantee Catalonia a better economy. Somehow Catalanonians will find out how much costs to man the public services, police, army etc. and sooner or later will end up to the same.

    The problem is "geographic". Somehow there is no Meditteranean country going well


Page 4 of 5



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.