Catalunya: The people will decide

AS I write this in a pavement café in Barcelona’s Old Town, memories of the energy and energising sense of possibility crackling around Scotland last September have made my eyes a wee bit misty.

I had not even arrived in Catalunya but my excitement was building. At Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for the Barcelona flight, the couple next to me were having a heated, but friendly exchange. Their neighbours soon joined in, and I’m not sure if my linguistic skills mislead me but I’m sure I detected a certain flirty tone too in among the banter. They swapped numbers as we were called to board.

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First published in The Sunday Herald 27 September 2015

From my seat on the plane, 7D, I could see the gentleman in 6C reading a French paper with the headline “Divorce a la catalane”, while the lady in 4C was reading a Catalan paper that was, of course, full of election news. The couple behind me were also talking politics, and we had not even taken off.

My trip here is a bit of payback. I’ve been in the European Parliament for 11 years working alongside Catalans I’m proud to have met, many of whom are playing leading roles in today’s vote. Also, anyone involved in our Yes campaign met at least one Catalan, usually several dozen, who took a holiday to come and help us out in our campaign.

Obviously, Scotland is Scotland and Catalunya is Catalunya. Our histories, ambitions, constitutional settlements, geographies, linguistics, politics and neighbours are different.

Our independence referendum was, and our national claim of right to independence is, entirely sui generis, unique, in fact and in law. 

I have my own thoughts on Catalan independence. You might even be able to guess them, but I am not here to support Catalan independence. 

The people best placed to make decisions about Catalunya’s future are the people who live here and I’m not one of them. 

But democracy is democracy, and no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. I’m deeply concerned that because of the attitudes and intransigence of the Madrid government we are on the verge of a constitutional crisis, and the EU’s commitment to democracy will be called into question.

Catalunya, or Catalonia in English, has always been distinct. The winds of change blowing through European politics have had an effect here too. Historically, Catalan politics was dominated by Convergència i Unio (CiU) a coalition of two parties led by arch gradualist Jordi Pujol since the 1970s, and latterly by current Catalan President Artur Mas. The gradualist approach had some success and consolidated a fair degree of devolution to Catalan institutions, but only got so far. In June this year CiU split over these tensions into Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya, which is now outright in favour of independence, and Unió Democràtica de Catalunya which favours a continuation of the gradualist approach. For good measure Unió then had its own split, with pro-independence members breaking to form Demòcrates de Catalunya, a centre-right pro-independence party. 

The other main pro-independence party is the one I know best and am closest to, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, a centre-left republican independence party. Independence remains the defining issue of Catalan politics, albeit under the post-fascist Constitution of the Spanish State it is legally impossible.

This fault line has been getting hotter and hotter in recent years, with the latest expression of Catalan frustration in November last year, when by a series of co-ordinated local “consultations” a sort of referendum was held across Catalunya. It was boycotted by pro-Union voters and rubbished by Madrid.

Frustrated with lack of progress, Artur Mas called an early election to the Catalan Parliament, taking place today. Prior to today’s vote, the pro-independence parties, left and right, have put aside considerable differences and created the Junts pel Si (Together for Yes) list, which is standing to seek an explicit mandate to “commence an independence process”. It is joined by Podemos and various others on a Catalunya Sí que es Pot (Catalunya Yes We Can) platform that despite the breathless branding is, rather counter-intuitively, not explicitly pro-independence but instead simply pro-referendum.

So the politics is complicated, but the conversations have been great. I was even persuaded to go to a few bars and people are talking politics everywhere. While I’ve seen plenty reports of tension, I’ve seen none of it myself. This is a good news story for democracy.

“Madrid has brought us to this, I don’t like Convergència but I’ll vote for the Yes list,” said Luis, a view I’ve heard a lot. The election will not, even if there is an outright majority of seats and votes, be a unilateral declaration of independence, but, when pressed on what it does mean, he could only shrug. “I don’t want a referendum, I’m voting for independence now,” declared Antonio, another view I’ve heard, that this is it, no more votes.

Personally I don’t see how a decision on independence can be made by anything other than an explicit, clear, legally binding referendum, but Catalan frustration is palpable. “I’m not sure about independence but we should definitely have the right to choose,” said Miquel, voting for the Podemos list.

The votes will be counted tonight, and we will know how the people have voted by tomorrow morning. As polls stand it is going to be close, but the Together for Yes list looks to be in touching distance of a majority of seats if not votes.

We’ll need cool heads, and to remember that if the EU is indeed a Union based on democracy and human rights, then this impeccably democratic process will give a mandate for change and that mandate must be respected everywhere. I think there’s need of an honest broker between Madrid and Barcelona and I think Brussels is in the best place to be it. It was Winston Churchill who said democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.