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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    But how do you stop the Catalans from acting in accordance with democracy?
    Artur Mas CiU (governs Catalonia with 38% vote in 2010 election) will present "Estat Propi". This formula, roughly translated as Free State, avoids the term independence which for Mas would signal not only a break in relations with Spain but also with the EU.
    This is not rebellion or civil war; it is democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.


    If you are British then ergo you are European, end of story.

    (Have a look at a map!) Lol

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    I live in Switzerland, so seeing real democracy at work is just part of life for me. I live in a land where the people vote on all the laws under which they live. It is rich, peaceful and stable.

    I've noticed that many Europeans who live under representation, with representatives preselected by a two party elite, want real democracy.

    It is a direct threat to the party system of representation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Isn't it strange that the EU is trying to impose greater political and fiscal union on its members, but countries in the EU are facing calls for independence by regions or even countries, like Scotland? It seems that the more you put national identity under threat, the more that people want to be independent. Sounding the death knell of the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Dear Paul Mason
    Your article poses reflective questions and hypotheses about a Spanish break-up. But you ignore the reasons for this evolutionary disintegration of all european nations.
    It is time for massive revolutionary "acceleration of change" to our centralized governance systems, decrepit public institutions, chronically anaemic banking sector and corrupted political party form of democracy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    David (Melamedoff), economics is only part of it and reducing it to not wanting to aid poorer regions is just sheer ignorance. An independent Cat. will continue to finance them through Brussels rather than Madrid. Cat. was militarily conquered and occupied in 1714 and we still have the feeling that we are being treated as a vanquished people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    And will the Catalan-speaking area of France join them?
    Interesting times we live in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I fail to imagine a single reason why people in Catalonia shouldn't get a vote on this issue. It's voting and democracy we're talking here. How can that be a bad thing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Ugh: "Catalonia gives more to Spain than it gets back"

    Madrid ALSO gives more to Spain than it gets back. Should Madrid secede?

    If Catalonia secedes, Barcelona & Costa Brava will subsidise Catalonia. Should Barcelona secede?

    Where does it end? Are we going to keep breaking countries into ever-smaller countries? Leaving the world with ONE massive country (the USA) & a million little ones?

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    Farrago has NO idea of the ground swell nor of history. Economic strangling is rampant: 2011 budget: 35% completed in Catalunya 110 in Madrid.
    High speed track with no trains in Galicia 1.100 m. Mediterranean Line for nearly 50% of Spanish exports 1079, 3 years late. And so on and on.
    More "recentralisation" of education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    It would be sad to see a rich region choose independence to avoid helping its poorer brethren. Other than separatists elsewhere, would the rest of the world welcome a nation so mean-spirited?

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    It is a sign of the time if we see “kingdom go against kingdom, nation against nation” and more, “a planet divided will not stand.” Each culture should be preserved, each nation her own sovereignty. As all nations abide by the Laws of Physics, thus we all should abide by The Moral Laws, and the Laws of Economics. Google The World Monetary Order to Come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.


    "I am definitely not European."

    So GB is a new continent or does it belong to America?

    EUp: "EU"-lovers have deliberately, manipulatively and arrogantly used the word "Europe" to describe their sick creation - the "EU".

    Austrians hate the "EU" just as much as the Brits do.

    More and more Germans hate it.

    One day we will all be free of this rubbbish.

    Stop paying billions!

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    "I am definitely not European."

    So GB is a new continent or does it belong to America?

    If you say, that Britain should not be part of the EU, that is definitely Your choice ( i.e. the British people's )..

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Identity is a precious thing.

    I am a Kentishman from the ancient Jutish Kingdom of Cantia.
    I also identify with (and will never give up) being English.
    I am British, I suppose.
    I am definitely not European.

    If the Catalans do not identify with Spain, then Spain should let them (and the Basque) from their own nations.

    And here, if the Scots, Welsh, Irish & Kernow vote to leave?
    Let them go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    If Gibraltar can do it so can they!

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    In fact, data from the Spanish Education Ministry shows that Catalan students get better results in Spanish language than the average throughout Spain. Therefore the Catalan school model has been praised by UNESCO and the European Commission as a best practice example of a model fostering social cohesion, guaranteeing equal opportunities and not creating two separate language communities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    @Farrago.. Get your facts straight before making such ludicrous opinionated false statements. Read:
    The current school model in Catalonia has been in place for three decades and guarantees that all pupils in Catalonia are perfectly proficient in both Catalan and Spanish at the end of their schooling period.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Catalans talk of oppressed language and culture. However, Catalan is the only language of instruction. Obvious attempt to wipe out the Spanish speaking population, not just to "protect their language and culture". It's a calculated plan for independence. Realize that most of the region are descendants of immigrants from the rest of Spain. Spain is not China and Catalonia is not Tibet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I wrote my Dissertation last year on Basque and Catalan nationalism, and I concluded by stating that the current economic situation would lead to a debate and a referendum with a narrow victory for Catalan independence, if it happens I best be eligible to retrospectivley get my degree classification moved up to a first!


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