Europe’s Other Secessionists

In the face of staunch opposition from the Spanish government, which declared the act unconstitutional, some 2.3 million residents of Catalonia turned out on Sunday to vote in a non-binding referendum on independence from Spain. Over 80 percent voted “yes”:

Because the straw poll did not contain the electoral guarantees of a true referendum, and was organized and promoted entirely by pro-sovereignty groups, it was largely expected that those opposed to independence would not turn up to vote (and indeed, the percentage of returns against both statehood and independence was a mere 4.5%; an additional 10% voted in favor of statehood—meaning greater autonomy within a federal-style system—but rejected independence). If yesterday’s poll is indeed an accurate reflection of what Catalonia could expect in a binding referendum with greater electoral guarantees and a high level of participation, then somewhere between 40 and 50% of the total eligible population would vote in favor of independence.

Bershidsky interprets the vote as a message to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who “has consistently refused to deal with the political, rather than the legal, side of the issue”:

Rajoy has signaled his willingness to negotiate with the Catalan government, but only from a position of strength. That’s no way to approach a region where close to 2 million people are unhappy with the way they are being governed from Madrid. Spain is the only European country where people feel a stronger regional than national identity, according to the World Values Survey. That makes centralization a bad idea. The best option for the Spanish government is to go back to the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, which was passed by the parliament and approved by 2.5 million Catalan voters — but then emasculated in 2010 by the Constitutional Court. By granting Catalans exactly as much independence as they have always asked for, that would effectively put an end to the secession movement.

Diego Muro also urges Madrid to listen:

Madrid’s approach has been needlessly adversarial. Rather than resist Catalan’s aspirations, the Spanish government should welcome its commitment to a democratic process. After all, Spain has a long history of nationalist groups―most notably the Basque nationalist group ETA―turning to terrorism, rather than the ballot box, to pursue their goals. Madrid has chosen to portray its disagreement with Catalonia in legalistic terms. But the crux of the matter is a political problem: how to accommodate the region’s aspiration for independence within Spain’s existing national framework. The sooner the Spanish government recognizes the true nature of the problem, the sooner it can restore calm throughout the country.

The Bloomberg View editors believe Catalans would opt for union in the end, provided Rajoy abandons his disdainful approach to their concerns:

The first step to persuading Catalans to stay in Spain would be to map out a legal, constitutional route to giving them their say. Catalonia’s proposed secession would be even more fraught with risk than was Scotland’s. It would carve away about 20 percent of Spain’s economy, compared with 8 percent for the U.K. Investors in Catalonia’s bonds certainly believe independence would be at least as bad for the region as for the rest of Spain. So in a real campaign, in which voters are confronted with the realities of assuming up to 200 billion euros ($250 billion) of Spanish debt, the case for unity should be winnable.