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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Catalans press ahead with independence referendum

Every night at 10pm for more than a week the sound of clattering metal has echoed through the avenues and ramblas of Barcelona, as Catalans stand on their balconies, banging their pots and pans and making audible their anger towards the Spanish government.

It is one of many forms of protest Catalans are exercising in their demand for independence from Spain, which will be put to the test on Sunday in a referendum that prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s government says is illegal and unconstitutional.

The Spanish newspaper of record, El Pais, is calling it the “Catalan crisis”. In recent weeks the interior ministry has sent thousands of extra police to Catalonia and the Guardia Civil, or Civil Guard, has arrested 14 top Catalan officials for illegal activities relating to the referendum. Meanwhile, police helicopters buzz above the upmarket Barcelona neighbourhood of Eixample as protesters continue to gather outside the University of Barcelona nearby.

The secessionist movement has gathered momentum since half a million people rallied to the cause on the National Day of Catalonia on September 11, known locally as Diada. Protests have become a normal sight outside the university and groups of Catalan secessionists parade through the city daily, draped in red and yellow Catalan flags. Some wear green shirts with “Sí” – yes to independence – emblazoned on the front and chant for freedom and democracy.

“The government doesn’t let us vote, doesn’t let us organise a referendum, with many excuses about the constitution,” said Pilar Gonzalez, the leader of a pro-secessionist group that protested in the rain outside the university on Tuesday night.

The former chemistry lecturer at the Autonomous University of Barcelona reflects the anger felt by many Catalans. The current manifestation of the crisis has its roots in June this year, when the president of the semi-autonomous Catalan region, Carles Puigdemont, announced a referendum in which Catalans would be asked on October 1: “ Do you want Catalonia to be an independent country in the form of a republic?” A win for the “yes” vote would, proclaimed Mr Puigdemont, result in a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain.

However, under the 1978 democratic constitution that binds Catalonia to Spain, only the Spanish parliament can change the constitution, therefore making the referendum non-permissible in the eyes of the courts and government. almost 30 years ago, Catalans backed the post-Franco constitution by more than 90 per cent after decades of suppression under his military dictatorship.

Nevertheless, a complex set of economic, historical, cultural and linguistic factors drive Catalonia’s calls for secession from Spain.

"Catalonia’s language, culture and political institutions suffered a period of severe repression under Franco’s dictatorship. Many supporters of Catalan independence argue that Spain’s current democracy is little different from the authoritarian dictatorship of the past," said Dr David Brydan, lecturer in modern European history at Birkbeck College, University of London.

"That isn’t really true, but there are still traces of the Franco era in the modern Spanish state, particularly the constitutional commitment to the ‘indissoluble unity’ of the Spanish nation. But these historical justifications are arguably much less important than more recent economic factors."

Among pro-independence activists, the question of the economy is central to their eagerness to secede. The Catalan economy accounts for about 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP, but unlike the Basque and Navarre regions, Catalonia pays its taxes to the central government and then receives disbursements in return to spend locally.

“Up to now, the Spanish government manage our taxes. They distribute it in a way we don’t agree with. And we want to be free,” said Xufre John, another protester outside the university who lives in Eixample.

Yet both the Spanish foreign and economy ministries have warned that the Catalan economy would shrink by 19 to 30 per cent in the event of secession. Moreover, Catalonia would have to apply to be admitted to the European Union upon leaving Spain’s orbit. Then there are the indirect costs of leaving Spain, which would result in “the loss of economic synergies and intellectual stimulus obtained by belonging to a large European economic space, one that is a world leader in trade, assists with development and an advanced social model,” according to El Pais.

Despite these concerns, the latest polling data conducted by Opinòmetre/Ara in mid-September found that the secessionists had a six-point lead with 44.1 per cent compared with 38.1 per cent in the 'no' camp. The remaining 17.8 per cent are undecided or abstaining.

Catalonia has been part of Spain since the 15th century and for a time retained its own institutions. Catalan autonomy was eroded in the early 1700s and again under Franco but the region has always maintained its own language and cultural traditions.

"Spain without Catalonia would be financially and culturally poorer, and probably more inward looking than it is today," said Dr Brydan. "It’s a region which has always been open to the outside world, from the traders of the colonial era to the modern global city which Barcelona has become today. It has also been at the heart of Spanish cultural life, from science, architecture and film, to the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 which really brought the vitality of modern, democratic Spain to the world’s attention."

Dr Brydan said that more Catalans are being pushed towards supporting independence because of the perception that the government is acting "aggressively and undemocratically."

The Civil Guard’s raids on Catalan government offices in Barcelona and the arrest of more than a dozen Catalan officials last week underscore this perception. People responded with anger and protests — all aimed at Mr Rajoy.

As many pro-independence Catalans rally in the streets in defiance of the Madrid government, Mr Puigdemont has said that if 'yes' wins he referendum, he would be willing to enter a transitional phase so that talks between Catalonia and Spain and the European Union could take place.

My Rajoy’s government, meanwhile, remains intent on stopping the poll from taking place. The government has asked the regional Catalan police, the Mossos d’Esquadra, to seal buildings that are set to be used as polling stations on Sunday. The government’s unwillingness to permit the referendum has only served to exacerbate the crisis and galvanise people like Pilar Gonzalez.

“Spain is not a real democracy,” she said.