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 68.

    If Catalonya will not became instantly part of EU it will do it very fast & easy because all their laws (as part of EU state - Spain) is 100% compatible with EU - no negotiations needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    One of the biggest myths spread by Catalan nationalists is that they are costing Spain; in reality los Madrileños pay more tax than the Catalans.

    And good luck with the language; trying speaking it abroad and see how far it will get you. The average Spaniard is sick of the Catalans and wants to see the back of them, but this sentiment isn't reflected by the nation's politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.


    The EU has made it clear on a number of occasions that states that become separate from existing members of the EU will have to apply formally for entry. Their membership will not be automatic. Of course this is denied in certain quarters but it is the legal reality.

    My question as one of the oppressed gal-Gaidheal is it worth bothering? Not really. Quality bag-piping is far more important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    How, honestly, does Catalunya think that it will get on?

    It can forget the Euro, forget being a member of the EU and as it won't be a member of the EU there will be passport controls on the Catalan border. Most of its' exports go to Spain and if the Catalans think that Spain will soak up its Cava, then they are in for a surprise. What league is Barça going to play in, because it won't be Spain's

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    As EU get more & more centralized - it is not a problem if Catalonya, Scotland or Bavaria becomes independent states - they will continue to be part of that united EU & retain their economical & cultural links to the rest of their former states (& pay to EU budget for development & solidarity including to regions of states they are part now), objections is just spanish arrogance.

  • Comment number 63.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Spain as many other countries in the "old world" have been constructed almost exclusibly by force of arms and directives from warlords (read royalty).
    It is time that the voice of the people( of the many peoples in Europe) get a hearing without the menace of war by the powerful. Go Catalonia, Euskadi, Scotland and do your thing with civility and in Liberty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Einsten speaks about Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Napoleon, Le Pen, etc.
    Not of the Scottish, Quebec, the Basque or of the Catalan who wants to have his own country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Reflect on the words of Albert Einstein : "Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind."

    or a more recent quote from US Special Envoy Daniel Fried -

    "Nationalism ... is like cheap alcohol. First it makes you drunk, then it makes you blind, then it kills you."

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    56; Tribalism is alive and well everywhere. Some societies just wear it on their sleeves more.

    And when that tribalism is joined by a general dissatisfaction with the current political, economic and social system, it turns into an independence movement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    1971-ONU: Pau Casals (a great musician, a great catalan)

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    It is not just a matter of money. It is a matter of national survival. We have lived under the Spanish repression and scorn for centuries. We are the locomotive of Spanish economy and yet in Spain we are regarded as stingy strange people who stick to a different language and culture.
    We don't love each other so civil separation is the best way...

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    Who knew tribalism was alive and well in the heart of 21st century Europe? I thought only the "uncivilized" Africans clung to such outdated concept.

    If ethnically distinct people demanded to form their own nations, there would be hundreds, perhaps even thousands new ones in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    This shouldn't be allowed and I hope US forces intervene as it sets a dangerous precedent and would allow credibility to rogue states such as Scotland to attempt the same thing!

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    "It's outrageous! We'll never let them leave!"

    That's what they said about
    El Salvador
    Costa Rica
    and a few others.
    Got it wrong about them too, didn't they?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    If Cataln does leave Spain's umbrella, then so be it. The fact they see themselves as Europeans is a good thing.

    To all those who feel Britain (as a whole) is not Euopean, I am saddened to say this is too near the truth. In reality it seems we are little less than the 51st State of the USA!

    But do not think that ALL the UK residents are happy with that, I want to be a European, not an American.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    @ week-long Catalan parliament debate = motion to call a referendum following the election was approved, 84 - 21 (25 abstentions).
    Support = CiU, ERC, SI, the solo member Joan Laporta, & PSC rebel Ernest Maragall; opposed = PPC & Ciutadans.
    PSC abstained almost en bloc.
    Catalan wants independence from Spain, but not EU?

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    The separatist party ERC advocates a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain, but this proposition mustered only 7% vote in 2010. It seems pro-independence has gained ground, but secession programme has not. i.e. Catalans - angry with Madrid, but recognise that a violent rupture with Spain will bring unknowns.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Dantis,I think that you only have been to Barcelona, not to all Catalonia! If you go to Madrid, you can hear a lot of languages...You must go to other cities, and you will see which language people talk! And, all directions and signs are in spanish too, because Spanish Government say that it's must be like this, and if not, they ban you! One thing, I live in Catalonia, and I NEVER speak spanish...

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.


    What on earth are you talking about? Have you ever even been to Catalonia? I think not.

    I live in Spain and have travelled to the Catalonia region including Barcelona, everyone speaks Castellano (normal Spanish), some speak Catalan as well but not exclusively. All directions and signs etc are in Spanish and Catalan.

    Spanish is still very much the first language.


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