Financial Times – Europe: Stretched at the seams

Catalonia: Popular pressure for secession

A snap election in Catalonia on November 25 appears certain to produce re-election for Convergència i Unió, the ruling nationalist party. Whether this triggers a referendum on independence and leads to Spain’s break-up is an altogether different question.

Under Spain’s 1978 constitution, regions are permitted autonomy but have no legal right to full independence. Opinion polls indicate that about 80 per cent of Catalonia’s 7.5m people want a referendum, and that about half would vote in favour of secession. Support for a referendum is so overwhelming that some Catalan politicians warn of a serious confrontation if Madrid refuses to modify its view that such a vote would be illegal.

Significantly, however, Artur Mas, Catalonia’s CiU president, seems in no hurry to hold one. This month he suggested merely that it should take place “in the next four years”. If cool heads prevail on both sides, there should still be enough time for a compromise.

Underlining the limits on Mr Mas’s freedom of political manoeuvre, Catalonia – shut out of international debt markets – asked in August for €5bn in liquidity assistance from the Spanish state. The region might have to settle for an updated model of autonomy, perhaps involving more regional control over tax affairs as in the Basque Country.

According to the latest opinion polls, a deal along these lines would cause support for independence to drop by 10 percentage points to 43 per cent. What remains unclear is whether the Spanish right – now in power in Madrid, and historically associated with centralisation – would be pragmatic enough to strike a deal.

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