Why Catalonia's independence vote is more bark than bite

The Catalonian government announced today that it will hold an independence referendum next November. But that may not even be legal.

Catalonian President Artur Mas (c.) speaks during a news conference today in Barcelona announcing an independence referendum. Separatist parties in Spain's northeastern Catalonia region on Thursday agreed the wording of an independence referendum on Nov. 9, 2014, but the Spanish government said the vote was illegal and would not happen.

Testing assumptions behind the headlines

Catalonia today announced a date for its referendum on independence from Spain, but don't hold your breath until it happens.

The Spanish region is due to vote on Nov. 9, 2014, to determine whether to remain part of the country. However, the possibility of a vote, let alone a successful one, is so far-fetched that the central government has offered “guarantees” it won’t happen.

Because unlike Scotland, which has its own independence referendum set just a few weeks before Catalonia's, there is no legal way to hold the Catalonian referendum without parliamentary approval, which is all but impossible in the near future.

Leaders of several pro-independence Catalonian parties, including the ruling party, today agreed to ask the voters two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to be a State?” and “Do you want it to be an independent State?”

The outrage was immediate. From Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to Internet chat rooms, most in Spain condemned the decision, which has set off a time bomb where one side – mostly likely Catalonia – will eventually have to back down. 

Spain's governing Popular Party and the main opposition Socialist Party have declared that any unilateral referendum would be illegal and that they won’t allow Catalonia to hold the referendum. The PP’s top leader in parliament suggested they could go as far as suspending Catalonia’s autonomous rights, although that too is an unlikely outcome.

Bottom line: The Spanish constitution only contemplates secession if it were to be approved in a nationwide binding referendum, which polls consistently show would be overwhelmingly rejected. Even in Catalonia, only around half of the people agree that they should be allowed to hold a referendum, and those in favor of independence don’t appear to be the majority, multiple polls suggest.

Catalonia has a population of 7.5 million and a strong industrial base. Pro-independence leaders say they would be better off as a separate state. 

Considering the unlikelihood, many outside Catalonia view today's decision as an opportunistic move by Artur Mas, the leader of the region's conservative government. Mr. Mas has been under pressure to hold a referendum from both the left wing and his government's junior coalition partner, the pro-independence party ERC.

ERC recently threatened to force new elections if Mas didn’t call the referendum. Now Mas has more time to try to negotiate a graceful solution, but only by first putting Spain on a high-stakes political roller coaster.

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