Why pro-independence Catalans envy Scotland

Catalonia flag and roadsign Sant Pere de Torello sees itself as a pioneer in the drive for Catalan self-rule

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The hilltop village of Sant Pere de Torello, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, north of Barcelona, is decked in the colours of Catalan statehood.

The red-blue-gold flag of the movement to win independence from Spain flies from windows, balconies and rooftops in every street.

The flag also rises above the town hall of this community of 2,500, whose mayor was the first local official in Catalonia to declare his area a free Catalan territory - electing to send local taxes to the Catalan capital Barcelona, instead of directly to Madrid. It is a symbolic repudiation of the town's Spanish heritage in favour of an explicit Catalan national identity.

"It is a small thing," says Griselda Castells, an adviser to the mayor, "but we have tried for years to explain to Spain that we need action - but nothing changes.

"Now the government of Spain can see that it is real, this feeling that we have. It's a small thing but an important thing for our ideology, for our dream, that Catalonia will be independent."

There has been a dramatic rise in support for Catalan independence in the last few years. A pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona in September 2012 attracted more than a million people. Opinion polls frequently put support for a break with Spain at more than 50%.

Scottish independence

President Artur Mas: 'Catalonia and Scotland have enough personality to follow their own ways.'

The president of Catalonia's regional government, the pro-independence Artur Mas, has majority support in parliament for a referendum which, he says, will take place in November. Spain, though, has said the move is illegal and that the referendum will not go ahead.

The stand-off is in marked contrast to the situation in Scotland, with which Catalonia is frequently compared. There, the pro-independence Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish parliament and announced plans for a referendum to take place in September. It reached an agreement with the British government on the timing of the poll, and on the wording of the question: "should Scotland be an independent country?"

The UK government, and the anti-independence "Better Together" campaign, have both said they will respect the outcome of the referendum.

"We envy a little bit what is happening in the UK," Artur Mas told me, "because what we would like is an agreement with the Spanish institutions.

"Our aim is to reach this agreement, but the difference is that in Spain the central government says you don't have the right to vote."

Start Quote

You cannot stop a democratic and peaceful movement like this”

End Quote Artur Mas Catalan president

So, I asked him, would you rather be dealing with UK Prime Minister David Cameron than with the current Spanish government?

"Of course," he said. "Well, not exactly with David Cameron but with the British mentality. That is to say: if you have a nation, Scotland or Catalonia, and you have in this nation a broad majority of the population that is asking for a referendum, real democracy, what should you do? You should sit at the table, reach an agreement and let the people vote. This is the British way. And I wish that Spain was exactly the same, with the same mentality."

But Spain is not the United Kingdom and Catalonia is not Scotland. Scotland and Catalonia have similar sized populations - five million and 7.5 million, respectively.

Scotland contributes just over 8% of the UK's taxes (excluding oil and gas) - about the same proportion as the size of its population.

But Catalonia is Spain's wealthiest and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of Spain's taxes - far more than its share of Spain's population. This disparity has helped fuel the rise in support for independence.

Barcelona pro-independence rally, 11 Sep 12 In September 2012 pro-independence Catalans thronged the streets of Barcelona
Madrid warning

There is a further key difference between Scotland and Catalonia. In Scotland, the SNP has campaigned for independence as a matter of principle since the party was founded nearly a century ago. Support for independence has been fairly solid at more than 30%, arguably for decades.

In Catalonia, support has rocketed from somewhere in the teens to more than 50% since the current economic crisis began, leading many anti-independence campaigners to argue that this recent rise is ephemeral, an anomaly - a short-term response to a short-term economic crisis, but one which could have irreversible long-term consequences.

Start Quote

We hope it won't come to this, but we could for instance suspend Catalonia's autonomy”

End Quote Fernando Sanchez Costa Catalan MP in Spain's Popular Party

And although a clear majority in Catalonia - about three-quarters of the people in recent opinion polls - want the right to vote on the matter, a minority want Spain to act to stop the referendum taking place at all.

"Spain could do many things," says Fernando Sanchez Costa, a member of the Catalan parliament for the governing centre-right Spanish party, the Popular Party.

"We hope it won't come to this, but we could for instance suspend Catalonia's autonomy. Our democratic constitution gives us the tools. It wouldn't be necessary to suspend [the Catalan] parliament. In Northern Ireland something similar happened a few years ago. Some competences were taken away temporarily. This could happen in Catalonia."

Many in Catalonia believe that would only boost support for independence still further.

Artur Mas says he is determined to go ahead regardless. "Let me remind you," he says, "that we had democratic elections here a year ago. The electoral pledges were very clear and the people elected us because they wanted the right to exercise this choice. We must stick by our promise to hold a consultation".

And if Spain blocks it? "Then we will call new elections, by 2016 at the latest, and this election will become the referendum on independence. You cannot convince the Catalan people that they have no right to vote on this. You cannot stop a democratic and peaceful movement like this."

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