Catalonia: Backward project of nationalism

Secessionist movements throughout Europe are taking inspiration from the Scottish referendum, writes Eddie Ford

Whatever the result of the Scottish referendum, there will be profound repercussions - and not just in Britain. For instance, eyes are now turning to Catalonia and its independence movement. In both cases, the dire state of working class politics has seen people turning to nationalism for hope - the dream that independence will make their lives a little bit better.

However, there is one big difference between the independence movements in Scotland and Catalonia. It is not that in Catalonia the demand for secession is largely driven by resentment against the other regions for ‘sponging’ off the supposedly richest part of the country - basically that is true in Scotland too: eg, it’s Scotland’s oil. No, the big difference is that in Catalonia there is a clear majority for independence: the outcome of any referendum would be virtually a foregone conclusion.

This was dramatically shown two years ago on September 11 2012, the Catalan national day (La Diada) commemorating the time in 1714 when Spanish forces forced Catalonia to surrender in the War of the Spanish Succession. At least 1.5 million people took part in a pro-independence rally in Barcelona, immediately followed by a provocative Catalan parliamentary motion exhorting the regional government to hold an independence referendum - with or without the permission of the central government in Madrid.1 Then this year on La Diada, galvanised to one degree or another by the Scottish referendum, around 1.8 million people (at least according to the police) staged a protest in the Catalonian capital for the right to vote in an unofficial referendum scheduled for November 9. Demonstrators formed a massive V shape, the ‘v’ standing for both votar (voting) and voluntat (will).2

After the rally, Artur Mas, president of the Catalonian region, proudly boasted that “no country in the world can show mobilisation like this” - not even Scotland. He is not only president, but centre-right leader of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, not to mention chairman of the Convergence and Union (CiU) alliance.3 Later, he remarked to foreign journalists: “We have some similarities with Scotland. We are both nations. We both have our own cultures. We are both economically viable. So if the Scottish people have the right to decide their political future, why not the Catalan people?”

As the official leader or face of the Catalan independence movement, Mas called for snap elections after the massive 2012 Diada demonstration - on the grounds that the “vocal street must be moved to the polls”. Parties advocating independence significantly increased their votes in the November 25 elections, ending up with more than two thirds of MPs in the new parliament. Interestingly though, the CiU, on 30.7% of the vote, lost 12 of its 62 seats - meaning it no longer had an overall majority.4 Indeed, it has been steadily losing ground over the last two years, increasingly relying on the support of Oriol Junqueras’s Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) - the two parties forming a coalition government after the elections. ERC has seen a surge in support, scoring an upset victory at the European elections in May, when it secured 25% of the vote and beat CiU into second place.

The aftermath of the November 25 elections saw an ‘agreement for freedom’ accord between CiU and ERC. The following December, Mas (along with leaders of five other Catalan parliamentary parties) announced that a referendum on independence would be held the year after on November 9, containing a two-part question: “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” and: “In case of an affirmative response, do you want this state to be independent?” In April this year the referendum proposal was presented to Madrid and on September 15 the regional parliament began preparatory work to pass/enable a referendum law paving the way for “non-binding” consultations on the future of the region - which in the words of Mas would “effectively bury” the “old Spain” and lead to a rediscovery that it is in fact a country made up of “several nations”.

Catalan politicians are expected to approve the law on September 19, one day after the Scottish referendum - hardly a coincidence.


However, Madrid’s response so far has been unequivocal and arguably suicidal - no, no, no to both the referendum and independence, which would apparently be ‘illegal’ and ‘unconstitutional’. For a referendum to be ‘legitimate’, Madrid insists, it has to be conducted in Spain as a whole, not in any of its constituent or regional parts - or as Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, said, “It is the entire Spanish people who have the capacity to decide what Spain is”. In other words, there is no right to self-determination. Therefore the Madrid parliament roundly rejected Mas’s referendum plans by 299 votes to 47 and the Spanish government declared it will challenge the putative Catalan law in the courts - as soon as it does, the November 9 referendum or ‘consultation’ process will be automatically suspended, spinning Spain towards a political and constitutional crisis.

Madrid officials are adamant that, unlike the United Kingdom, the country’s basic law speaks of the “indissoluble unity” of the “Spanish nation” - the “common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards”, but one that “recognises and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all” (my emphasis).5 This represents a legal bar, according to Madrid officials, that cannot simply be brushed aside with a mere vote in parliament or the regions. Spain’s basic law was enacted after the country’s 1978 referendum as part of the managed, top-down, transition from fascist dictatorship to constitutional monarchy. As a result, Spain is now composed of 17 ‘autonomous communities’ and two ‘autonomous cities’, all of which have extremely varying powers and levels of decentralisation - or not.

Indeed, at times the rhetoric coming from Madrid has almost been reminiscent of the Francoist dictatorship. When the Basque region failed to obtain permission for a similar referendum in 2005, Basque leaders were told that they would be “imprisoned” if they went ahead with the vote anyway (three years later a ‘consultative’ referendum scheduled for October 25 was judged illegal). In 2012, Alejo Vidal-Quadras, an MP for the governing Popular Party, angrily spluttered on Spanish TV that if Mas insisted on holding a referendum then the Spanish government should send in the country’s civil guards to reassert central control over the “rebellious region”. Jaime Mayor Oreja, a former PP interior minister, has detected a separatist conspiracy to “break up” Spain that has been “implanted” in both Catalonia and the Basque country.

Showing that Madrid is watching Scotland nervously, and doubtlessly will be glued to their TV sets as well on September 18 and 19, Rajoy has heavily suggested that he might block Scotland’s entry into the European Union - otherwise it could set a dangerous precedent. Piling on the pressure, Íñigo Méndez de Vigo, the Spanish European affairs minister, said on September 15 that Scotland would have to apply for EU membership “from scratch” and follow the “usual accession process” - meaning that the newly independent country would be forced to wait at least five years just to join the EU and only then would it be allowed to sign up to the euro (assuming its application was successful).6

Mas has always insisted that the Catalan referendum will only take place in a “legal manner” - ie, with the consent of Madrid. But, buoyed by the rising popularity of ERC, Junqueras has called upon Mas to go ahead with the November referendum come what may - dismissing Spain’s constitutional courts as a “political tribunal” and pointing out that most judges are elected by Spain’s two main political parties, both of which are opposed to the referendum or any notion of independence. With justification, Junqueras complained that it “cannot be normal” that the PP and the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party7) want to be both “players and referees in the same match” - so who gets to decide what is ‘legal’ or not? He is “convinced” that the plebiscite agreement struck with Mas “will be complied with” - history is in the making. As for Mas, given that the majority of his own citizens obviously want the referendum to happen, and also his expedient need to remain in coalition with the ERC, he might act against his conservative instincts and stick to the original plan. The sheer pace of events could force him to hold an illegal referendum on November 9.


Inevitably, other nationalist movements in Europe are now pushing for separation. The Northern League, inspired by Scotland, is about to “relaunch the battle” for secession of the north of Italy, planning a mass rally of “militants” in the medieval, walled city of Cittadella three days after the Scottish referendum. Founded 30 years ago, the Northern League originally agitated for the “recreation” of Padania - a mythical never-never land.8 According to the League’s ‘declaration of independence and sovereignty’, Padania is composed of 14 “nations”- regions like Lombardy and Tuscany. The League wants to keep its economic wealth out of the hands of the “thieving” south - a sentiment similar to that of many Catalan nationalists.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini told the Financial Times that the Scottish referendum was a “great boost” for all nationalists in Europe - whether Catalonian, Flemish, Breton or Padanian.9 The fact the vote is taking place “at all”, commented Salvini, is a “positive thing” for the ‘Padanian’ people and naturally he intends to use Scotland’s vote as “leverage” on the government of Matteo Renzi to allow the northern region of Veneto to hold its own independence plebiscite. An unofficial online referendum organised in March this year by Gianluca Busato, head of the separatist Venetian National Party, claimed that 2.36 million Venetians (63.2% of all eligible voters) participated in the poll and 89.1% of them voted ‘yes’ for independence - certainly enough for Busato to triumphantly proclaim Veneto’s “independence” from Italy on the night of March 21, even if the rest of the world did not notice. He warned that the secessionist movement that is “triumphing” in Venice is the “only way” to “free ourselves from the worst bureaucratic monster of the western world” - that is, the “bloodthirsty beast” of the Italian state. Only a few days after the Veneto ‘plebiscite’, the Sardinian Action Party pledged to bring another motion to the regional assembly calling for an official referendum on independence - it had already tried to do so two years ago, failing by only one vote.

Nor does it end there, of course. Last year saw another unofficial referendum on secession, this time in South Tyrol - a mainly ethnic German region annexed from Austria by Italy after World War I. Organised by South Tyrolean Freedom, the poll attracted 61,000 voters out of a total electorate of 400,000, who gave a clear endorsement of separation from Italy and reunification with Austria - 92% voted in favour. Some secessionist groups favour the establishment of an interim ‘free state of South Tyrol’ and tend to take a dim view of the Northern League and its campaign for an independent Padania in northern Italy - territorial rivals.

Meanwhile, back in Spain, some 150,000 Basques formed a 123-kilometre-long human chain on June 8 in a ‘right to decide’ protest. According to Euskobarómetro, an authoritative sociological survey on Basque nationalism, 59% of Basques want a referendum on independence - up five percentage points in one year. If Catalonia votes for independence on November 9, whether legally or not, then you can guarantee that those figures will go up.

There are stirrings too in Corsica, mainly focused on the promotion of the Corsican language and more powers for local government, though those calling for outright independence appear to be a small minority. Yet in a rather shambolic and confused referendum held in 2003, a narrow majority (2%) voted to reject an offer of limited autonomy from mainland France despite some hard campaigning from Nicolas Sarkozy that a ‘yes’ vote by the islanders would be “affirming their attachment to France”.10

What is the communist response? We fight for the maximum level of working class unity that is objectively possible - which of necessity requires extreme or consistent democracy. Therefore in Catalonia, for example, we call for the abolition of the undemocratic basic law which denies the right of Catalonia and other peoples, such as the Basques, to self-determination. As a matter of principle and elementary democracy, they ought to have the right to freely decide their own future. The unacceptable status quo must be ended, just as in Scotland.

But that does not mean for a minute that communists are indifferent as to how that right is exercised or its potential consequences. We do not want to see a fracturing of the Spanish working class or a Balkanisation of the country - that would be a disaster. Therefore we reject the nationalist demand for separation. Catalonian nationalism, just like Scottish nationalism, is a fundamentally backward project - driven by the politics of resentment and petty grievances, real and imagined. We want to positively deal with problems where they exist, which by definition requires the transcending of national resentments and antagonisms - by ending all arrangements based on involuntary ‘unity’ and instead move towards genuine voluntary unity as part of the revolutionary struggle for socialism.


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_Catalan_independence_demonstration.

2. www.latimes.com/world/europe/la-fg-spain-catalonia-independence-20140911-story.html.

3. Founded in 1978, CiU is a nationalist electoral alliance (or federation) of the larger CDC and its smaller counterpart, the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC).

4. www.cataloniavotes.eu/political-institutions.

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Constitution_of_1978.

6. The Daily Telegraph September 16.

7. Not to be confused with the Socialist Workers Party, of course, or indeed any sort of revolutionary or radical party.

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Padania.

9. Financial Times September 12.

10. www.economist.com/node/1914648.