Wednesday, November 12, 2014

¿Si Catalunya?

One of the consequences of the Scottish independence referendum was that I became quite aware of the situation in Catalonia, largely because of the argument that Spain would veto an independent Scotland's request to remain in/re-enter the EU in order to send an example to their own independence movement.

So, it was with some interest that I've been following the events over there in the past few months.

Right from the top, I need to note that there is a key difference between the situation in Catalonia and the one in Scotland: the UK constitution allows for referenda of this type, and thanks to the decision of the UK government to enable the referendum it was entirely legal; conversely, the Spanish constitution states that any referendum concerning the make-up of Spain itself is a matter for all citizens of Spain, and so a referendum about Catalan independence would need to be conducted Spain-wide. (This is also why Spain would have been wise not to oppose Scotland in the EU, since the example made should have been about following established legal frameworks. But I digress.)

After the most recent elections, the regional government of Catalonia decided to hold a referendum anyway. The Spanish government, predictably, moved to block this in the courts. The Catalans, less predictably, held it anyway - albeit in an unofficial and volunteer-driven manner.

And so, on Monday, we found that some 1.6 million Catalans had turned out to vote 'Si'. (This equates to an 80%-ish result for independence, but on a turnout of about 35%. Because of this, and the unofficial nature of the poll, which will have skewed it heavily towards 'Si', the result is largely irrelevant. The sheer number of voters, however, is not.)

Predictably, the Spanish government have declared this meaningless, and are intent on business as usual.

It seems to me that this is a mistake, and a bad one. The turnout at this unofficial referendum, and the results of other polls in Catalonia, have very clearly showed that there is very strong support over there for having a referendum. Support for independence, on the other hand, is much less certain.

Legal obstructionism of this sort, however, can only serve to harder that support - it sends the message that the will of the people is irrelevant. The government doesn't trust them to make the 'right' decision, so won't let them make any decision. In the best case, this feeds support to the pro-independence parties (or, over here, UKIP); in worse cases it leads to Unilateral Declarations of Independence, to civil disobedience, to violence, or worse. (And the argument that the constitution doesn't permit it is awfully weak - constitutions can, and have, been changed, including in Spain. All that's needed there is the will.)

In my opinion, David Cameron was absolutely right to sign the Edinburgh Agreement, to enable the referendum, and then to fight and win the resulting referendum. It's one of very few things I think he's managed to get right while in government. (Further, in my opinion, the government here would be wise to put in place a clear legal mechanism indicating when, and under what conditions, Scotland can have another referendum. Because otherwise we're potentially facing this exact same problem in a few years time.)

(And, yes, that does mean that I support UKIP's goal of having a referendum on the EU, even though I would absolutely vote to stay in. Doing so seems the surest and quickest way to kill UKIP off. Though surely the powers-that-be must know this. If I were cynical, and I am, I might be inclined to think therefore that the reason they don't do this is because they want UKIP around, to soak up the "none of the above" vote.)

As for the topic of Catalan independence itself: I strongly support their desire to have a referendum. Beyond that, though, it's a matter for the Catalans themselves; I don't qualify for an opinion.

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