5 Reasons Catalonia’s Elections Will Be the Next Flashpoint in Europe

by David Ferreira

10 August 2015

Last week Artur Mas, president of the Catalan government, called early elections for 27 September as a substitute for a referendum on independence that the Spanish government has spent three years rejecting outright. A unity list called Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) has brought together various political parties and civil society organizations in an effort to establish a pro-independence majority in the next Catalan parliament.

1. Tensions have been rising for years.

The current crisis between Catalonia and the Spanish state can be traced back to 2010 when the Spanish constitutional court significantly curtailed the autonomy statute approved by Catalan voters in a 2006 referendum. The constitutional court ruling provoked a mass protest of 1.1m people in Barcelona and demonstrated that the post-Franco Spanish constitution couldn’t be reconciled with the desire for self-rule in Catalonia. Regardless of who governs after September’s elections, the limited autonomy of Catalonia will continue to generate tensions until broad self-rule is achieved, inside or outside Spain.

2. Pro-independence forces are gaining momentum.

The embrace of independence by Catalan president Artur Mas represents a fracturing of the post-Franco regime. Mas’s party, the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), was part of the transition to democracy and has governed Catalonia for most of the last 35 years in coalition with the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC), a Christian democrat party.

CDC risked losing its voter base completely by not following the passion for independence that has brought nearly 2m people into the streets each of the last three years. Without significant concessions from Madrid or an electoral defeat for independence, Mas has no option but to pursue independence in the Junts pel Sí coalition with the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and other pro-independence forces.

3. Spain’s ruling party has no intention to de-escalate the situation.

Spain’s ruling Popular Party (PP) is the last party you can count on to de-escalate tensions with Catalonia. While in opposition, the PP challenged the constitutionality of the 2006 Catalan autonomy statute and expresses no remorse at having alienated so many Catalans. In fact, since coming to power in 2011, the PP has only inflamed tensions by refusing to negotiate over more Catalan autonomy and declaring the need to ‘hispanicize’ Catalan students so they feel more Spanish, crudely playing to right-wing narratives that argue Catalans are indoctrinated by separatism.

With Spanish general elections following Catalan elections in late autumn, the fear is the ruling party will confront a possible pro-independence government in Catalonia and suspend its autonomy, championing itself as the party that defended the sacred unity of the Spanish nation.

4. The radical left could hold the balance of power.

The radical left Candidatures of Popular Unity (CUP) will be offering an alternative pro-independence option to the one offered by Junts pel Sí. A number of polls have CUP increasing its MPs from three to as many as 13, with the party benefiting from being consistently left wing and militantly pro-independence. A potential independence majority will certainly depend on CUP, a fact that could force the more moderate elements in Junts pel Sí to escalate the standoff with the Spanish state by declaring a Catalan republic and/or a constituent process to draft a constitution with broad participation.

5. Catalan independence has consequences far beyond Spain.

The reason the crisis in Catalonia isn’t just a concern for the Spanish state is the profound economic and political contagion it presents. Spain is the fourth largest country in the Eurozone and Catalonia forms 16% of Spain’s population and 19% of its GDP. Catalan independence is an existential crisis for the Spanish state, and thereby an existential crisis for Europe.

Compounding the significance of the crisis, the Basque Country’s two largest parties, the rightist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and leftist EH Bildu (Basque Country Unite), are watching events closely and expressing solidarity to the Catalan people in their struggle for self-determination. In an autumn with general elections in Portugal, Spain and possibly Greece, Catalan elections may just punch above their weight and be the most important in Europe.

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