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The Catalan elections and aspirations to independence

It was a hot political autumn in Catalonia. even as the summer was coming to its end, the regional premier, Artur Mas went to Madrid early September to ask the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, for support for a new financial deal for the region. The Basque Country has had a special financial status ever since the start of democracy, in the late 1970s. It is able to raise taxes and administers most of the spending, passing on a percentage to the central government. Catalonia, which has also had a major degree of autonomy since the early years, has no such deal on finance and its parliament had commissioned Mas to present the 'Fiscal Pact' to Rajoy. When he came back empty handed the population went wild.

Just days later, on 11th September, Catalonia's 'national day', perhaps 1.5 million people demonstrated on the streets of Barcelona, demanding not the fiscal pact, but nothing less than independence. clearly, over half the population of the region, which has 7 million people, are in favour of loosening the knot. Mas then became convinced that there would be no point in pursuing the political course so far set and changed tack, calling for an election in which his ruling coalition, Convergència i Unió (a right of centre group) would ask for a mandate to do what it can to work for a peaceful separation from Spain. Other parties, mainly on the left of CiU, also quickly rose to support the objective. Meanwhile the Partido Popular, which governs Spain, but is not well supported in Catalonia, together with a splinter group Ciutadans, have frontally opposed such an idea. The Catalan Socialists, linked to Spain's main socialist party PSOE, is somewhere between these extremes and has taken the position that it supports the 'right to choose' and will work for a referendum within the limitations of the Constitution.

The trouble is that the Constitution, which was established at the dawn of democracy by a constituent parliament drawn both from convinced democrats and former Franco supporters, states that Spain is 'indivisible'. This is to say it would be impossible, under the current Constitution to even hold a referendum on secession. To change the Magna Carta would require the approval of the Congress and Senate, elections and the same again... making it very hard indeed to bring any change in less than two parliamentary terms, even if there were widespread desire to do so. This is not the case. Across the Castilian speaking part of Spain there is total disbelief that anyone would want to leave. They have a clear concept of 'Spain' and believe that everyone should share that. The fact that the Catalan and Basque peoples feel like nations occupied by an unwanted outsider is totally alien to the Castilian mentality.

Catalonia was a proud independent country until 1714. As part of the Crown of Aragon, it had been a powerful player in medieval Mediterranean politics and had come to control Sardinia and the southern part of Italy for centuries and even parts of Greece briefly. However, the Aragonese-Catalan concept of empire was to create semi-autonomous kingdoms. Then in 1469 Fernando of Aragon married Isabel of Castile to unite the crowns, but not the kingdoms themselves. Their daughter, Joanna, who might have been a believer according to some accounts, married Philip of Habsburg to unite with another empire of diverse kingdoms and territories, the Holy Roman Empire. This situation developed as the Empire of Charles V was split in two, but the concept continued until the last Spanish Habsburg, Charles II, died in 1700. as a consequence of the European war which followed, Britain -which had up to that time supported the Habsburg cause- effectively gave Spain to the Borbons at the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The Borbons (and consequently Spaniards in general) have ever since grumbled at Britain keeping Gibraltar as part of the deal! Catalonia was then at the mercy of Castile, which overran it during 1714. To this day the Catalan people have remembered 11th September, the day Barcelona capitulated. And now they have a growing excitement about the possibility that on the 300th anniversary (i.e. 11th September 2014) they might be independent once more!

However, the Catalan concept of independence, as we have seen is not complete. They feel very much Europeans and would love to move from being 'part of Spain' to be simply 'part of Europe'. Here the economic issues of independence come to the fore. Spain (i.e. Madrid) is attempting to tell Catalonia -and especially Catalan businessmen- that it will have to join the end of the queue and that if any insider does not want it (i.e. Spain), it will not get back into the EU. Other voices in the EU have argued that a different route might be possible. What we have so far not heard mentioned is the fact that Spain is obviously terrified at the possibility that both ends of the Pyrenees, the mountains which separate it from France and the EU, might be in non-EU hands -should the Basque follow the example of Catalonia- and therefore there be no overland route for Spanish exports. On that basis, either a vastly expensive tunnel would have to be bored under the central Pyrenees, a prospect objected to by ecologists in southern France... or Spain would have to repent and allow some relationship to be created fast.

The elections took place on 25th November. It became clear that the Catalan people are in favour of secession, but not at all costs. Pro-independence parties are now in a ruling majority, but premier Mas lost votes and has had to link up with the Republican Left, leaving an alliance with the pro-Madrid, conservative Partido Popular. The Socialists, who had called for a Federal option lost votes.

Your prayer is welcome for the time to come!