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24 October 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 4:54pm

The drive for Catalan independence must not ignore the views of the silent majority

Catalonia is far from united in its support for independence.

By Antonio Roldán

On Saturday the Spanish government decided to implement article 155 of the Spanish Constitution to suspend Catalonia’s political autonomy. The government will use the article to call a regional election in Catalonia, which will likely take place in January 2018. In the interim period, the Catalan parliament will be partially suspended and Madrid will assume the powers of the regional government.

This comes after the decision by the Catalan government to announce a unilateral declaration of independence earlier this month. According to the Catalan government, the move towards independence was the result of a “democratic mandate” given by an unauthorised referendum on 1 October.

Catalonia’s leaders are now accusing the Spanish government of organising a “coup”. Social unrest and large demonstrations in the streets are likely to follow in the coming days and weeks.

Catalan separatists have been effective at building their case internationally. They picture Catalonia as a united community fighting for democracy – the so-called “right to decide” – against an authoritarian and repressive Spanish state.

However, the story is not that simple. In fact, the unilateral decisions taken by the Catalan government over the last two months are neither legitimate nor democratic.

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At the beginning of September, the Catalan parliament passed two laws (“the Referendum Law” and “the Transition Law”), overruling the Spanish constitution and the Statute of Autonomy (the law that defines the relations between Catalonia and the Spanish government). Illegal parliamentary procedures were applied at the will of the speaker of the house – a former radical pro-independence activist – violating in numerous ways the rights of the minority in parliament.

For example, changing the Statute of Autonomy requires a majority of two thirds of the Catalan chamber. However, the rupture laws, which were destroying a 500-year relationship with Spain and the constitutional order established in 1978 (voted for by 90 per cent of Catalans), were approved by a pro-independence majority in parliament of just slightly more than 50 per cent. Despite this, on the basis of those laws, the government decided to go ahead with a referendum.

According to the Catalan government, about 2.2 million people voted on 1 October (43 per cent of the census), of which more than 90 per cent chose independence. However, the vote took place with no democratic guarantees whatsoever. There was not an official census or an independent electoral board. In many constituencies there were more votes than actual people registered.

After the vote, the Catalan government said the result was valid and signed a unilateral declaration of independence. Immediately afterwards, however, the declaration was suspended in order to ask for “dialogue” to Madrid. There was a pre-condition for the “dialogue”, however: it could only address the referendum issue, something unacceptable for the Spanish government. But why?

A vote to solve all problems?

A large majority of Catalans support the so-called “right to decide”. However, many of us believe that a referendum is unlikely to be the solution to the Catalan problem. First, Spain, like Germany, France or the US, has a written constitution that recognizes the sovereignty of all Spanish people over the territory (thus, regions are not considered a sovereign entity).

The right of self-determination (i.e. the right to decide) is in fact not recognized by any constitution in the world, besides Ethiopia and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

The UN only recognises such right for oppressed minorities or authoritarian states. So, if a vote to fragment the sovereignty of the Spanish people was to be allowed, the constitution has to be changed first, or, alternatively, the rest of Spaniards should be allowed to vote.

Second, given the existence of different “nationalities” in Spain, such as the Basque Country or Galicia, opening the Pandora’s box of a referendum could end up in a balkanisation of Spain. Moreover, the same demand for referendums would likely extend to other countries in Europe, with lethal consequences for the European project.

Third, Catalonia is almost a fifth of Spain’s GDP so a potential separation would certainly reopen a deep economic crisis in Spain with dramatic consequences for the populations on both sides. Brexit would look like childs’ play, compared to the mess of dividing the rights and obligations between Spain and Catalonia. Last week Catalans had a taste of the dramatic potential economic effects of independence: more than a thousand companies, including all the largest banks and multinationals, moved their their official headquarters from Catalonia. 

Fourth, two years ago Catalonia had a de facto referendum. The two large pro-independence parties, ERC and CiU, formed a coalition, Junts pel Sí, to run in a regional election in 2015. Together they got a majority of seats in parliament and managed to form a coalition with the anti-capitalist CUP. However, they fell short on votes: they only got 47 per cent. Even though nationalists had assured that a majority of votes was a necessary condition to continue with the “process”, an 18-month path towards independence was the next step.

Fifth, and more importantly, many of us think that a binary vote could not express the variety of political views, preferences and identities existing in Catalonia after so many years of co-existence. Jean Charest, the former prime minister of Québec, said while visiting Barcelona in 2015: “Referendums are no panacea, they offer an answer but they also divide, create tensions, and leave scars”.

In fact, when Catalans are given more options to choose from than the simple Yes or No to independence, a different reality emerges. For instance, when asked to choose between “an independent State”, “a State within a federal Spain” or “an Autonomous community within Spain”, support for independence falls consistently below 35 per cent. 

One single people?

The Catalan nationalist government talks about Catalonia as if it were one single people fighting for independence. But that’s not true either. Pro-independence support has never been above 48 per cent. In the decades before the 2008 economic crisis the average support for independence was about 15 per cent.

And looking at the data on independence support, there are sharp geographical, economic and cultural cleavages that divide Catalan society.

According to analysis by Kiko Llaneras of El País, there is a strong positive correlation between income and support for independence. While only about a third of Catalans earning below €900 a month want independence, the number goes up to 53 per cent of those earning €4,000 or more.

The family origin is a key driver of those divisions: while 75 per cent of Catalans with all their grandparents born in Catalonia support independence, only 29 per cent of those born in Catalonia but with grandparents from another autonomous community support it. The same story is reflected geographically. Pro-independence support is clearly majoritarian in rural areas, while in places such as the capital, Barcelona, it is not – in the last election support for pro-independence parties was 44.3 per cent.

The silent majority

Catalonia is a diverse, dynamic, multi-cultural society with a wide variety of identities and complex political preferences. However, for many years the hegemonic nationalist narrative has ignored the voice of the “other Catalans”, those that do not support independence.

After almost 40 years of nationalist governments, followed by the rise of a Catalan nationalist agenda in the schools and public media, unionists have suffered what the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann calls a spiral of silence: when a group of people, for fear of isolation, remains silent instead of voicing its opinion.

These people, the “other Catalans”, did not sit on the boards of the strong multinational firms. They were not presenting TV programmes on television. They could not afford the expensive private international schools where Catalan elites sent their children. Their Catalan language (if they spoke it at all) did not sound as refined as that of the native elites. Millions of them had come in the Sixties or Seventies from poorer regions in the south to work in the booming industries of Catalonia, Spain’s industrial powerhouse (19 per cent of GDP, 16 per cent of the population).

Until the nationalist government brought the country to the brink of collapse, they weren’t brave enough to come out with a single voice against the hegemonic nationalist narrative. For years they were probably too busy making it to the end of the month as blue-collar workers, maybe working in a Seat factory, or in their small shops in the mid-sized unglamorous cities of the so-called Barcelona red-belt. 

Going forward

Democracy is about more than voting. There are some basic rules that need to be respected in order to avoid the “tyranny of the majority” and protect the rights of the minorities. For that reason, fundamental rights and issues such as territorial unity are excluded from the rule of the simple majority. In the US, for instance, some States voted against gay marriage, but federal tribunals declared those votes unconstitutional.

The decision by the Catalan nationalist government to go ahead with a unilateral declaration of independence is neither democratic nor legitimate. Voting is one key condition for democracy, but not the only one. If the democratic procedures established by the law are not respected, then a vote is not legitimate.

Moreover, a referendum on independence is unlikely to solve the Catalan problem. It could never capture the large diversity of identities and political preferences in Catalonia. In fact, subjecting the less-politically mobilised unionists to the dramatic economic costs of independence would be deeply unfair.

For those reasons, at this point a solution to the Catalan problem should come in three steps: first, a new regional election with actual democratic guarantees that establishes the present real majorities in Catalonia. Second, a new deal between Spain and Catalonia on economic issues such as regional financing and infrastructure investment. Third, a reform of the constitution, to be voted by all Catalans, that improves our imperfect federal arrangement. 

Antonio Roldán is a Barcelona member of the Spanish parliament for the Ciudadanos party, which does not support Catalan independence

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