Catalonia's Scottish dreams on hold as top court postpones independence vote

The breakaway-minded Spanish region had planned for a non-binding Nov. 9 vote on whether to start an independence process like that which Scotland culminated days ago. But Spain's top court put the referendum on hold for up to five months.

Gustau Nacarino/Reuters/File
Catalonian separatists hold placards representing the Nov. 9 independence referendum in front of the Government Palace before Catalonia's President Artur Mas signs a decree calling for the referendum in Barcelona on Saturday. Spain's highest court suspended the vote on Monday, saying it needed time to consider arguments whether the referendum would breach the country's constitution.

At first glance, Catalonia's face-off with Madrid over independence looks like it has much in common with the recent Scottish secessionist crisis, which panicked countries and markets alike.

But the upcoming vote, which Spain’s highest court unanimously suspended after the Spanish government officially challenged it on Monday, shares little with Scotland's, other than the ultimate goal.

The regional leader of Catalonia, Artur Mas, signed a decree Saturday setting Nov. 9 for the referendum. But, whenever the referendum might take place, the fundamental difference is that Catalonians are not being asked to decide whether to break away from Spain, but rather whether they should start a process with that end in mind. The implications for the time being are a strictly Spanish affair.

Furthermore, the results would have no legal implications, as the central government and the Spanish Parliament don’t recognize the legality of the vote, unlike the United Kingdom, which gave its blessing to Scotland's referendum.

As a non-binding referendum, it would grant only a political mandate to negotiate with Madrid, a process that would require rewriting the Constitution and years of preparations that would have to be reaffirmed through another binding referendum.

But the Constitutional Court’s flash ruling suspends the legal framework to hold the referendum for a maximum of five months until it rules on the issue.

"...Without law there is no democracy,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said when announcing the legal challenges. The Constitution says that all Spaniards would need to vote on issues regarding the country's sovereignty, and Catalonia would most certainly lose that vote.

Mr. Mas and other Catalonian officials insist that not even courts have a right to suppress what has indeed become a growing movement to eventually secede from Spain, and that one day the public will have its say. 

Polls have consistently shown that a big majority in Catalonia, the economic motor of Spain with a population of 7 million, wants to vote. Many Catalonians resent Spain's fiscal distribution, which gives their region back less than it puts into the federal government's coffers – a situation made worse by the eurocrisis and the pain-sharing that Madrid imposed in response. Around half support breaking away from Spain completely, but that support sinks if it would mean leaving the European Union, even if only temporarily.

Mr. Rajoy on Monday chastised Catalonian leaders, but he also offered a way out. “Laws can change, but through the established course,” he said.

Time is not something Catalonia – or Spain for that matter – has, though. Mas could call early regional elections in the form of a plebiscite, in which voters would elect a new government, solely based on their position on independence.

In that scenario, polls suggest the elections could be won by Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, an extreme left, radical independence party that has called for civil disobedience in case the vote is blocked.

It will be a battle of wills, and both sides will try to force the other to back down. Given regional and national elections in coming months, neither is likely to do so.

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