Balconies with flags

Catalonia Three Years After the Independence Referendum

Published: 1 October 2020
Author: Daniel Cetrà

Daniel Cetrà provides an update three years after the Catalonian Independence Referendum and asks what might Scottish Unionists and nationalists learn from the Catalan experience?

On Monday, the Supreme Court banned Catalan President Quim Torra from public office. He was found guilty of disobedience for displaying partisan symbols (including a banner demanding freedom for independence leaders in jail and in exile) on the Catalan government building during last year’s general election campaign. Torra is
the third successive Catalan president to be barred from office, the first while in power.

The news came as the Spanish government considers a presidential pardon for Catalonia’s jailed pro-independence leaders. This measure would see them released from jail, arguably a first step in the path to reconciliation. However, it falls short of pro-independence parties’ demand – an amnesty law that nullifies last year’s Supreme Court verdict.

The current Spanish government adopts a more conciliatory position. The Socialists (PSOE)’s formed a minority coalition government last November with the plurinationalist Unidas Podemos, which required the abstention of the Catalan pro-independence Esquerra (ERC) from the investiture vote. This prompted the PSOE to adopt a more appeasing tone.

But a way forward is not clear. The Spanish government continues to oppose a negotiated Catalan independence referendum. Its engagement with the Catalan question and its willingness to seek political compromises have been episodic. After months of paralysis only partly explained by the COVID-19 emergency, the presidential pardon proposal comes as the minority Spanish government begins negotiations to pass the budget.

In addition, divisions within the pro-independence camp have intensified over the last year. The main line of division is between ‘pragmatists’, led by the Esquerra, who defend the strategy of engaging in political dialogue with Madrid while building internal support for independence, and ‘maximalists’, led by Carles Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya (JxCat) and the far-left Candidatures d’Unitat Popular, who argue for continued disobedience.

Neither side is consistent in its discourse and practice. On Monday, Quim Torra called for an ill-defined ‘democratic rupture’ while acquiescing to the Court’s ruling and stepping down.

So, what’s next? There will almost certainly be a Catalan election next February. Until then, Pere Aragonès of Esquerra, vice president under Torra, will be an interim president with limited powers.

In fact, Esquerra and JxCat are already in campaign mode as they compete to win the election. Torra has voiced calls to turn the vote into a plebiscite on independence, a rerun of the 2015 strategy. In contrast, Esquerra is likely to combine the national and the social agenda, perhaps paving the way for a renewal of the leftist tripartite coalition which governed in Catalonia between 2003 and 2010.

Paradoxically, in the next election pro-independence parties could achieve their longstanding goal of obtaining a majority of the popular vote despite the fact that support for independence is at its lowest in recent years. This would be due to a lower turnout.

In the absence of decisive political initiative to chart a new course, judges will continue to play a large role in the evolution of the dispute. Given previous disproportionate rulings, including last year’s trial of independence leaders, the Supreme Court has little credibility on issues related to the Catalan question.

Lessons for Scotland

Clearly, each case has its own specificities and internal dynamics. What might Scottish Unionists and nationalists learn from the Catalan experience?

The 2017 Catalan referendum and its consequences point at the difficulties of exercising self-determination without the acquiescence of the central government. The failure to secure this agreement may foster divides within sub-state nationalist movements, between but also within parties, on the appropriate way forward, and potentially hinder success in meeting the movements’ broader goal of achieving a negotiation with the state.

Catalonia may thus offer a cautionary tale about unilateral referendums. They may be subject to boycott by sub-state unionists themselves, as we saw in Catalonia in 2017, which allows the legitimacy of the vote to be contested.

There may be lessons here for the UK Government as well. The successive Spanish governments' intransigence in the face of Catalan demands has made a path to genuine reconciliation more difficult to envisage.


Photo by Zosia Korcz on Unsplash

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