The increasingly radical Catalonian independence project has been dealt its latest blow this week: on Tuesday, Spain’s constitutional court ruled that a projected September referendum on secession would be illegal. This means any plebiscite is effectively banned. But whether Catalonia’s pro-independence president Carles Puigdemont goes ahead anyway remains to be seen. A similarly defiant course of action was pursued by his predecessor Artur Mas, who held a vote in 2014 (in which eighty per cent of people backed independence), and is currently on trial.
The latest setback in the quest for Catalonian secessionism is particularly ill-timed. Just last month, Puigdemont and his Vice President Oriol Junqueras addressed MEPs in Brussels in a bid to secure their support for independence, assuring those present that although their party is determined to break from Spain, it is committed to remaining part of the EU as an independent state. Their pitch was condemned by Esteban Gonzalez Pons, an MEP of Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party, as an incitement to support a criminal separation. Pons also compared Catalonia’s strident efforts to break from the rest of Spain to Brexit. ‘In the end’, he said in a radio interview last month, ‘the ‘America for Americans’ rhetoric, or that of ‘the British first’, is identical to the ‘Catalonia for Catalans’ [view] of Puigdemont’. Puigdemont’s movement, Pons said, enjoys support across Europe from the ‘pro-Brexit extreme right’ who are also in favour of an EU referendum in the Netherlands and who don’t think that Donald Trump is a disaster.
For good or bad, there are certainly parallels between Brexit and the Catalonian independence project. The leader of the secession movement in Catalonia himself seems to have taken inspiration from the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. After the referendum last June, Puigdemont declared that:
‘[Brexit] demonstrates that it is perfectly possible to take a decision about sovereignty, as all other countries do’
If viewed as a giant fingers-up to an unwanted and meddling hegemony, it is hardly surprising that Brexit has inspired Puigdemont and Together for Yes, the pro-independence coalition that he leads. Just as a vision of ‘taking back control’ from an anti-democratic Brussels behemoth inspired many Brits to back Brexit, some secessionists view Madrid in a similar light. For them, Rajoy’s refusal to even allow Catalonians a vote on independence is evidence of exactly this lack of democracy. Secessionists in Catalonia are after the same prize as Brexit voters: freedom from a distant and unwanted administration.
The motivations for independence from Madrid aren’t only political, of course. It’s well known that Catalonia’s distinctive culture and language play their parts. And economic reasons are important too: secessionists never tire of pointing out that Catalonia – a wealthy region that accounts for a fifth of Spain’s GDP – pays more into Madrid in taxes than it gets back in funding. It’s difficult not to think of Boris’s red bus here and the famous claim from Vote Leave that money paid into the EU budget could be better off spent closer to home.
As well as the similarities, there are also important differences between the campaign for Brexit and the drive for Catalan independence. It’s in these differences that the pro-independence movement in Catalonia appears to be on much shakier ground than Brexit. After all, Brexit was fuelled by a suspicion and dislike of the EU, but in Catalonia the vast majority of secessionists remain pro-EU. Many of them, in fact, value Brussels over Madrid, conveniently forgetting that Spain is part of the bloc to which they would be reapplying for membership after secession. When combined with their growing animosity towards Rajoy’s government, the secessionists’ adoration of the EU places them in an exceptionally complex situation.
In this respect, Together for Yes resembles the Scottish National Party. Both want to break from an unwanted national government (in Madrid and London respectively) yet remain subject to a broader administration they see as necessary for their economic success. So far though, neither cause has demonstrated the vaguest notion of how exactly this can be achieved. Legality is the other issue. The UK referendum was a legal plebiscite (even if it did spark a lengthy dog fight which ended up in the Supreme Court), but the secession referendum that Puigdemont aims to hold this year would be illegal, as Tuesday’s constitutional court ruling now confirms. The Catalan president risks prosecution if he proceeds with it. From the Spanish government’s perspective, the only legal certainty about Catalonian secession is its absolute illegality. The pro-independence movement in Barcelona might see the UK’s defiance of Brussels as giving the secession project more credibility; but at the moment, their chances of striking a comparable blow against Madrid look slim.