On 27 September, Catalan regional President Artur Mas signed a decree which called for a referendum on Catalan statehood. On 9 November the Catalans are scheduled to vote on whether to remain with Spain or to become an independent state. Though a vote on the Catalan independence question will be cast on the 9th, political and legal circumstances have altered the plan, content and implications of the original referendum.
Following two appeals submitted by the Spanish Government on 29 September, the Spanish Constitutional Court provisionally suspended both the Catalan Law on Popular Non-Referendum Consultations and Civil Participation and the Decree calling for the referendum. While the Court deliberates whether or not the Decree breach’s Spain’s Constitution, the Catalan President announced the withdrawal of plans to hold the independence referendum as initially conceived. This is seen as a tactical retreat to avoid defying the Constitutional Court’s authority.
Yet the issue is far from closed. On the same day that the regional leader acknowledged the impossibility of holding the referendum as initially planned, he called for an alternative consultation based on articles of the referred Catalan Law that have not been challenged so far. These articles, enshrined in chapter III of the Law under “citizen’s participatory processes”, would allow polls and surveys in which Catalan citizens can participate to express their opinion on matters of public interest (see chapter III on participative instruments in the Catalan Law on popular non-referendum consultations and civil participation). The competence of the Government of Catalonia to promote popular consultations and other forms of civil participation ultimately lies in article 122 of Catalonia’s regional Statute of Autonomy, which was passed in 2006.
This ‘alternative consultation’ will still be based on the questions that were agreed upon by the pro-referendum political parties (which account for ⅔ of the seats in the Catalan Parliament), namely: “Do you want Catalonia to be a State?” and if so, “Do you want this State to be independent?” And, as with the original consultation, this ballot will not be legally binding. What are the differences between the first and second poll plans? Even though the outcome of the originally planned referendum was not designed to be binding, it was meant to be conducted under the rules of a normal electoral process, hence having a much bigger impact in political terms. The new consultation, on the other hand, will collect votes in venues of the Catalan Government distributed across 942 municipalities. These municipalities will host the polling stations. In addition, there will be 19 polling stations distributed globally, allowing Catalan citizens living abroad to also take part in this consultation on the region’s political future. As for the participation criteria, all Catalan citizens and EU/EEA nationals (including Switzerland) or third-country nationals who are over 16 on the day of the vote will be eligible to participate in the consultation, provided that they can prove their residence in a Catalan municipality with their IDs.
In spite of the initial criticism of the decision to withdraw the originally planned referendum and replace it with a watered-down consultation -considered by some as a ‘face-saving’ exercise for the Catalan incumbent party (see article in EU Observer) – the new poll on 9 November could become the crucial foundation for more impactful electoral action in the future; this may be the ‘preparatory vote’ before the ‘definitive one’, as stated by the Catalan President. The ‘definitive’ vote could take place through the celebration of early regional elections that could act as a plebiscite on independence, and therefore serve as a ‘de facto referendum’ (see article by the Catalan News Agency for further information). This formula is backed by the two main civil society organisations behind the massive pro-independence demonstrations that took place in Catalonia in 2012, 2013 and 2014, which have recently called on the Catalan Government to hold plebiscite early elections in less than three months.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claims that a new chapter of dialogue has been opened with Catalonia after the region dropped its plans to hold the original independence referendum. But so far he seems unwilling to negotiate a new devolution deal for Catalonia, which contrasts greatly with British PM Cameron’s devo-max pledges to Scottish voters to persuade them to stay with the Union. Quite the opposite, Rajoy’s Government has yet again appealed against the alternative participatory process replacing the original consultation, which it considers to be a ‘pseudo-vote’.
The issue of Catalonia has been on the EU agenda for a number of months now, along with the Scottish case. Although a common EU stance on the consequences of a potentially independent Catalonia (especially as it regards EU membership) as not yet been reached – the Treaties being silent on such a scenario – both the outgoing and the incoming President of the European Commission have stated that accession would not be automatic. They assert that Catalonia should in any case re-apply for membership (see article in EurActiv). Whether Catalonia will secede or not from Spain, it remains to be seen. But should secession occur, it would create a precedent in the history of the EU’s integration process.
The vote for independence, reminiscent in many ways of Scotland’s 18 September referendum, has been halted and recreated. The political and legal framework applicable to the Catalan sovereignty process differs significantly from the Edinburgh Agreement between the UK and the Scottish Governments which established the conditions that allowed the Scottish independence referendum to occur.