Catalonia sets independence vote; Spain government vows to scuttle it

In Caldes de Montbui, Spain, near Barcelona, pro-independence advocates collect signatures on the sidelines of a youth chess tournament in support of asking the regional legislature to schedule a vote on whether to separate from Spain.
(Emilio Morenatti / Associated Press)

Political leaders in Spain’s prosperous Catalonia region set themselves on a collision course with the central government in Madrid on Thursday when they called a Nov. 9 referendum on independence.

Voters in the region of 7.5 million residents will be asked to answer a two-tiered question, according to Spanish news media: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” And, if so, “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?”

The announcement of the vote immediately drew condemnation from Spanish government officials who have repeatedly warned the separatist forces in Catalonia that the constitution prohibits any region from unilaterally deciding matters that affect other parts of the country.

“I will guarantee you that the status vote is not going to be held,” Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said at a news conference in Madrid, El Pais newspaper reported on its English-language website. “The government that I preside [over] cannot authorize or negotiate something that belongs to all Spaniards.”

Catalonia government leader Artur Mas praised the referendum agreement drafted by four political parties representing 88 seats in the 135-member regional assembly as constituting “a very ample majority” in support of polling the population.


“This is historically very far-reaching,” Mas told reporters in the regional capital, Barcelona. He brushed off the warnings from Madrid, saying that “there will be time to guarantee the legal framework and democratic procedures.”

A strong majority of Catalans favor holding a referendum to sound out the populace on going it alone, with about 80% telling pollsters they want to be asked about their preferences for future government. But support for actual separation is much lower.

An opinion poll conducted last month by the Catalan government found 54.7% of respondents in favor of independence from Spain, down slightly from a July survey in which 55.6% said they wanted their own state.

Catalonia, which has its own language and cultural heritage, has been part of Spain for more than half a millennium, since the 1469 marriage of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella created the contours of today’s kingdom. Catalans’ resentment of rule from Madrid flared during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, who centralized the regions’ authority and banned the use of the Catalan language.

Spain’s 1978 constitution restored autonomy to the country’s 17 regions, but polls show that 70% of Catalans are unsatisfied with their ability to manage their own affairs. The region produces 20% of the country’s gross domestic product, while accounting for only 15% of its 47 million population. The disproportion between what the region pays in taxes and gets back in government services and investment is even more pronounced.

Two factors curbing the secessionist inclinations, though, have been feared loss of the protective embrace of European Union membership and the opposition delicately parlayed by Spanish King Juan Carlos last year in a rare instance of the royal house delving into political affairs.

“In these circumstances, the worst thing we can do is divide our forces, encourage dissent, chase chimeras and deepen wounds,” the king warned in a letter posted on a palace website last year, when the independence drive flared in the region.

Separatist sentiments intensified last year after officials in Madrid warned of legal repercussions if Catalonia pursued an unauthorized referendum. Support for a vote had swelled during the worst of the economic crisis that has gripped Spain for five years, but recent signs indicate a modest recovery may be underway. Spain had its first quarter of growth from July to September, after nine straight quarters of recession, and the most recent unemployment figures show infinitesimal improvement in the country’s 26% jobless rate.

Twitter: @cjwilliamslat