UCL European Institute


The 9 November poll in Catalonia

13 November 2014, 12:00 am

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The recent Scottish referendum set a precedent in contemporary Europe by seeking to deliver, in agreement between Westminster and Holyrood, a binding decision on Scotland's future. The 'participatory process' that took place in Catalonia on 9 November could not be more different. Why is this so, what are its consequences, and where might we be heading?
Dr Claire Colomb
Dr Uta Staiger

13 November 2014

In October 2012, an agreement signed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond set out the terms of a Scottish independence referendum to 'deliver a fair test and decisive expression of the views of people in Scotland'. This was given a legal basis under Section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998 which allowed the Scottish Parliament to call for a referendum. Two years of preparation and campaigning ensued, leading to the referendum on 18 September 2014, in which independence was rejected.

The situation in another European parliamentary constitutional monarchy, Spain, where Catalans on Sunday 9 November participated in an unofficial, civil-society run but Catalan government backed poll, could not be more different. Why is this so, what are its consequences, and where might we be heading?

How did we get here?

The Spanish Constitution of 1978 affirms the indivisible unity of the Spanish nation but enshrines the right to self-government of the 'nationalities and regions of Spain'. Spain is now a decentralized state, with each of its 17 Autonomous Communities enjoying different degrees of devolution. Catalonia, representing 16% (7.6m) of the Spanish population and 19% of its GDP, first agreed its Statute of Autonomy in 1979. It was revised and approved by both the Catalan and the Spanish Parliaments in 2006, and backed by a referendum in Catalonia. It sought to address long-standing economic and cultural grievances by granting the region further fiscal powers and recognising its "nationality". However, the centre-right Popular Party (PP), then in opposition, brought the new Statute before the Spanish Constitutional Court, who after over four years of deliberation culled the most significant parts of the text.

This judgement is now regarded as the turning point for Catalan pro-independence sentiment. Today, political parties supporting the right to self-determination, in particular the centre-right governing Convergència i Unió, CiU, a recent convert to the cause, and the long-standing separatists Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, ERC (left), represent nearly two-thirds of the Catalan Parliament. In parallel, highly active grassroots movements have mobilised public opinion for the 'right to decide'. On the Catalan National Day in 2012, 1.5 million citizens gathered in a mass demonstration in Barcelona under the motto 'Catalonia, a new state in Europe', a feat repeated in the following years with ever more dramatic mise-en-scènes, such as a human chain crossing Catalonia in 2013. Inevitably, a referendum on independence became a top political priority, and the doubly symbolic date of 9 November 2014 (Fall of the Berlin Wall-cum-300 years of 'loss of sovereignty' - 1714 marked the Catalan defeat against Bourbonic troupes in the war of the Spanish Succession) was set.

Unlike in the UK, however, the current PP-led Spanish government has declined to enter into negotiations, agree the terms of a referendum or create a legal basis for it. Any moves by the Catalan Parliament - first a political declaration on its intention to hold a referendum (January 2013), then a law to enshrine a "non-referendum popular consultation" on independence (September 2014) - were taken before and subsequently suspended by the Constitutional Court. With two months to go before what became popularly known as 9-N, political parties and pro-self-determination organizations then struck up a pact to proceed with an alternative and non-binding "participatory process on the political future of Catalonia". The Constitutional Court suspended this, too, yet the central government ultimately refrained from intervening.

Until the very last minute, there were speculations as to whether the consultation would proceed. But in the end, approximately 8,000 ballot boxes were dispatched to 1,225 voting stations, with an estimated 40,000 volunteers overseeing both the polling day and the vote count. According to official figures, just over 2.3 million people participated in a peaceful and orderly poll, with 80.76% voting in favour of independence.

A democratic deficit in Spain and Catalonia?

To assess the democratic credentials of the poll is no mean feat. The Spanish government has dismissed the exercise as unconstitutional and anti-democratic. Yet its own unwillingness to engage in any meaningful dialogue with a not negligible part of its citizenry not only sets it distinctly at odds with democracies including the UK and Canada. It also arguably created the very conditions under which the poll was held. That notwithstanding, both the process leading to the consultation, and the framework in which it was ultimately held, were problematic. In contrast to the Scottish referendum, the outcome of Sunday's poll can therefore hardly count as 'a fair test and decisive expression of the views of people … and a result that everyone will respect'.

To begin with, the divisions within Catalan society have not narrowed. It is true that public opinion has significantly shifted over the past years, with support for independence surging from a minority position (ca. 20% of the population) to 49.4%, according to the latest pre-poll survey. The mass demonstrations and local initiatives organised by increasingly powerful civil society advocates of the right to self-determination have dominated public discourse, regional TV coverage, and international headlines. In part, however, this surge reflects more than a rekindling nationalism. In a context of acute economic crisis and corruption scandals in Spain and Catalonia alike, the pro-independence movement has captured part of the popular discontent with the status quo. One part of a highly divided Catalan Left thus represents independence as the only way to ensure a more socially just welfare state. But with the process led by the conservative government of Artur Mas, another part of the Catalan Left remains deeply suspicious of his agenda, accusing him of political opportunism, yet struggling to find a political voice.

Furthermore, what the images of mass mobilisation in favour of independence lead us to brush aside is the fact that according to all opinion surveys prior to the poll, a (slim) majority of Catalans would not vote in favour of independence, favouring instead more devolution within a federal or confederal Spain, or the status quo. Indeed, despite the strong showing on 9 November, nearly two thirds of the electorate did not participate in this ersatz referendum (ca. 37% of those eligible did). It is not therefore correct that a vast majority of Catalans voted in favour of independence on Sunday, as one cannot extrapolate the results proportionally to non-voters, nor can the results reflect the typical 'status quo bias' of binding referenda. In fact, the turnout is partly due to the fact that some questioned the democratic validity of a non-official, volunteer-organised "participatory process". In the words of the Catalan government itself, as published in a report in July 2014, its disadvantages are clear and include: "an easy smear campaign on the part of actors and institutions opposed to a consultation they see as 'pointless' (and presented as illegal and anti-constitutional), foreseeably low or insufficient turn-out, delegitimation of the results-in the international sphere as well-, logistical problems for organisation". These disadvantages, the Catalan government concluded, would in fact "advise against this alternative scenario".

The results of the 9-N consultation are thus democratically inconclusive: like unofficial municipal polls held in 2009 on the same question, this is not a result on the basis of which a government could take legitimate steps to secession. It is not even entirely true, as Artur Mas has suggested, that "we have made it clear that we want to govern ourselves". The result is, however, a clear mandate to continue to push for a binding vote on self-determination - which the Catalan president has immediately reclaimed.

But there are further concerns, which need to be addressed, particularly if such a binding referendum were eventually to be held. Crucially, in the run-up to the 9 November poll, the difference between the right to decide itself, and the objective of Catalan independence, has been consistently and at times deliberately eroded. Arguably, the Catalan government has acted as both judge and party, systematically using its power, communication channels, access to personal data and resources to advocate not just the vote, but one option - secession. Furthermore, given the refusal by the Spanish central government to grant a vote at all, all eyes have been on the legal tug-of-war over whether or not any form of public consultation would go ahead. There has therefore been little to no thorough examination or public debates on any potential consequences of its outcome - the opportunities and risks, the costs and benefits associated with various constitutional scenarios. This however is simply imperative if citizens are to make an informed, long-term decision on their future - and not just express their opinion on their right to make that decision. The comparison with Scotland is here once again instructive. Ten months before the referendum, the Scottish government published a 670-page White Paper, Scotland's Future, laying out the case for independence. Two political campaigns, one in favour of independence, one against, then put diverging views on the impact on particular policy areas, including pensions, education, the NHS, and defence, among others, to the public. Whatever the misgivings about the last-minute scare tactics by the No campaign, it was ultimately the uncertainty about the implications of independence that led to its rejection by voters. By comparison, the White Paper published by the Catalan government to lay out what an independent state would look like, barely six weeks before the poll, was released far too late, in comparison, to be able to properly inform public debate. Nor has there been an equivalent to the "no" campaign. The basis for an informed choice was not given.

Overcoming the deadlock

Despite its shortcomings, the consultation on 9 November can be read as a clear endorsement for a binding referendum on self-determination, which the Spanish central government should not avoid considering. While Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy continues to rule out a revision of the Constitution in order to allow for such a referendum, opposition parties are beginning to make supportive noises. It is certainly in everyone's interest to return to the negotiation table. A refusal to face up to popular discontent in Catalonia would only force the Catalan government to make choices which, if anything, are likely to reinforce the concerns voiced above. The spectre of "plebiscite elections" in Catalonia, which ERC have already called for but CiU for the moment rejects, are even more democratically contentious in parliamentary democracies than are referenda. A possible unilateral declaration of independence, effectively the objective of such plebiscite elections, would take Catalonia - and Spain - into unchartered territory, with highly unpredictable consequences. Ignoring it is not going to make the problem go away. Arguably, the ball is now in the Spanish government's court - but while the existing momentum will add pressure on all actors involved, a negotiated solution remains unlikely in the foreseeable future.

  • Dr Claire Colomb is Reader in Planning and Urban Sociology at UCL's Bartlett School of Planning.
  • Dr Uta Staiger is Deputy Director of the UCL European Institute.