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23rd Jun 2018

Feature

Catalonia ponders independence 'leap of faith'

  • Supporters in Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium. The football club supports the referendum, but will not take a position on independence. (Photo: assemblea.cat)

In less than three months, on 1 October, Catalan voters will be asked whether they want their region to "become an independent state in the form of a Republic."

Until Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government, officially calls the vote at the end of August or early September, the debate on Catalonia's independence will not yet have disturbed the Mediterranean summer.

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  • There has been no dialogue between Catalan and Spanish leaders, Puigdemont (l) and Rajoy (r), about the referendum or Catalonia's status within the country. (Photo: president.cat)

As tourists flooded Barcelona's seafront, streets and monuments last week, only a few stickers and red and yellow Catalan flags displayed in windows served as reminders of the feverish political atmosphere that could potentially lead to the break-up of Spain, the EU's fifth largest state.

A visit to Catalonia's second-most visited landmark - after Gaudi's Sagrada Familia basilica - may be a good way to understand how the campaign is taking shape in people's mind.

"Mes que un club" - more than a club - reads a giant message in the Camp Nou, the 99,000-seat stadium and home to the globally famous "Barca", Barcelona's main football club.

In Catalonia and its capital, Puigdemont told EUobserver, "Barca plays a social role, more than a political role."

In the club's museum that sits in the Camp Nou, a sign says that "ever since its foundation, FC Barcelona's identity has been inextricably linked to its country, Catalonia. This commitment is accepted by Catalan society and understood by Barcelona supporters from the rest of the Spanish state, and the world."

Every match, after 17 minutes and 14 seconds, the most politicised supporters strike up chants about Catalonia's independence to commemorate the defeat of Catalan forces against the Spanish king's army in 1714.

In early May, the Barca signed the "national pact for a referendum", an online petition that states "Catalonia’s desire to decide its own political future" and calls on Catalan and Spanish authorities to agree on the modalities of the vote.

Polls say that two-thirds of Catalans support the initiative, whereas Spanish authorities have said that the vote will be illegal and have refused any discussion on the matter.

But despite its commitment to Catalonia's identity, Barca will not take a side in the referendum.

"Barca is pro-referendum. They say nothing about independence, because part of their supporters are against independence," Puigdemont explained, adding that a majority of Catalans, including opponents of independence, said they will accept the result.

"Barca is a reflection of this," he said.

Ahead of October's referendum, Catalans are almost united on the need to go to the ballot box to express themselves. But they are also divided on the referendum question and uncertain about the result and the consequences.

Uncertainties

The Spanish government has said that it would use "all means" to prevent the vote or independence from happening, and there is also no guarantee that an independent Catalonia would be recognised by the EU.

Puigdemont, in an interview with several European media outlets, including this website, said that "nothing will stop" his government.

He added that he would try to find an agreement with the Spanish government and the EU on "how Catalonia can become a fully independent state".

"If a majority of Catalans vote for 'Yes' … the European Union must accept reality," he said.

Adding to the uncertainty, the Catalan government is still yet to presented the "secession bill," which will outline the transition process towards becoming an independent state.

Detailed figures on how much the process would cost have not been put forward either - for example, whether to build state infrastructure or to assume part of the Spanish debt.

"We will act as an independent state from the first minute. We'll calculate the needs and financial capacities," Puigdemont said in his interview.

He also said that he wanted to base Catalonia's share of the debt on the level of Spanish public investment in the region over recent years, although it would "not be strange" to calculate it according to Catalonia's population - 16 percent of the Spanish overall population.

In the face of the momentous decision to take, independence supporters argue that it is a question of principles.

"It's a matter of democracy," said Raul Romeva, the region's foreign minister.

He said that the independence movement "was born on the streets because of an accumulation of frustrations."

"Frustration mobilises people. And there is a solution to the problem, that's called democracy," he said.

Price to pay

Many date the rise of the independence movement back to 2010, when the Spanish Constitutional Court rewrote 14 articles of Catalonia's statute of autonomy, and reinterpreted 27 others.

The court said, in particular, that the reference to Catalonia as a "nation" within Spain was unconstitutional.

The "Estatut" (statute) had been ratified in a referendum in 2006, after an initial version adopted by the Catalan parliament in 2005 had been modified by the Spanish parliament.

The ruling was a turning point for Catalonia.

"Our project was to increase and improve self-governance and autonomy step-by-step within the Spanish state, but we were blocked," noted Artur Mas, who then became Catalan leader a few months after the constitutional ruling.

As a result, "Catalonia is the only Spanish autonomous community that doesn't have the statute of autonomy that it had adopted," pointed out Puigdemont, who succeeded Mas in January 2016.

Mariano Rajoy, the conservative Spanish prime minister, who was elected in 2011, had maintained a hard line to defend the country's unity.

Mas was prosecuted and barred from public office for organising a consultation on independence in 2014.

Carme Forcadell, the speaker of the Catalan parliament, is also under trial for letting the assembly vote on the independence process last year.

"It's the price I must pay for the debate and democracy," she said, echoing a sentiment that Spanish authorities are putting the country's unity above democratic values.

In the feverish atmosphere, some minority voices reject the separatist arguments.

Opening dialogue

"We're facing a populist movement and we're afraid of that," said Antonio Sitges-Serra, who is a surgeon and vice-president of the Left Federalist association.

"It's crazy to divide society this way," he added, pointing to the fact that "the next day, we'll have to speak with the government. So why not now?"

Anti-independence politicians are also divided.

While the local branch of the Rajoy's Popular Party rejects the referendum, the Catalan Socialist Party supports the idea of a reform of the Spanish constitution that would be put to a different referendum.

They place their hopes on the national Socialist leader, Pedro Sanchez, who could try to bring down Rajoy with a motion of defiance in parliament.

In the meantime, some, such as former Socialist MEP Ernest Maragall, see the Catalan referendum as "the only possibility to open a dialogue" with the Spanish government to obtain more autonomy.

The radical left Podemos party says that the referendum could be a first step towards a solution to the Catalan question, but that the main debate should be about social issues, not independence.

Although the Catalan government says it is "100 percent committed" to declaring independence if they win the referendum, some independence leaders suggest that the process could change track once the Spanish government is ready to talk.

"Our attitude will be a positive attitude, it will not be to impose our criteria," said former Catalan leader Mas.

Miracle

Mas, who is the leader of Puigdemont's Catalan European Democratic Party, said the fact that "Catalans can vote on their political future" was "more independent than independence".

"To achieve a concrete agreement, everyone has to yield a little," he added.

If a 'Yes' vote happens, the Catalan leadership's capacity to negotiate - with Madrid, as well as with the EU - would depend on the result's legitimacy.

As the Spanish government has refused to discuss the modalities of the vote, the result would likely be discarded if the majority for independence is small and if turnout is low.

In the 2014 consultation, which was not binding, over 80 percent of voters supported Catalonia's independence, but the participation in the vote - which was not officially published - was estimated to be between 37 and 40 percent.

Although a majority of Catalans say they support the idea of a referendum, it is impossible to say how many will go to the ballot box, especially if the Spanish government tries to prevent the vote.

As a decisive summer begins for Catalonia and Spain, independence has never been so close, yet so difficult to achieve.

The decision will be "a leap of faith," admitted Ismael Pena-Lopez, an academic who is also a member of Omnium, an association to promote Catalan language and culture.

"It will be miracle if we become independent," said a close observer of the process.

This article is the second in a two-part report about Catalonia's independence referendum, written after a press trip organised by Catalan authorities. The first article is an interview of Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan government.

Interview

Statehood is Catalonia's 'only option'

The new Catalan government wants independence from Spain, but it also wants to convince Europe it can be "an asset, not a problem", says its foreign minister Raul Romeva.

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