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Update Catalonia: 24 April


Update Catalonia: 24 April 2014

Three minor, but potentially interesting developments in the evolving situation in Catalonia were in the news this week.

In his first address to the Spanish Parliament on Catalonia since the referendum debate on April 9th, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on Catalans to accept the decision of  the national legislature, obey the laws and constitution, and “use their imaginations” to come up with solutions to the issues that fuel their discontent[1]. Importantly, Mr. Rajoy made no further mention of a constitutional reform process, a possibility he had thrown out during the prior debate. He also failed to answer Mr. Mas’ challenge to that possibility: name the time and place. Mr. Rajoy offered no guidance on this.


I have recently offered a conflict resolution framework for exploring the potential outcomes of the Catalan referendum drive. It included five paths or scenarios:

  1. An end to the process and Catalan acceptance of the status quo;
  2. An unofficial referendum, similar to the one held in March in the Italian province of Veneto;
  3. An unauthorized referendum, backed by the Catalan Parliament and binding on the Generalitat, though wholly illegal under Spanish law;
  4. A regional election on the sole platform or independence, serving as a de facto referendum;
  5. A unilateral declaration of independence without preliminaries by the Catalan legislature.

This framework could be modified by the addition of a sixth scenario:

  1. Constitutional Reform and continued union with Spain under a new modus vivendi.

I do not think that Mr. Rajoy is sincere in offering a path to a constitutional convention, nor is Mr. Mas sincere in hinting that he would accept it. Evidence includes Mr. Rajoy’s omission during his most recent address, despite Mr. Mas giving him an opening. I hold out two other reasons for believing that neither side is sincere in accepting this as a legitimate option:

  • I don’t believe that the Prime Minister, or his party, is particularly interested in a serious reform of the Constitution. ThePartido Popular has done well out of the current arrangement: it controls almostall of the regions of the country, has an absolute majority in the Parliament and generally has little to fear from insurgent parties like VOX andUPyD.The PSOE, despite its recent and continued implosion, remains the other large, national party and key beneficiary of the current political arrangement. They expect, at some point, to rebound to their former levels of popularity. A constitutional convention, with delegates selected by the regional governments, would be dominated by the Partido Popular – who again control most of Spain’s regions. Other formulae, like representation proportional to the seats in the national legislature, would still be unfavorable to the socialists. I doubt the PSOE would want to put itself in such a position;
  • From the Catalan viewpoint, any convention in which they must negotiate with the rest of Spain’s regions is not only highly unlikely to grant them the degree of federalist autonomy which might satisfy them; it is likely to roll back some of the concessions they have won by negotiating bilaterally with the central government over the years.  Most Spanish regions are not going to want to give the Catalans any further special status and they are not going to want to see the interregional financial transfer model changed: net recipients are not going to want their transfers in reduced; while net contributors, like Madrid, are not going to want to have their transfers out increased to cover the deficit left by a Catalan withdrawal from “interregional solidarity”.Thus, from the Generalitat’s point of view, a constitutional convention has a high probability of turning out unfavorably to their interests, without the possibility of Catalans rejecting that outcome. Even if the entire enfranchised population voted against it, a new constitution might easily gather sufficient votes from the rest of Spain to be approved, and then Catalans would be stuck with it. They could still conceivably call for a referendum, but then the Spanish government would have very weighty arguments for damning them as hypocrites and reneging on their agreement to abide by the terms of the convention and popular vote. The international community would also come down unanimously against such a drastic action by the Generalitat.

The other interesting development is the statement by Mr. Mas, following Mr. Rajoy’s address. The Catalan President stated that the referendum process would not be delayed or diverted by what he referred to as “the national government’s obvious stalling tactics”. He indicated that he would ask the Catalan Parliament for legislation authorizing him to proceed, and that this legislation would be worded in such a way as to prevent Madrid from interfering[2].


Leaving aside the fact that there are many ways that Madrid could interfere if it really chose to do so, Mr. Mas seems to proposing some sort of non-binding consultation. Regional governments are authorized at all times to consult with their citizens on matters of public policy without need for approval from the national government. This would allow the Generalitat to hold the consultation with the machinery of state, legally using public funds and public locations; even invite monitors for the procedure. But it would still not be a legally binding referendum; only the Spanish parliament can authorize that. The Catalan Parliament could not insert any language into the bill to that affect, which means that everyone – the Spanish government, the international community – can ignore the results is they so choose. Naturally, they will choose to do so.

The “consultation option” falls squarely into the scenario I described as the “Veneto Option”[3]: a pressure tactic for negotiating with Madrid, but a risky one. For one thing, Mr. Rajoy is not going to feel any more compelled to negotiate after a consultation than before: those are the realities of his political situation. Furthermore, the consultation might turn out disastrously wrong for the pro-separatist parties: given that it is not binding, it might have a very poor turnout. That in and of itself would be bad for the separatist case; but if large numbers of the marginally dissatisfied stay home – after all, why bother for a “consultation” – then the separatists might find themselves with a razor thin majority, or even a mere plurality. It is hard to see the Catalan independence movement recover from such a fiasco.

Of course, it is not inconceivable that this is what Mr. Mas secretly has planned. He might be getting cold feet. He might not be a sincere advocate of independence. He may be tired of holding the tiger’s tale. If any of these were true, Mr. Mas is savvy enough to know that he cannot simply abandon the process without destroying himself and the CiU politically. To get out of his fix, he would have to tread a very delicate high-wire between satisfying his voters by fulfilling his promise and offering them something they can vote on; satisfying his governing partners in the ERC by not obviously sabotaging it[4]; and yet also satisfy Madrid so that the government doesn’t feel compelled to annul the Catalan statute of autonomy or place Mr. Mas under arrest. Anything less than an overwhelming turnout and pro-separatist victory in the consultation would probably satisfy all three conditions.

I speculate; I am not suggesting that this in fact what Mr. Mas has planned. But the wording of any proposal submitted by the Generalitat to the Parliament will be very telling and require close scrutiny.

Finally, El Mundo released the results of a poll conducted among non-Catalan Spaniards on their attitudes towards the Catalonian referendum and what actions the government should take in the event of one[5]. Fully 50% of all those interviewed indicated that they agreed that Mr. Mas would go forward with the referendum in defiance of the national government, with little variation between voters for different parties. The better than 2 in 3 Spaniards then agreed that the government should immediately challenge the consultation law in the Constitutional Court. Despite differences between voters based on party affiliation, none of these groups had less than 50% in favor of a court challenge[6]:


The survey then asked whether the government should suspend the Catalan statue of autonomy in the event of continued defiance by the Generalitat. The results here were less overwhelming, but still marginally in favor by a slim plurality:


On the question of a suspension of the defiant region’s charter, the Spanish left was strongly opposed[7], while the Spanish right made no bones about their support for such a measure. These results are well-aligned with the initial estimate in the Outcomes Model, which predicted a roughly 50% probability of a suspension of the Catalan charter in the event that the Generalitat continued organizing a referendum. As further data points come in, I will continue updating the model predictions and publish any material changes to the results.

It is clear that sentiments are well on their way to hardening on both sides. There remains one natural pause before Mr. Mas is forced to take the plunge: the Scottish referendum will be held roughly 2 months[8] prior to the date set for the Catalan one. If the Scots stay in the United Kingdom, it is very possible that Mr. Mas, and even his ERC partners, may reconsider holding the vote. Contrariwise, should Scotland peacefully depart the UK, the pro-independence Catalans would be immeasurably buoyed by this “success” – and two months is not long enough to determine whether or not Scotland falls into economic and political chaos as a result. Spain and Catalonia would enter a very dangerous period at that point.

Sources and Notes

 [1]Marisa Cruz, “Rajoy reclama a Cataluña ‘imaginación’ para ofrecer soluciones que permitan convivir,” El Mundo, 22 April 2014 (Spanish only)
[2]EFE, “Mas blindará la consulta para que España ‘no se la pueda cargar’,” El Mundo, 23 April 2014 (Spanish only)
[3] Some readers have criticized my choice of names for the various options, particularly Option 1, the “Collaborationist Option” and Option 3, the “Crimea Option”. I would like to point out that in neither case are the names representative of my personal opinion: I am not personally asserting that Mr. Mas would be a collaborationist, with all that that connotes, nor am I asserting that the situation in Catalonia is remotely like that of Crimea. In the former case, the option is called “collaborationist” because that is what the pro-separatists would consider any Catalan politician that advocated the renunciation of the referendum process. The latter name is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Mr. Margallo, the Spanish Foreign Minister, who did in fact make that comparison.

With the desire to avoid distractions over petty naming disputes, I shall henceforth refer to these scenarios exclusively as “Option 1” and “Option 3”.
[4] He could not water it down so much that the consultation lost all relevance to the question of independence. He could not, for example, ask: “are you unhappy with the present relations between the government of Catalonia and the national government in Madrid?” Such a question would be meaningless. He might try, however, to introduce multiple options into the consultation and thus divide the vote For example, he might ask the previous question and follow it up with: “Would you prefer: a.) a unitary state,  b.) additional powers under the current system, c.) a more federalist state within Spain; or d.) an independent Catalonia.” Of course, the ERC are not stupid and would likely try to force a binomial question rather than multiple choices.
[5]Daniel G. Sastre, “El 46% suspendería la autonomía de Cataluña si hay consulta ilegal,” El Mundo, 21 April 2014 (Spanish only)
[6] Izquierda Unida (United Left) was the lowest at 54.3%, while the Partido Popular (People’s Party) was the highest at 90.3% in favor of a court challenge.
[7] The percentages of “Don’t Know, No Answer” were 15.9% for the PSOE and 11.8% for Izquierda Unida, which is roughly in line with the other party affiliations: 12% PP and 14.2% UPyD.
[8]18 September 2014 versus 9 November 2014 for Catalonia

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