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When Catalonia held an illegal independence referendum in October, Albert Salvador was up at 6am to cast his vote. The 50-year-old was one of about 2m Catalans who went to the polls despite initially violent efforts by the Spanish police to stop them. “I was there to vote Yes. I wanted to try and make Catalonia an independent republic,” he says.
Mr Salvador insists that his desire for independence has, if anything, hardened since then. This week he hopes that a pro-independence party will win the Catalan elections that are being contested amid ugly tensions between the forces that want to stay in Spain and those than want to leave.
But Mr Salvador is not as hardline as some. For him, a divorce from Spain is not the only solution to the crippling political impasse: a significant change in Catalonia’s relationship within Spain might convince him to stay. “Many people in Catalonia could be won over if there was a new deal and new attitudes from Madrid,” says the long-time Barcelona resident.
The willingness of someone like Mr Salvador, a former chief of staff to an ex-mayor of Barcelona, to step back from independence if there were a new agreement presents a glimpse of a solution some say could calm tensions in Catalonia.
It suggests there is still a political middle ground in the region and a chance to return to the less incendiary Catalan debate that existed before 2012, when nationalists in the region were mostly pushing for more autonomy rather than unilateral independence.
With more than 40 per cent of people in the region saying they support the creation of a brand new state, Catalonia represents one of the greatest political and existential challenges to Spain since its return to democracy in the mid-1970s.
Following the October vote, the regional parliament unilaterally declared independence from Spain. This, in turn, forced the Spanish government to take the unprecedented step of imposing direct rule over the region, dissolving the government and calling a new election. Senior separatist figures are today in prison awaiting trial for rebellion or in exile.
The Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, centre-right, and his Catalonia presidential candidate Xavier Garcia Albiol campaign at Salud market in Badalona, Catalonia last week © EPA
While the separatist push was ultimately stopped in its tracks, the uncertainty spooked international investors, worried those European leaders with their own internal succession movements and weighed on Spain’s economic recovery, which has lowered estimate’s for growth next year.
Relations between Catalan separatists and the rest of Spain may be at a low ebb, but there is a renewed desire to stop a repeat of October which has led to calls for a fresh look at the “third way” approach to the region that is neither independence nor the status quo: it is instead a new deal for Catalonia.
“If there was a new agreement with Madrid, it could take air out of the independence movement,” says Antoni Castells, a former Catalan finance minister long opposed to independence. “It would need to be a serious proposal, but I think that if the talks were in good faith people would accept it.”
Catalonia is already one of the most autonomous regions in Europe — more so than Scotland in the UK and Wallonia in Belgium, according to the international regional authority index. It has its own police force as well as control over domestic areas such as health, education and culture. But Catalans have for years wanted more, particularly in terms of fiscal powers, reflecting what they see as their unique status in Spain.
Police clash with protesters during voting in Catalonia’s independence referendum on October 1 © Getty
Miquel Iceta is a busy man. The head of the anti-independence Socialist party in Catalonia, the 57-year-old has a chance at being the next president of the region, depending on how the post-election coalition talks evolve.
If that happens, he believes he could strike a new kind of deal with Madrid that could convince moderate separatists to abandon the push for a new republic, potentially cutting support for full-blown independence from the 40-50 per cent it has been over the past five years to nearer 30 per cent.
He argues there is a hardcore third of Catalan separatists who will not be placated by anything other than full independence, and that another third of Catalans simply want to keep the status quo. But he says that in the middle there is also a significant proportion of moderates who support some idea of separatism, but might be brought round if Madrid agreed to a new relationship.
“These people say that Spain must respect us, that we need better financing, that we need to influence more Spanish policies,” he says from his office in Barcelona. “They say they would want to stay part of Spain if their treatment was better.”
To win them over, he has a long list of demands. This includesadditional money for Catalonia; extra powers for the region to have more control of its own finances; more central government infrastructure funding; and the promotion of the Catalan language across Spain.
“We don’t want to collide with the rest of Spain,” he says. “We want a new agreement, and to somehow renew the agreement we got in 1978 [when Spain’s constitution was written after the dictatorship of Francisco Franco].”
While the nature of the demands differ, this broad view is shared by a large number of business leaders and politicians in Catalonia, many of whom are seeking a political consensus that a majority of Catalans can support. Jordi Alberich, the director of the Barcelona think-tank Círculo de Economía, sums up the mood: “I feel that if we could just get a little bit more from Madrid in terms of our status, in terms of money, in terms of respect then it would go a long way to calm down this crisis we are living through.”
August 2006 Reformed version of Catalonia’s autonomy statute comes into force, giving the regional government greater powers and financial autonomy and using the word “nation” to describe Catalonia.
July 2010 Constitutional Court in Madrid strikes down part of the 2006 statute, ruling that there is no legal basis for recognising Catalonia as a nation within Spain and that other powers that had been granted were in fact unconstitutional.
June 2011 In the midst of the European financial crisis and anger about austerity measures, Catalan President Artur Mas Mas had to be airlifted by helicopter to parliament as it was surrounded by protesters.
September 2012 An enormous turnout — as many as 1.5m — for Catalonia’s annual independence rally in Barcelona. With rising unemployment a weak economy, anger grows about financial transfers from the region to the rest of Spain. That same month Madrid rebuffs a call by Mr Mas (pictured) for greater fiscal independence.
November 2014 Catalonia holds a non-binding informal vote on separation from Spain, which was suspended by the courts but took place anyway. About 80 per cent of voters backed independence on a 40 per cent turnout.
September 2015 In a huge upset, separatist parties win a majority in regional elections in Catalonia. The largest, the Junts pel Sí coalition, had promised to declare independence within 18 months.
October 2017 Despite being ruled illegal by the courts, the Catalan government holds another referendum that they say is binding. About 90 per cent of voters backed independence on a 40 per cent turnout.
27 October 2017 On the basis of the referendum result, the Catalan parliament unilaterally declares independence. The same day, Spain triggers Article 155 of the country’s 1978 constitution to impose direct rule over the region and dissolve the government.
28 October 2017 The Spanish government calls for new elections in Catalonia on December 21
In Madrid there is a renewed sense following this year’s Catalan crisis that reform of Spain’s system of regional financing, and even the constitution, is necessary to ease tensions.
“Spain needs to forge a new consensus by updating the constitution,” Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish Socialist party leader said this month. Albert Rivera, the head of the reformist Ciudadanos party, has called for “serious and rigorous” modifications to the constitution.
But new bilateral concessions that apply only to Catalonia strike many as the wrong solution. This is firstly because it could be seen as a moral hazard, rewarding the region for bad behaviour. Second, because anything the Catalans receive, the other 16 semi-autonomous Spanish regions would want as well, creating a spiral of demands.
And thirdly, many have concluded from the Catalan crisis that Spain needs a new, clearer and more transparent relationship with all its regions — and that a complex back room deal with one difficult region would be a step in the wrong direction.
Pablo Casado, spokesman for the ruling People’s party in Madrid, and Marta Rovira, the independence candidate in Catalonia © Getty Images
“There is a huge reluctance to reward the nationalist movements with more money and power,” says Manuel Arias Maldonado, a professor of political science at the University of Málaga. “More than ever, in Spain there is an idea that all the regions should be more equal.”
The clash of views between Catalonia and Madrid remains wide. The former’s politicians say that transport is badly underfunded and that they pay too much in taxes to subsidise other poorer regions. “Madrid robs us,” is a popular slogan of the independence movement.
Just as important is the sense that Madrid is intransigent and disrespectful. Separatists frequently talk about how the Spanish courts struck down parts of a grand accord — the so-called Estatut — in 2010 that would have given them a new deal on funding, education and the status of the Catalan language. The salt in the wound was Madrid declining to agree to another deal on financing in 2012. This, they say, left them with no choice but to push for independence.
Protesters in Barcelona on December 4 hold up placards demanding the release of ‘political prisoners’ © Reuters
However, the analysis of most policymakers in Madrid is very different. The rise in support for independence from 2011 came about, they say, not due to the Estatut fiasco but as a byproduct of the financial crisis, with Catalan politicians attempting to deflect anger over austerity by blaming Madrid for all its problems. Between 2010 and 2014, support for independence rocketed from 20 per cent to nearly 50 per cent. It has since fallen to 40 per cent as Spain’s economy has returned to growth.
Pablo Casado, spokesman for the ruling party in Madrid, says the argument about new concessions for the regions misses the point: that Catalan nationalism is built on the idea that Spain is an enemy, rather than on objective facts. “Nationalism is never satisfied, because it is based on dissatisfaction,” he says. He refutes the whole narrative of oppression. “Spain is the most decentralised country in the world,” he says. “There are no powers really left to give.”
Concessions could even be harmful, he adds. Previous moves to give Catalans more money and autonomy have ultimately only “fed the poison” of nationalism, allowing them to take over the school system — which teaches in Catalan over Spanish — as well as what he sees as a biased pro-independence, state-funded media.
Catalonia’s deposed regional president Carles Puigdemont © AFP
Luis Garicano, a professor in charge of the economic programme for the powerful reformist Ciudadanos party, says: “The idea that Catalonia is oppressed does not hold up to the facts . . . What is needed in Spain is better governance, less corruption, a more transparent state financing model . . . not creating more asymmetry with privileges for Catalonia.”
Despite such fundamental differences, there are still those who believe that some kind of deal between Barcelona and Madrid will be reached, even if it takes years and comes as part of a complex package of wider regional reforms. “Under certain circumstances, I think there may be things we can negotiate with the Catalan regional government,” says Mr Casado, “as with all the other regions.”
But that depends on Thursday’s election. For the past two years the Catalan government has rejected any discussions that were not based around organising an agreed referendum on independence — something that the Spanish constitution declares illegal and which Madrid refuses to discuss.
The election of another pro-independence government could see tensions spark again and would probably make talks over a new deal impossible. Marta Rovira, the presidential hopeful of the largest separatist party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, says that it will continue to push for an independence referendum, describing it as the “only solution” for the nation.
A victory for the anti-independence parties, however, could restart a dialogue with Madrid. “If there was loyalty from the Catalans, the two sides may be able to sit down and talk, particularly about symbolic things like language and culture,” says Mr Maldonado.
Mr Iceta says it will not be easy to strike a deal that would be amenable to Madrid and could also win over moderate separatists. But he does believe there is a road where Catalonia can once again “pledge loyalty” to the Spanish state, and in return Madrid can accept that millions of Catalans are dissatisfied and need something more.
“When you have nearly 2m people that want to split from the rest of Spain,” he says, “it’s better to give them another reason to stay.”
Candidates: pro-independence forces hold upper hand in poll
There are seven significant parties jostling for votes in Thursday’s election. The crucial question is which group of parties will win out and form a coalition to run the regional assembly: those who back, or those who oppose, full-blown independence.
A victory for the pro-independence parties — which controlled the Catalan parliament from 2015 until it was dissolved two months ago — could herald another unilateral push to break away from Madrid. Among the candidates is the former president Carles Puigdemont, who leads the pro-independence Junts Pel Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) group and whofled to Belgium to avoid arrest in October.
The polls all suggest Thursday’s election is finely balanced. The pro-independence parties — the Candidatura de Unidad Popular, ERC and Junts per Catalunya — are set to win roughly the same number of votes as the parties opposed to independence — Ciudadanos, the Socialists and the PP — according to a poll on Friday by Metroscopia for El País.
This poll suggests that this will lead to a hung parliament, with the pro-secessionist parties getting 63 of the 135 parliamentary seats. While this is one to three more seats than the anti-independence parties it is less than the 68 needed for a majority.
The leftwing Catalunya en Comú party, with a more ambiguous stance on independence, may prove kingmakers. In the immediate aftermath of the election there will inevitably be a scramble of coalition talks as the parties try to form a government.
For the pro-independence groups, loosing the majority they won in 2015 would be a major blow, and could force them to re-think their strategy of unilaterally pushing for independence.
This post originally appeared on Financial Times