Catalan Pro-Independence vote: how many hits can Brussels sustain at the same time?

Catalunya Independence Flag

This is the Pro Independence Flag version of Catalunya’s flag. One can see it in too many balconies from Barcelona and Girona to beautiful Cadaqués. Even at the Camp Nou stadium of Barcelona Football Club. Catalans do not just wave their flags because of last week’s vote campaign. They have always done so. The big question though is whether the EU dignitaries have ever gotten outside their posh diplomatic cars in Catalunya to see this flag proudly waving in every single small street.

The Catalan separatist parties won last Sunday a majority of the seats in the regional parliamentary elections. September 27 elections saw the separatist alliance winning 72 seats in the 135-seat regional parliament. Pro-independence parties did not win the absolute majority of votes though, as the 1.9 million victory out of 4 million ballots cast does not at all guarantee Catalan nationalists the 50% of the vote.

A clear majority of seats

The “Junts pel Sí” (Together for Yes) joint coalition won the 39.6 percent of the vote, obtaining 62 seats in the Catalan regional Parliament. Those, together with the pro-independence leftist CUP received (10), form an absolute majority of 72 seats though. “We have won”, Catalan regional President Artur Mas told a cheering crowd on Sunday night. “We have a clear, absolute majority in the Catalan parliament to go ahead”, Mr. Mas underlined.

Moving forward

And here comes the gordian knot. As explained, the choice Catalan people made with the 27 September vote is clear: they want independence. The level of participation in last Sunday’s vote (77.4% percent of the electorate voted), which marks a new record in post-Franco democratic Spain, for sure has an important symbolic value, and Catalan Separatists and also Madrid know this very well. “We ask that the world recognise the victory of Catalonia and the victory of the yes,” Mr. Mas declared last Sunday. “We have won and that gives us an enormous strength to push this project forward”, he continued. The emphasis the Catalan leader gives and will continue giving on the results is related to the struggle his party faced in the past (and is still having) to find legitimacy in Spain and beyond.

Original plan

After many attempts by Catalan leaders to hold a referendum on independence were stopped by Madrid’s central government and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s representatives, Mr. Mas is now openly trying to turn the elections’ result into a de facto referendum. Indeed, this was his original plan since the beginning, regardless the actual size of the victory. At the morrow of the vote for independence in Scotland, last year, when Scottish separatists basically lost their chance to get what they have been asking for many years, Mr. Mas’ party’s road map was designed, and the importance of 2015 September’s vote was evident.

A weak result?

Many are convinced this vote won’t have any big impact though, and that this is mainly due to the slim result itself. Indeed opponents of secession immediately declared that secessionists obtained a “weak” result on 27 September, basically saying that votes count more than parliamentary seats in terms of popular support. Pablo Casado, spokesman for Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s PP party, argued that the separatists had effectively “failed” by not securing a majority of votes.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy stressed last Monday that he was ready to collaborate with the next Catalan government and to discuss a wide range of topics, but always “within the law”. “There are many things that can be discussed, but while I am the president of the government, I will not discuss the unity of Spain, the national sovereignty or the freedom of all Spaniards,” he told journalists during a press conference. Mr. Rajoy has also reportedly vowed to use “the full power” of the country’s judiciary system to block any move towards independence.

“A domestic issue”

The European Union also explained its official stance last Monday, the day after the vote. European Commission’s spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said yesterday that 27 September results in Catalonia are “a domestic issue for Spain”, and that the European Commission won’t express any comment on regional elections “as a matter of principle”. Mr. Schinas also confirmed that EC President Jean-Claude Juncker “was informed” about the election results but said that the EC “didn’t have any immediate contact with the government in Madrid nor the regional government in Catalonia” to evaluate in depth the results.

Do Catalans really want independence?

All in all, that is a result that leaves a number of doors open though. For sure one can say that this was a good result for Mr. Mas’ campaign and party, and that overall it was a success for him. At the same time Sunday’s vote outcome leaves the movement struggling to gain legitimacy at a widder stage, as it didn’t give an absolute answer to the question: “Do Catalan want independence?”. Mr. Mas can say that it was “a clear plebiscite”, but he is perfectly aware this is not the case.

In fact, he and his fellow party members are still looking for a way to find legitimacy to a Catalan independence, something this vote will not bring for sure. Besides, Spain’s constitution does not allow any region to break away, and this is an undeniable fact, something that can’t simply be torn apart. There’s also a neat line to be traced between a call for independence – which can be Sunday’s vote main outcome – and secession both from Spain and the EU, which is something that still is not clear if Catalans really want. As a matter of fact, the majority of the voters does not want that.

Catalan and EU worries

What is also true is that this vote leaves an even more fractured political scene in Spain, where the position of the country’s leading party, Mr. Rajoy’s Popular Party (PP), gets heavily weakened after a disastrous result. The upcoming Spanish general elections in December 2015 are now anticipated to be a steep bumpy road for Mr Rajoy.

Moreover, the European Union should also look at the recent Catalan vote with a very careful eye, where each and every vote for independence could also turn into another test of the stability of a Union that too often gets threatened by inner turbulence. In fact, the EU is having too many balls in the air currently with Catalanuya, Great Britain’s upcoming referendum, the terrible refugee crisis expected to escalate during winter and certainly a too fragile EU economy; surely not to mention the Greek crisis.

Brussels should be too vigilant these days.

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