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  By Mark McNaught

In March of this year, delegates from Diplocat (Council of Public Diplomacy of Catalonia) attended the Constitutional Commission’s conference in Paris on a written Scottish constitution.  They appear to have drawn inspiration from it: on June 7 they held the first in a series of academic conferences at Sciences-Po Paris to explain Catalonian independence to a broader audience.

Entitled ‘The Law in Service of Peoples: The Right for Catalonia to Decide’, the conference was composed of jurists, philosophers, Catalonian MEPs, and delegates. Catalans made a strong case for the legality of a referendum, and passionately explained their reasons for seeking independence.

Called after a massive demonstration in Barcelona on September 12, 2012, the most recent election to the Catalonian Parliament gave their independence movement a strong mandate: 105 of 135 delegates now in power are committed to holding an independence referendum.

Catalans are truly envious of what Scotland will have: a legally binding referendum in which both sides promise to accept the results. The Spanish government refuses to even countenance the legality of a referendum, and uses all legal means at its disposal to delegitimize Catalonian independence. In contrast to Scots, Catalans are not legally recognized by the Spanish government as having the right to self-determination, thereby lacking the recognition they so justly desire. Catalans hold David Cameron in high esteem for recognizing the right of Scots to decide their constitutional future.

On the other hand, Scots do not yet have what Catalans have: overwhelming popular support for independence. Polls show at least 60% would vote ‘yes’ in a referendum, thus making  independence a foregone conclusion when the referendum is held.

Despite total opposition from Madrid, Catalans are ploughing ahead with plans for a referendum, and will likely hold it at or near the same time as the Scottish referendum. September 11 commemorates the day in 1714 when Catalonia fell to the Bourbons. How appropriate it would be for Catalans to vote for independence on its 300th anniversary. Scotland and Catalonia can compete to see who recognizes the other first as an independent country.

Catalonia has a darker history under Spain than Scotland within the UK. Franco called the Catalans his ‘Polish’, in reference to Hitler’s treatment of Poland, and acted accordingly. They are still treated with racist contempt by many in the Madrid government. This helps explain the overwhelming support among Catalans for independence, whereas in Scotland relations with the rest of the UK have been much friendlier and independence can seem less existentially threatening.  

Catalonian independence will therefore come about in a much harsher political climate than that of Scotland. Whatever turbulence the Scottish independence campaign is experiencing, it pales in comparison to what Catalans must deal with.  I have it on good authority that the Spanish government has weighed the cost of military occupation of Catalonia if they vote for independence, and simply don’t have the funds. Scots should recognize how civil and peaceful their independence debate is by comparison, and be grateful.

The desire for independence was expressed in a myriad of ways, and for many reasons. The Catalan Parliament actually has more powers than its Holyrood counterpart, but they have little power over taxation to fund and implement their policies. By withholding funds under the guise of austerity, Madrid is able to severely constrain the Catalan Parliament.

Another longstanding grievance has been the lack of action by the Spanish government on the Mediterranean rail corridor, which would make Barcelona an even more important port of entry for goods, especially from North Africa and Asia. Construction would bring enormous economic benefits, yet some in the Spanish government have threatened to re-route the corridor to avoid Barcelona, if they ever get around to building it.

But perhaps the most succinct formulation was that Catalans are tired of being an ‘arm’ of the Spanish state. They want to have their own body politic.

What is inspiring for Scots is to see the Catalans, despite centuries of often brutal Spanish rule, slowly gaining self confidence and asserting their right to self-determination. Catalans are united with Scots in their desire for recognition of their own sovereign state, which will find its place among the often dysfunctional family of nations.

Above all, this conference shows that Scotland will not walk alone in its quest for independence.


Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.

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