Post-Election Update on Catalan Independence

Simon Harris on English Radio Barcelona - October 1st 2015

This week Virgil Simons kindly invited me to give an Update on Catalan Independence for his English Radio show following last week's elections on September 27th, which were won by the Junts pel Sí pro-independence coalition.

If you click the link below you can listen to the full show, which Virgil presents with co-hosts Ann Requa and Andrea Moreno.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page for the YouTube Video of the English Radio programme, which has been edited down to only including the sections where we specifically discuss Catalan Independence.

Script for the Catalan Independence Update for English Radio

Before I do a radio or TV interview, if I'm sent the questions in advance, I generally do quite a lot of preparation and pre-script possible answers. Here's what I would have said if we had had enough time.

We know that September 27th was a call to vote for what we believed to be – Independence. But what was it actually: a referendum, plebiscite, parliamentary vote or what?

I think the truth is that it was both a plebiscite and a parliamentary vote. Technically, they were simple autonomic elections to elect deputies for the Parliament of Catalonia but given that Catalonia hadn't been given the opportunity to hold a legal or binding referendum by the Spanish Government, the two main pro-independence parties - Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya - along with the far left CUP, which is the Candidatura d'Unitat Popular or Popular Unity Candidacy, agreed to give them a plebiscitary nature by including a statement that they would declare independence if they won in their programme.

Originally, Convergència and Esquerra were going to stand separately but President Mas had always thought that in order for normal elections to be interpreted as a plebiscite (particularly by the international community) there had to be a clear winner. Had Convergència and Esquerra stood separately they'd have ended up campaigning against each other and splitting the vote. There was always the threat that a coalition of parties against independence might have ended up winning more seats than either of Convergència or Esquerra, which would have ended up making it difficult to tell who the clear winner was.

For that reason the Junts pel Sí or Together for Yes formed in July, which included Convergència and Esquerra, two smaller parties - Mes and Democrates, which had broken away from the Socialist Party and the Christian democrat Unió as well as independents including Carme Forcadell and Muriel Casals former presidents of the two main pro-independence grassroots groups, Assemblea Nacional Catalana and Òmnium Cultural, Eduardo Reyes, the President of the Spanish speaking group Súmate, singer Lluis Llach and even former FC Barcelona player and coach Pep Guardiola, occupying a testimonial position on the electoral list.

The CUP decided not to join the Junts pel Sí coalition, partly in order to be able to pick up left-wing votes from people who were in favour of independence but would never vote for Artur Mas in a million years. They also stood on an independence ticket so, by adding CUP who won ten seats and Junts pel Sí who won 62, there  is a clear majority of seats in favour of independence if you look at it from a parliamentary election point of view.

However, if you look at it from a plebiscitary or referendum point of view, the pro-independence parties  only polled 47.7% of the votes so they haven't got enough to make a Unilateral Declaration of Independence, which is what the CUP wanted, but do have the parliamentary mandate to put the 18-month roadmap into practice which is what Junts pel Sí proposed.

In looking at the results the Junts pel Si party amassed the most number of votes for deputies in winning 62 seats, but not enough to have control. Please explain this so the average person can understand.

The Catalan Parliament has 135 seats so the absolute majority is 68 deputies. This means that 62 seats is enough to form a government ... In fact, Artur Mas and Convergència i Unió have governed for the last 3 years with only 50 seats ... but as Junts pel Sí don't have an absolute majority they aren't going to be able to push through all their proposals without some help.

In fact, the very first thorny issue revolves around the investiture of Artur Mas as President of the Generalitat. The CUP, being a far left party have always said that they don't want Mas as president but would vote for a consensus candidate, such as Raul Romeva, Oriol Junqueras, Carme Forcadell or even Lluis Llach. However, making Mas president was one of the conditions made when the Junts pel Sí coalition formed so they're sticking their heels in.

The problem is that the rest of the non-independence parties ... Ciudadanos (25), PSC (16), Partido Popular (11) and Catalunya Sí que es Pot (11) ... all add up to 63 seats so without CUP's support it's quite possible that Artur Mas won't be invested president unless some kind of an agreement is made with one of the other parties. Unfortunately, this will come at a political price.

Unless there's a stable agreement with the CUP throughout the legislature this will happen again and again when other bills are introduced. You've got to remember that although this is a pro-independence government, it's also got to do normal government things like pass budgets, run the health service and the education system, fund public works projects etc.

News reports suggest that the Junts pel Si will align with the CUP to form a governing majority. Why not with other parties with larger vote totals?

As we've seen on the Artur Mas issue that's a bit of an oversimplification. CUP are a radical, anti-capitalist and anti-system party so although they are pro-independence, they will put very strict conditions on the kind of government they are prepared to support e.g. no austerity measures or privatisations, strict controls on the banks, reforming the current job search system, which relies on private temporary job agencies, banning housing evictions etc. That's why they want a more left-wing president of the Generalitat in order to limit the right-wing influence of Convergència. So you can see that reaching an agreement with the CUP is not without its difficulties.

On the other hand, reaching a stable agreement with any of the other parties is virtually impossible. Ciudadanos and the Partido Popular aren't only anti-independence but they're also against the use of Catalan in schools and consider the Catalan broadcasting corporation, which runs TV3 and Catalunya Radio, to be a propaganda machine. PSC favour a negotiated agreement with central government and the creation of a federal system in Spain. Catalunya Sí que es Pot are also mainly federalists but want to reach an agreement with central government to hold a legally-binding referendum. However, there are some supporters of independence supporters amongst their ranks so agreement might be possible on certain issues, including possibly the investiture of Artur Mas.

The specific mandate for the Junts pel Sí government involves putting into practice their 18-month roadmap, which culminates with breaking with the Spanish State and declaring independence. Along the way a lot of legislation will be necessary. A new taxation and social security system needs to be created, for example. The basic idea is transitory legality so Spanish laws will be in force until they are replaced by Catalan ones but if you think about it, as soon as Spanish laws are no longer applicable, the Spanish police will no longer have jurisdiction, so they'll have to be replaced entirely by Mossos d'Esquadra. None of this will get any support from the opposition parties with the possible occasional exception of CSQEP so a pact with anyone other than the CUP is completely out of the question.

With so much of the population demanding independence, and with more people who support independence turning out to vote, can this lack of a clear majority win be considered a defeat for the independence movement?

No, with 77.45% of voters turning out, September 27th was not only an exercise in democracy but also the highest turnout in elections to the Parliament of Catalonia since the return of democracy after the death of Franco in 1975. Interestingly, such a high turnout didn't necessarily favour the pro-independence cause, which is highly motivated, because it meant that the less vocal and less motivated sectors of Catalan society, who tend to be in favour of maintaining the status quo, also got to have their say.

Obviously, I would have liked to see a pro-independence majority in votes but 47.7% in favour isn't at all bad and, as they've admitted this week, CSQEP don't want their 8.94% of the votes to be counted against independence. So that means there's 47.7% votes in favour, 43.36% against and 8.94% who still haven't really decided yet and that doesn't include the various little parties like PACMA, the party against maltreatment of animals, or the Pirates of Catalonia, neither of whom have much to do with either being for or against independence.

Based on these results is there a clear mandate to still pursue independence for Catalunya?

Yes, definitely. A percentage of votes would have made things easier but there is a parliamentary mandate and as these were technically parliamentary elections, an absolute majority of pro-independence parties is good enough. I think Junts pel Sí will form a government and will reach an agreement with the CUP and the 18-month road map will be put into practice.

The alternative would be for a coalition of the lesser voted parties to try and put together a government. Ciudadanos have got 25 seats so they could theoretically form a coalition with Partido Popular, whose 11 seats would add up to 36 seats. Reaching an agreement with socialist PSC would be very difficult but not impossible and their 16 seats would make a unionist coalition of 52 seats. Far-left CSQEP would never join such a coalition for a combination of political orientation and not being completely against independence so 52 would be as big as it would get.

Even without CUP's explicit support, with 62 seats, Junts pel Sí have the right to form a government and put the programme they were elected on ie. independence into practice. In a parliamentary democracy anything else would be profoundly undemocratic.

You have posed the question of What Happens Next? In your newsletter; putting the political parties gains and losses aside, what is the short take as to the future?

A lot depends on the reaction of the Spanish government but, under ideal circumstances, the roadmap will last a maximum of 18 months and is as follows.

Now there is a democratic mandate, the Parliament of Catalonia will be constituted and the a solemn declaration announcing the beginning of the process of Catalonia becoming an independent state will be made. This includes the offer of opening formal negotiations with the Spanish State and informing the EU and the international community. Then the first phase of the constituent process, which mainly involves independent legal experts drawing up a constitution, and a concentration government will come into effect. Apart from governing normally, the role of the concentration government is to create the structures of state, such as treasury and social security, give the independence process the international recognition it requires for Catalonia to be recognised when the time comes and continually show openness to reach an agreement with the Spanish State and sit down at the negotiating table if necessary.

When all this is complete after a maximum of 18 months, a proclamation of independence will be made and two laws will be passed by parliament. The Law of Transitory Legality means that Spanish laws will be valid until replaced by Catalan ones and the Law of the Constituent Process allows the head of state to call constituent elections. Once the first parliament of the Republic of Catalonia, a referendum will be called to approve the constitution.

Well, that's what's supposed to happen in theory. We'll have to wait and see what really happens.

The position held by the central government in Madrid is that Catalunya does not have the right to vote for, much less create, a separatist government. What is the reality?

The reason why these plebiscitary elections were called was because it was the only way to be able to find out the opinion of the Catalan people. They weren't allowed to hold a referendum, the Law of Consultations was declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court so they weren't allowed to hold a non-binding consultation and even the participative process on November 9th, which despite its symbolic importance was little more than a survey, was declared illegal.

As we're seeing now, ministers Joana Ortega and Irene Rigau have been called to declare on October 13th and Artur Mas will declare on October 15th, which is the 75th anniversary of Civil War president Lluís Companys being executed by a Francoist firing squad. This is certainly not a coincidence and the authoritarian, dare I say fascist tics, of the Spanish government make many Catalans want out as soon as possible.

We can expect continual legal action from the Constitutional Tribunal blocking every step along the roadmap. Do you really think that Spain is going to allow the Generalitat to collect its own taxes without a fight?

This is why the roadmap is more theoretical than practical. It's going to be very difficult to put into practice. I'm with the CUP on the idea that we have to get it into our heads that we're going to have to disobey. We need to do this as peacefully and democratically as possible but for example, if the Spanish State tries to arrest our President we will have to stop them. People will have to demonstrate and if the worst comes to the worst, loyal Mossos d'Esquadra will have to use force if necessary.

That's just one example and there will be more. I predict that we have some very tense times ahead.

We have the Spanish General Elections coming in December. What will they mean for the possibility of a independent Catalunya?

One of the reasons why I think we have very tense times ahead is that Mariano Rajoy has set himself up as defender of the Spanish Nation and Partido Popular's only election card is to be as tough on Catalonia as possible, with the help of the Constitutional Tribunal, of course.

I'd like to a change of attitude and willingness to talk from Madrid but I'm not optimistic. I predict that the kingmaker will be Ciudadanos, who are just as reactionary and anti-Catalan as the PP.

Assuming I'm right and there's no single outright winner, Ciudadanos could form a coalition with the PP and we'd be left with exactly the same attitude from central government if not worse. Ciudadanos would push for constitutional reforms that would decrease the power of the autonomous communities and make Spain even more centralise. They certainly wouldn't be willing to negotiate independence.

If they form a coalition with PSOE, there'd be a similar effect. PSOE aren't as obviously aggressive as PP but their attitudes are the same. They're just a wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to Catalonia, really. In fact, by pacting with Ciudadanos, they'd be given the perfect excuse to introduce draconian anti-Catalan measures because, at best and on their own, the maximum they've promised is to recognise Catalonia's language and its 'singularity'.

The best option would be a Podemos-PSOE coalition but that's a very long shot and following Pablo Iglesias' remarks during the Catalan election campaign, I don't really trust them either.

I think we always have to be open to negotiation but to expect nothing. The only difference that a change of government in Madrid will have will be a change of tone and a possibility less vehement blocking of the independence process.

The rhetoric primary to the election centred on economics, both for the country and for individuals. What do you see as the story here?

The central issue has always been the so-called tax deficit. This is the difference between how much tax Catalans pay and how much Catalonia gets back in investment from central government. Generalitat figures makes this about 15 billion euros a year or 8% of the GDP, making Catalonia the most highly taxed region in Europe. Even official Spanish government figures put the deficit at 11 billion. This means that per capita Catalans are the third highest tax payers in Spain but drop down to tenth in terms of investment from the state. This has a dreadful effect on health, education and public works projects, such as roads.

The costs of running an independent state would obviously be higher than running an autonomous community. I think they are calculated at around 5 or 6 billion a year for things like a small army, a diplomatic service, a fully-fledged civil service etc but Catalonia would be much better off.

There were threats from the Spanish government that an independent Catalonia couldn't pay pensions and benefits but Mariano Rajoy admitted the other day that anyone who had paid their contributions in Spain would receive their benefits, just like Spaniards who spent their working life in Germany or France do.

There's been quite a lot of talk about a boycott of Catalan goods by Spain but that would only affect a few obviously Catalan brands, such as cava. Much of the Catalan economy is done by multinationals or is done by companies that aren't obviously Catalan so the effect of this would be minimal, I think.

Part of the propaganda centred around the supposed departure of companies from Catalunya if independence is decided; and that more than 1,000 companies have already left. What is the truth of this?

Well, I would say that, whilst recognising that there's propaganda on the other side, there's an element of anti-independence propaganda to this and the figure is just thrown out without much analysis. Firstly, companies come into and out of existence just like people do and also change location for a variety of reasons. Despite some statements made by companies interested in maintaining the status quo, there's actually no evidence that the changes of location are down to the possibility of Catalonia becoming independent. On the other hand, a 2012 study by ESADE clearly shows that many companies have either not set up in Barcelona because it's not a capital or have moved their headquarters to Madrid because of advantages that a capital has to offer and also international flight connections.

These are controlled by the Spanish airport authority AENA, which actually doesn't allow as many international flights into Barcelona El Prat as it does in Madrid Barajas. This is an important point in these days of international travel, when top executives often fly in from Asia or the Americas for a few days. If flights are direct to Madrid, it's obviously more convenient to set up headquarters there. Once Barcelona is capital of the Republic of Catalonia, it wouldn't only benefit from the capital effect but also from Barcelona Airport being able to organise its own flight schedule.

Another factor associated with transport is the Mediterranean Railway Corridor, which would take a European railway line along the Mediterranean coast and despite being an EU priority project has been blocked by Madrid on a number of occasions. A direct line to Europe would encourage Mediterranean freight and Asian traffic coming through the Suez canal to use the Port of Barcelona rather than Rotterdam, which would make it the main port in the south of Europe and inevitably attract more foreign companies. In fact, Daimler have recently decided not to set up a factory in Tarragona precisely because the Spanish State has reneged on its promise to build a broad-gauge railway line.

As far as companies not so dependent on transport to Northern Europe are concerned. Since 2012, when the whole independence thing kicked off, Microsoft has invested in Catalonia as have the pharmaceutical companies AstraZeneca, Kem Pharma and Sanofi, Amazon has chosen Catalonia as its Southern European distribution hub and Volkswagen has announced plans to enlarge and increase production at its Seat factory in Martorell.

While this may have been seen as a setback, in many ways it served as a message to arbitrary governments that more conciliatory efforts are necessary. Do you see that the movement in Catalunya can have an effect on the Balearic Islands, Galicia, and Pais Vasco to take more aggressive efforts in joining with Catalunya?

 I don't think it's particularly relevant. If Catalonia is successful and is seen to be more prosperous as an independent state, there might be some knock on effect of the Catalan countries of Valencia and the Balearic Islands, but that's a long way in the future. I think the Basque Country with its special tax system and Galicia are fine as they are. So I'm unwilling to make any predictions although one never knows what could happen in the future. Perhaps Spain could break up completely or we could form a confederation of Iberian states, including Portugal. Who knows?

One simple question, Simon, where does the process go from here?

Well, firstly we need a Parliament to be constituted and a President invested. Then the new Generalitat is going to try to push through its roadmap whilst meeting Spanish resistance at every step. International recognition certainly won't come immediately but the Catalan diplomatic service under Amadeu Altafaj will be working behind the scenes to reach informal private agreements.

It's just a question of pushing forward really. A lot has already been done in the creation of state structures. The tax service has got a fully equipped building on Via Laietana, I think. It's a question of moving workers over and gradually taking over competencies of the Spanish State.

It's going to be difficult but it's going move forward, at tortoise pace, admittedly, but let's hope that we really do have an independent Republic of Catalonia in 18 months time. If we don't it won't be for want of trying.

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