A Referendum for Catalonia
BARCELONA, Spain — On Sept. 11, 2012, Catalonia’s national day, about 1.5 million people marched through Barcelona carrying banners saying “Catalonia, Europe’s Next State.” The march was a peaceful expression of hope. On Wednesday, with the same purpose, hundreds of thousands of people will form a human chain across Catalonia.
The history of Catalonia goes back centuries, when Iberian tribes traded with Greeks and Carthaginians along the Mediterranean coast. An identifiable Catalan culture developed in the Middle Ages and has strengthened through time, despite the loss of the Catalan sovereignty at the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714, and the subsequent repeated suppression of our government, schools, language and values.
Catalonia fought hard to defend the Second Republic in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. But democracy and autonomy were crushed and the Catalan language was made illegal as Spain endured 40 years of brutal dictatorship under Franco.
After at his death in 1975, Spain made an astonishing transformation to a multiparty democracy, and in 1978 a new Spanish Constitution recognized Catalonia’s autonomy and language once again. The institutions of Catalan autonomy continued to develop with the reconstitution of the Catalan presidency and Parliament, along with the return of the Catalan language to our schools.
But the advances haven’t met Catalan expectations. Countless proposals from Catalonia to Madrid have been rejected out of hand or subverted by court rulings. For example, in 2005 the Catalan regional Parliament passed a new Statute of Autonomy delineating powers that should be delegated to the region. The Spanish Parliament approved in 2006, though only after removing key elements. Nonetheless, the Catalan people approved the weakened version of the statute via referendum in June 2006, seeing that something was better than nothing. Then in 2010 the Spanish Constitutional Court unilaterally revoked and rewrote crucial sections of the statute in a process that the Catalan government believes was procedurally dubious.
Though financial concessions were made to the Basque region, our repeated requests for a new fiscal pact with Madrid to mitigate the current unjust system are constantly denied. We have been willing to pay more than our fair share to the central government to support poorer regions of Spain, but it has gone too far. Catalonia now receives less public expenditure per capita than more than half the other regions of Spain, though we contribute far more than average. In addition the Spanish government has failed to carry out its investment obligations, even in their far more limited scope as required in the weakened statute.
There are many more examples that have led the Catalan people to feel we have exhausted every means possible to reason and negotiate with Madrid and the only option left is to seek sovereignty. Recent parliamentary elections in Catalonia gave us a mandate to call for a referendum on Catalonia’s future, something a majority of our people and political parties support.
There are five different legal ways within Spanish law that a referendum could be authorized. Canada granted Quebec the right to hold two separate referendums and has protections within Canada because of this. More recently, Britain gave Scotland the right to decide its future in an independence referendum next year. But despite all our efforts to seek this basic civil right Spain refuses.
I appealed to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy for his assistance on the referendum in March 2013 with the support of 80 percent of the Catalan Parliament. The request was rebuffed. In July, I made a formal written request to hold a referendum. We are still waiting for a reply.
We do not seek to isolate ourselves. Catalans are deeply pro-European and we do not imagine a future outside the European Union. Catalonia would have the eighth largest economy in the union and would be a net contributor to its budgets. We would be a solid European Union partner for strengthened political unity, security strength and economic growth.
We also seek no harm to Spain. We are bound together by geography, history and our people, as more than 40 percent of Catalonia’s population came from other parts of Spain or has close family ties. We want to be Spain’s brother, as equal partners. It goes beyond money or cultural differences. We seek the right to have more control over our economy, our politics, our social services.
The best way to solve any problem is to remove its cause. We seek the freedom to vote. Every individual has a right to expect this from his government, while also sharing equally in the benefits. In Europe conflicts are resolved democratically, and that is all we ask.
We seek justice and equality for our diverse society. Over 17 percent of our 7.5 million people came from abroad. But we are united in our call to let us be heard at the ballot box.
Artur Mas is president of Catalonia.