Catalonian feast day fuels Artur Mas in quest for independent region

Whether binding or not, November’s poll will gauge separatist views, says Catalan leader

Catalan premier Artur Mas. Reuters/Gustau Nacarino

Catalan premier Artur Mas. Reuters/Gustau Nacarino


Yesterday was the feast day of Catalonia’s patron, St Jordi, when couples across the region exchange roses and books in celebration of the region’s cultural identity. Echoing the festivities, Catalan premier Artur Mas portrayed the northeastern region as a feisty underdog which has run out of patience with an unsympathetic Spanish state.

Mas is determined to push ahead with a November referendum on Catalan independence from Spain, in spite of the setbacks his plan has suffered in recent weeks.

“Catalonia has earned the right to decide on its future, because we have almost always had to progress and prosper in a state that is hostile to Catalan identity,” he told reporters in Barcelona.

“And if we have managed to conserve that identity and prospered, it has been thanks to our willingness to survive throughout history despite very difficult circumstances.”

State opposition
Earlier this month, Spain’s congress overwhelmingly rejected the referendum plan on the grounds that it violates the constitution. That followed a ruling by the constitutional court that a ballot on independence could only be possible if the constitution were amended. However, Mas says he is undeterred.

“The probability that I, as the president of the Catalan government, call a referendum [on independence] for November 9th is 100 per cent,” he said. “The referendum will be called and it will be done so within some kind of legal framework.”

The nature of that framework is still not clear, but Mas said that the content of the referendum remains unchanged, with two questions. The first is: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” If the answer to this is yes, another question follows: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?”

However, he conceded that the November ballot would not be binding, as originally planned, due to the opposition of congress and the constitutional court. Instead, it would be what he called “participative, to gauge the opinion of Catalans”.

If the Spanish state also blocks that non-binding ballot, Mas said he would instead consider calling early regional elections “as a last resort”, in order to show how much support independence enjoys. Separatist parties currently control about two-thirds of the Catalan parliament.

The Catalan leader began his independence drive in the autumn of 2012, after Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy refused to consider granting the region increased powers over its economic affairs. A grass roots campaign had already seen support for separation from Spain swell, with activists citing what they saw as Madrid’s stifling of its economy and meddling in its affairs. Polls currently show that just over half of Catalans support independence.

Despite his strident tone, Mas insisted he remains prepared to negotiate with the Spanish government. But he was downbeat about the chances of a deal.

“If I had detected a millimetre, a gram of willingness to negotiate in Prime Minister Rajoy, I would have made that a priority,” he said. “But in the many months I have [been leading this process], I have not observed the slightest possibility that right now there is a chance of an agreement.”

The opposition Socialist Party is preparing an alternative proposal which would grant Catalonia increased autonomy but not full independence. Mas was dismissive of such a plan on the grounds that it would require constitutional reform and therefore the backing of Rajoy’s unionist Popular Party (PP).

Bleak landscape outlined
On Tuesday, the prime minister illustrated how far apart the two sides were on the referendum issue, as he addressed senate. Telling the chamber that Spain had already devolved ample power to its regions since returning to democracy over three decades ago, Rajoy painted a bleak picture for an independent Catalonia, focusing in particular on economic issues.

“I have the duty to explain it to you: the impoverishment of Catalonia, exit from the EU, exit from the euro, exit from the European Central Bank, from treaties, the undermining of trade and isolation from a world that is becoming more and more integrated,” he said.

Yesterday, Mas responded to the prime minister’s claim that an independent Catalonia would have to reapply for EU and euro membership.

“I defy anyone in Europe to say that Catalonia is not a nation,” he said. “Catalonia isn’t a nation? After 1,000 years of existence, after conserving its identity, its culture, its language, and despite the circumstances?”

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