Q&A: The Catalan Way explained

Why are Catalans taking part in a human chain this Wednesday? The Catalan newspaper Ara has produced a series of questions and answers in English which should explain everything you want to know about why the human chain is taking place today.

What is the ‘Via Catalana’?





The ‘Via Catalana’ (The Catalan Way) is a political demonstration which will take place this September the 11th. Inspired by the Baltic Way — a human chain formed by up to two million people on August 23 1989 across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — its aim is to create a 400 km long chain which will cross Catalonia from north to south. 400.000 people have signed up to take part in the human chain, although organizers hope that the actual turnout will be at least twice that figure. People will be asked to join hands at exactly 17:14 (15:14 GMT). The chain, which runs along highways, roads and city streets, will come to an end at 18:00 (16:00 GMT). If successful, it will be one of Europe’s largest ever demonstrations, following in the footsteps of last year’s march in Barcelona, when up to 1,5 million people walked through the streets of the capital asking for independence, the country’s most massive rally ever.

What is Catalonia?

With more than 7,2 million inhabitants Catalonia is a country in the northeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. At a crossroads between different cultures and civilisations, it once formed part of the old Crown of Aragon, which merged with the Crown of Castile to create what later became Spain. What in medieval times was a powerful nation which extended its influence across and beyond the Mediterranean, is now an autonomous region within the Spanish State posessing restricted powers, devolved as seen fit by the central state. It has its own language, Catalan, and institutions, amongst them one of Europe’s oldest Governments and Parliaments.

Why is the Catalan Way taking place today?


Catalonia was a party in the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), where the old crowns of Castile and Aragon fought, alongside their European allies, over who should be crowned as king of Spain following the death of Charles II. Catalonia, which favoured archduke Charles as successor, lost a war which ended with Europe recognising Philip V as the new king of Spain. The long war ended with a prolonged siege of Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, which was systematically bombarded by Spanish troops fighting for the Bourbon candidate, Philip V. After months of resistance Barcelona finally surrendered on September 11 1714. Modern Spain was born, but Catalonia was to pay a heavy price for its support for the Austrian candidate: Catalan language was forbidden and Catalan institutions abolished. Every year, on September 11, Catalans commemorate the day on which Barcelona fell, honouring those killed defending the country’s laws and institutions [See video: A trip to Barcelona].

Why do many 21st century Catalans want independence?

Since the defeat of 1714 Catalonia has never been allowed to rule itself again [a Catalan history of Spain]. The old nation was forcefully transformed into a mere Spanish province. This state of affairs did not change until 1931, when the proclamation of the Spanish Republic gave Catalans the freedom to regain their old institutions. Catalan was taught in schools, the Parliament reopened, the Government was once more established… Unfortunately the situation was not to last. The end of the Civil War, with the subsequent establishment of the Franco dictatorship, meant a new blow for the country, crushed once again by a centralist state, administered directly from Madrid.

Following Franco’s death, and with a new democratic regime in place, Catalonia regained its old institutions, and it was once more allowed to rule its own affairs in a number of key areas. But the centralist inertia of the Spanish state, always resisting to the last all devolved powers and continually meddling in matters which are close to the heart of all Catalans — like respect for the Catalan language — has left Catalonia’s citizens with a deep sense of frustration. This frustration was brought to a head in 2010 when an appeal by the Partido Popular over some of the clauses in the newly approved Catalan Statute (which won majority votes in both the Catalan and Spanish Parliaments) lead the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal to rule it was unconstitutional to use the term “nation” to refer to Catalonia in the document’s preamble.

Since that time the feeling of alienation from Spain has only grown, with many previously apathetic citizens suddenly becoming separatists. More fuel has been added by the economic crisis, and the gross incompetence which has been demonstrated by Spain’s political and financial leaders. This, along with the record levels of unemployment with no end in sight, has given a new impulse to Catalonia’s demands, since it has left the Catalan Government in a critical financial situation, unable to access the international financial markets and totally dependent on the such funds as the Spanish Government to forward to it. This unjust situation reached its most bizarre moment when the Spanish government raised the VAT rate last year to help improve funding. The Catalan government actually lost out, since it had to pay the new rate to all its suppliers but received no refund or additional funding from the central government which was, of course, much better off.

This, in a country which contributes to Spain far more than it gets in return: figures vary, but it is reasonable to suggest that Catalonia loses between 10,000 to 16,000 million euros per year, because of this fiscal deficit. The accumulated deficit between Catalonia and Spain for the period 1986-2010 reaches a total of 213,933 million euros, five times Catalonia’s current debt. The economic imbalance between what Catalans pay in taxes to the Spanish state and what they get in return, is a major contributing factor to the sense of anger and frustration felt by many [opinion: Spanish Prisoners]. It has been very hard for Catalans see their school and hospital services deteriorate under the sever cuts that have been administered while those in other regions which are arguably subsidized from Catalan taxes go virtually unscathed. [See NYT OP-ED: Spanish Prisoners]

What do the Catalan political parties say?

Since the death of Franco all Catalonia’s main parties have argued for a theoretical right to self-determination, but have never taken steps towards achieving that goal. Following slow and painstaking negotiations with Madrid, only a fragile, unstable compromise has been reached: the Spanish state has devolved powers in some key areas, from education to health or police, but it still is unable to recognise Catalonia as a nation. This has left Catalan parties divided on the issue of which course of action to take. Traditionally, Catalan parties have asked for more powers to be devolved from Madrid to Catalonia, but the recent rise in strength of the pro-independence movement — which originates in social, rather than political organizations — has taken some aback [See video: Catalonia push for economic independence].

Centre Right Nationalist CiU, Catalonia’s current governing political coalition, has evolved from a pro-autonomy stance to being more clearly inclined towards independence. It is, though, a coalition of parties with different views; officially, it wants a referendum on independence, but stresses the need to reach agreement on this with the Spanish Government. The once powerful Socialist party PSC, which has strong ties with the Spanish Socialist PSOE, is torn too between conflicting approaches. In theory, it recognizes Catalans the right to self-determination, but rather than asking for independence, it wants Spain to move towards a more federal political structure. The left republicans ERC, for years the only party actively seeking independence, are the rising star in the current Parliament and, according to some surveys, could become the country’s main party if elections were to take place now; they want to hold a referendum as early as 2014.

Left-wing ICV, political successors of the old communist party, support the idea of a referendum, although their views on independence are not so clear. Finally, the Popular Party, which is now in power and Spain, and Ciutadans, are both opposed not only to independence but even to an eventual referendum on the issue. However, they are a minority in the Catalan political landscape: the Catalan Parliament has passed a declaration which states that Catalonia is a country with the right to decide its own future. The declaration was passed with 104 votes in favour of a referendum, for only 27 against [See video: Will Catalonia say adios to Spain?].

What does the Spanish Government say?

The Spanish Government bitterly opposes the organization of a referendum in which Catalans can choose whether they are in favour or against an independent Catalonia. The official position is that the government has to abide by the Spanish Constitution, which states that there is only one nation, the Spanish one, and that sovereignty is exclusively held by the Spanish people in its entirety; this means that what is seen as being simply one part of the Spanish nation cannot on its own decide on matters which affect all, effectively denying the principle of the right of peoples to self determination. Since, according to the Constitution, only the Spanish Government can organize a referendum, the Catalan demand faces an insurmountable barrier. Spanish main parties — PP, now in power, and the socialists, the main party in opposition — do not want Catalans to express their views on a referendum [See video: Should Catalonia seek independence?].

What is the position of the EU?

The official position of the EU is that it is not for the institution to take into consideration hypothetical declarations of independence following the possible breakaway of part of an existing member state. The official line of the EU Commission is that Catalonia’s independence demand is a Spanish internal affair and, as such, they cannot comment on the issue. This has proved to be a controversial idea, though, since the Spanish Government has tried to influence the debate by assuring that an independent Catalonia would be automatically expelled from the EU, and should start from scratch new negotiations with Brussels to rejoin the institution. Some commissioners have denied this, stating that there is no precedent for a situation like this, and that Europe could not possibly deny membership to 7,2 million people who are now EU’s citizens.

Why is Scotland holding a referendum, while Catalonia is not?

Because they are both nations without a state Scotland and Catalonia have often been compared, and the fact that both countries are engaging in an open debate about their possible future as sovereign states has only increased the parallels being drawn between them. Yes, they are both old European nations, with institutions of their own, but the similarities end here. It was not until recently that Westminster Parliament devolved some of its powers to Scotland, but the UK has a tradition of decentralised power in many areas. Citizens are used to the fact that laws — from smoking to gay marriage to university taxes — are different on both sides of the border. This is not the case of Spain, which for most of its history has been a heavily centralized state. However the main and most glaring difference is to be found in the very different approach to recognizing a separate identity: whereas the UK – as a plurinational society – has no real problem in acknowledging that Scotland is a nation, Spain as a whole has been unable to move beyond the idea that Catalonia is simply just one more autonomous region. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia cannot take part in official sports competitions around the world, which leaves Barcelona football club as the unofficial national symbol [See Video: cry for Catalan independence during the ‘classic’ Barça – Real Madrid]. The consequence of this different approach is that, while the British Government is allowing the Scottish government to organize a referendum on independence, the Spanish government is completely opposed to allowing the Catalans to be consulted about an eventual secession and has promised to fight any move by the Catalan government to organize a referendum [Catalonia and Scotland: how they compare to EU nations and Europe’s other separatists]

What is Catalonia’s level of autonomy?

Catalonia has a restricted autonomy. The Catalan Parliament has the power to pass laws on all sort of issues, from education to housing, but this theoretical autonomy has many strings attached. To begin with, the Spanish Government is unwilling to hand over some key powers, from allocating student grants to administering pensions, and tries to legislate on areas of devolved power, a situation which leads to constant conflicts between the governments in Barcelona and Madrid, with the Spanish Constitutional Court deciding which of the two is entitled to legislate the disputed area. Crucially, all main taxes are collected by the Spanish Government, which is then responsible for distributing the money raised between the various receiving institutions. In practice, Catalonia’s Parliament is legislating on affairs without having the money to implement its laws.

How strong is the popular support for independence?

Surveys vary significantly, but they show two consistent trends. First, support for independence has been growing year after year. Second, from being the option favoured by a minority of Catalonia’s citizens, independence is now supported by the majority of the population. The latest official figures show that, in an eventual referendum, 55,6% of Catalans would vote in favour of an independent state, with those against being 23,4% and roughly a 20% showing no clear preference or saying that they are not interested. When asked which form of relationship with Spain do they prefer, 47% favour an independent state, 22% want to maintain the current status quo, and 21% would like Spain to become a federal state.

What happens next?

A Council for the National Transition, with academics and experts from a number different fields, is working on the establishment of a timeline for an eventual referendum. Catalonia’s main political force, CiU, which governs thanks to the support in Parliament of pro-independent ERC, argues that a referendum should take place before the end of 2014. The problem is that, according to the Spanish Constitution, only the Spanish Government can authorize the referendum, something the ruling PP party is firmly opposing. Other options include organizing a referendum without Spanish Government consent — which would make it technically illegal — or dissolving the Catalan Parliament and organizing new elections, with pro-independent parties sharing part of their manifestos. After months of bitter disputes, the Catalan president, Artur Mas [profile], is holding discrete talks with his Spanish counterpart, Mariano Rajoy, to try to find a way out of the current deadlock.

Could an independent Catalonia become a viable state?

As with all the other aspects of the argument, the viability of a future state is a contested issue. Those opposing independence argue that a Catalan state would inherit a huge deficit which would make it very difficult to pay pensions or salaries. Besides, they take for granted that Catalonia would be expelled from the European Union, depriving Catalan companies from the benefits of a single market. On the other side of the debate, those in favour of independence argue that, without the burden of the huge deficit which results from the difference between what Catalans pay in taxes to Spain, and what they get in return, Catalonia — Spain’s most vibrant economy — would have a GDP level in line with some of Europe’s wealthiest nations, and its government could reduce the current debt and improve the quality of public services. In addition they doubt that Catalonia would find itself outside the frontiers of the EU, pointing among other precedents to the fact that the EU Treaty held that national bailouts of member states were illegal, until in fact one was urgently needed. [Keys on the independence of Catalonia].

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Europe and the world, Governments and parties, Political issues, The European Union, Transition and accession by Edward Hugh. Bookmark the permalink.

About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

8 thoughts on “Q&A: The Catalan Way explained

  1. Well, if “Catalonia would have a GDP level in line with some of Europe’s wealthiest nations”, then it would become a net contributor to the EU — which would not solve the issue of paying more in taxes to a supranational entity than it gets in return.

    In a sense, this shows how dysfunctional the whole tax/budget repartition has become both at the country and EU level: rich countries and regions do not really want to pay for the poor ones (which is actually the fundamental basis for a federal/solidary state and an optimal currency area), and the central/supranational entities do not really want the regions/countries to have a say in how taxes and budgets are apportioned. Either the involved parties must seriously compromise (which does not seem to happen neither at Spanish or EU level), or the political arrangements ultimately gets dislocated.

  2. Hi again aguest,

    “Well, if “Catalonia would have a GDP level in line with some of Europe’s wealthiest nations”, then it would become a net contributor to the EU”

    Actually Catalonia is already a net contributor to the EU and has long so been.

    “which would not solve the issue of paying more in taxes to a supranational entity than it gets in return.”

    This isn’t the problem. Catalans are quite happy, along with other members of the EU, to continue sharing some of the burden of supporting Spain. They are just tired of paying a disproportionate amount of the cost of maintaining a dysfunctional national state.

    They would also like a bit more respect shown for all the effort they are making.

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  4. Since you live in Barcelona, it seems that in some way you’ve gone native. At least it seems to me so when you call the catalan autonomy ‘restricted’. As a matter of fact, it is so restricted that the only way to increase it seems (to the very catalan nationalists) the creation of a nation-state. It would be hard to find in Europe (and in the world for that matter) a federal state that gives its regions more autonomy than Spain.

  5. Hello Claudio,

    Thanks for the interesting observations. I think I should just point out that if you read the first paragraph carefully what I am doing here is simply reproducing a Q&A published by the Catalan newspaper Ara. Whether or not Catalan autonomy is restricted or not, when compared for example with a German Lande, is certainly open to debate.

    I feel all who wish to can voice their opinions on this issue as they see fit. At the end of the day it is the Catalans themselves who will decide the future of their country and they will do so in a vote which more than likely will take place in a not too distant future.

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  7. Thank you very much for your answer.
    Being myself a catalan, I would like that this eventual decision, whatever it will be, would be taken recpecting the laws that I, as well as a majority of other catalans, voted in democratic and lawful referendums: the Constitution and the Autonomy Chart. That is something that the President Mas is refusing to do.
    By the way, I heard some days ago Robert Cooper talking at the LSE and saying that no serious issue is decided in a referendum (about the UK referendum about the EU). Whatever we may think about that, this is the actual position of the EU (ask Neederland and France). So, it seem curious that the catalan secesionist movement, that so much appreciates the referendum as a valuable way, wishes also to be part of a club that doesn’t give a damm about political will expressed that way.

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