The government of Catalonia plans to create a cross-party consensus in the region in the coming months on the terms of an independence referendum, in the hope that the Spanish administration will then agree to discuss the proposal and stage a vote.
The president of Catalonia, Pere Aragonès, told The Irish Times that the next legislature, expected to begin in early 2024, “should serve to tackle the nub of this conflict, which is the sovereignty of Catalonia and its relationship with Spain.”
Successive Spanish governments have repeatedly refused to agree to Catalonia holding a legally binding referendum, arguing that the constitution does not allow for it. However, Aragonès, of the Catalan Republican Left party (ERC), insisted that he plans to push for such a vote after first reaching what he calls a “clarity accord” on this issue within Catalonia.
“I want to reach an overarching agreement in Catalonia in 2023 in order then to make a proposal to the [Spanish] state,” he said, speaking in the Catalan government building in Barcelona, before a two-day visit to Dublin last week during which he had meetings scheduled with Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin and Bertie Ahern.
“This overarching agreement should not just be between pro-independence Catalans but also with those who do not want independence but who, as democrats, accept that a referendum is the instrument to decide the future of Catalonia,” he said.
Aragonès (40) became regional president in 2021, promising a policy of engagement with the leftist coalition Spanish government to pursue the goal of independence.
Although polls show that support for independence has dropped since 2017, a clear majority back the idea of a referendum
That followed several years of turmoil in the relationship between the north-eastern region and Madrid and which reached a low point in October 2017, when the region held a chaotic independence referendum. The conservative Popular Party (PP) government in Madrid deployed police, who baton-charged voters, and nine Catalan politicians were subsequently jailed.
“I think it was a necessary step,” Aragonès said of that vote and its fallout. “In the sense that it was necessary to be able to visualise the limits within which the Spanish state would operate.”
His government’s relationship with the administration of Pedro Sánchez, of the Socialist Party, is rather more harmonious, although he describes it as “complex” and made more difficult by what he sees as a repressive judiciary. Sánchez’s coalition needs the parliamentary support of ERC to govern in Madrid, allowing the nationalist party to force concessions, some of which have been highly contentious.
In 2021, the Spanish government pardoned the nine jailed leaders, angering the political right and many in Sánchez’s own party. Then, late last year, it reformed the criminal code to eliminate the crime of sedition and alter the crime of misuse of public funds. Although those latter changes appear likely to have a limited benefit for the Catalan politicians affected by legal action, they were the result of negotiation, according to Aragonès.
“I acknowledge that there have been steps, like the pardons and the reform of the criminal code, in that last case agreed upon with us, but they are insufficient steps,” he said, adding that “we hope for greater commitment from the Spanish government to this process of negotiation”.
Although polls show that support for independence has dropped since 2017 – a recent study by the Catalan government’s statistics department showed that 42 per cent of people in the region were in favour and 50 per cent against – a clear majority back the idea of a referendum.
With a general election expected at the end of this year, Sánchez could once again find that he needs the support of Aragonès and the ERC in order to govern. If so, the Catalan president seems determined to promote his referendum proposal harder than before – possibly using it as a bargaining tool in exchange for supporting a parliamentary investiture vote to make Sánchez prime minister again. The Socialist leader has insisted he will never allow an independence referendum, although the right-wing opposition claim that he would do so.
“It is clear that there will not be an investiture for free because there has to be a negotiation and there are very important issues on the table,” Aragonès warned. “Therefore, the relationship between Catalonia and Spain and how we handle it will be a key element in deciding our vote in future investitures.”
However, for some in the independence camp Aragonès is not moving fast enough, leaving the movement much more divided than five years ago. Last year, a coalition between ERC and the more stridently secessionist Together for Catalonia (JxCat) fell apart. ERC now governs alone and it received the help of the Catalan wing of Sánchez’s socialists to approve a recent regional budget. It was a move which seemed to chime with Aragonès’s oft-stated aim of broadening the independence movement’s political support.
JxCat and its former leader, Carles Puigdemont, who has been living abroad since 2017 to escape the Spanish justice system, have repeatedly criticised ERC’s engagement with the Spanish government, casting it as a lack of separatist conviction. In recent months, pro-independence hardliners have booed ERC politicians during public events, including Oriol Junqueras, the party leader and one of the nine who were jailed.
“Firstly, they represent a very small minority,” said Aragonès, when asked about those responsible for these episodes. “And secondly, I think they should be clear who their opponent is. The opponent for pro-independence Catalans is not other pro-independence Catalans, it is the Spanish state which right now is preventing Catalonia from deciding on its future.”
Polls suggest that the conservative PP is more likely than the socialists to be able to form the next Spanish government, albeit with the support of the far-right, and fiercely unionist, Vox. In some pro-independence circles, such an outcome is seen as preferable, as it could provide a unifying enemy and tarnish the international image of Spain.
Aragonès does not share this view. “The loss in terms of social rights and civil rights and the national rights of Catalonia would be very substantial,” he says, of a possible right-wing government in Madrid. “What I want to have in front of me is a government of the Spanish state that accepts the democratic decision of the people of Catalonia.”