Degrees of separation: how will the EU election results affect Catalonia’s future?

CataloniaThe European Parliament elections will be a major milestone on the road to a referendum on Catalan independence, which is due to be held on 9 November in spite of opposition from the Spanish government.

May’s election will be a test of the growing separatist feeling in Catalonia, and the two major nationalist parties – the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and the centre-right Convergence and Union (CiU) – are using the polls as a platform to highlight to a wider audience their desire to create a Catalan state.

But disunited, their common cause may fall. The two parties – each set to win around 20 per cent of the vote - are not presenting a single electoral list in favour of Catalan independence. Such a list could win more than 40 per cent of Catalan votes, and possibly even a majority. This lack of unity may end up being a lost opportunity.

At present, the ERC stands a good chance of winning the election in Catalonia for the first time since the re-establishment of Spanish democracy. The left-wing party is standing in alliance with the New Catalan Left, a small breakaway group from the Catalan Socialists (PSC – which is allied to Spain’s Socialists, PSOE). Its possible success has two roots: a growing separatist movement as well as dissatisfaction with the establishment parties.

If the ERC does win, it will add to the pressure on Artur Mas, the CiU leader who has been President of Catalonia since 2010, to stick to his referendum plans. In the absence of an unlikely agreement with the Spanish government, the ‘clash of legitimacies’ will come to a head on 11 September – Catalonia’s national day, and exactly one week before Scotland’s independence referendum.

Read our blog on the European elections and Scotland’s independence referendum

As in Scotland, the choice of date is symbolic. The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), a social movement that is leading the independence charge – plans a major demonstration in Barcelona to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Siege of Barcelona, which was lost by the Catalans against Spanish and French troops at the end of the War of Spanish Succession. (Scotland’s referendum comes 700 years after the Battle of Bannockburn, a famous victory over the English.)

Th result of this first scenario could be confrontational: a push for a declaration of independence by the Catalan Parliament if the Spanish government doesn’t allow a referendum, or doesn’t commit to recognising the result.

A second scenario – if the CiU wins the European election – sees Mas in a much stronger position to resist more radical elements and continue dialogue with the Spanish government to agree a referendum. In this case, the CiU – whose largest component party, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), is party of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party and the Liberal International – is likely to use its international affiliations to put pressure on the Spanish government. The result of Scotland’s referendum, and the political and media reaction in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote, will be used to increase pressure on Madrid.

Then there is a third possibility: an unexpected victory for the PSC, due to a fragmentation of the separatist vote. A Socialist victory would be a significant defeat for the separatist movement, but open the door to a new kind of agreement between the Catalan parties and the Spanish government, creating support for ‘devolution max’ and a new federal or confederal solution rather than independence.

This ‘devolution max’ approach is supported by the PSC, the Initiative for Catalonia Greens (ICV – a green-left movement) and the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC – the smaller Christian democratic wing of the CiU), as well as Catalonia’s biggest companies and banks. The UDC leader, Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida – a politician close to big business - is promoting the ‘devolution max’ solution in talks with the Spanish government and the leader of PSOE.

The opinion polls currently suggest that in the European Parliament election about 40 per cent of people will support parties that are clearly for independence, about 25 per cent will vote for parties defending the status quo (the People’s Party and the Citizens Party) and about 30 per cent will support parties such as PSC and ICV, who back a new constitutional deal to give more political and fiscal powers to Catalonia.

The final results are unlikely to signal a clear movement towards any of these three options, but the independence issue will still need to be addressed, and it could be that European politicians and European institutions will need to engage in the debate sooner rather than later to avoid a major democratic clash inside one of the EU’s biggest countries.