A win-win for Catalan separatists as Spanish government forces are vilified
Gwynne Dyer says momentum and sentiment may be on the side of Catalonian independence, but neither the law nor the majority are
Catalan nationalist leader Carles Puigdemont got most of what he wanted on Sunday: 761 injured by Spanish police.
One or two dead martyrs for Catalan independence would have been better, but even the foreign media coverage bought the story that Spanish police suppressed popular will – so now Puigdemont has an excuse for a unilateral independence declaration.
Puigdemont, president of the Catalan regional government, is no stranger to histrionics. He has compared Catalan separatists’ non-violent campaign to the Spanish civil war of 1936-39 and even Vietnam. That sort of stuff rallies the troops, and a minority really want independence.
But today Catalonia is the richest region of Spain. The Catalan language enjoys equal status with Spanish and is used in schools. Regional wealth attracts so many people that 46 per cent of the population speak mostly Spanish, with 37 per cent using mainly Catalan.
Why do many Catalans want to break away? Historical grievances from the civil war and before; resentment that so many Spanish-speakers immigrated to Catalonia; resentment that they have to share wealth with poorer regions; but mostly Sigmund Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences”.
Catalan separatists, however, face two major obstacles: an independence referendum is illegal under the constitution – and they’d almost certainly lose a proper referendum.
A March poll showed 48.5 per cent opposing independence and 44.3 per cent in favour; by July it was 49.4 per cent against and only 41.1 per cent for it. It’s not easy to disenfranchise those “Spaniards” – mostly born in Catalonia.
Puigdemont’s idea probably occurred to him after a symbolic 2014 referendum saw 80 per cent back independence (only a third of the population – almost all Catalans – voted). What if, after another referendum, Catalan’s parliament declared it binding?
Most Spanish speakers wouldn’t vote, but this time, he said, there would be no requirement of a minimum turnout, and the regional parliament could declare independence “within 48 hours” if the vote went in favour. If the Spanish government intervened to stop the vote, as is its constitutional right, he could use that as a pretext for a unilateral declaration.
It was win-win for Puigdemont. If Madrid didn’t intervene, Catalonia would declare independence after a referendum in which only a minority of the population voted. If it did intervene, it would be guilty of “thwarting democracy”.
Madrid went with the latter, and now is seen across the world as an oppressor.
Nice strategy. Shame about the mess.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist