Financial Times

December 19, 2012 6:50 pm

Catalonia referendum set for 2014

By Tobias Buck in Madrid

Catalonia will hold an independence referendum in 2014, setting the Catalan leadership firmly on a collision course with Madrid.

The agreement to go ahead with a plebiscite – formally signed and presented to the regional parliament on Thursday – is a deal struck between Artur Mas, the Catalan president and leader of the centre-right Convergència i Unió party, and the leftwing separatist group Esquerra Republicana.

The Spanish government under Mariano Rajoy, the centre-right prime minister, is not only fiercely opposed to Catalan secession, but also argues that a referendum is forbidden by Spain’s constitution.

The two Catalan parties promised to hold a “dialogue and negotiations” with Madrid over the referendum issue early next year, but indicated they were ready to hold a plebiscite even without the support of the central government.

Mr Mas hailed the deal as a “call to hope” that would ensure a “future of freedom for Catalonia”. But he also warned of the political challenges ahead: “We will have many enemies, and many of them are very powerful and act without scruples.”

Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, Spain’s deputy prime minister, voiced sharp criticism of the deal, accusing Mr Mas of committing “mistake after mistake” and undermining the stability of Catalonia. “The referendum is illegal,” she said, adding that the central government had “many mechanisms to restrain any illegality”.

Under the terms of the accord, the CiU and Esquerra promise to complete all formal preparations for a referendum by December 31 2013, to prepare the ground for a plebiscite the following year.

The question they intend to put to Catalan voters is whether they want Catalonia to become “a state within the European framework” – a formulation that appears to skirt the controversial issue of whether Catalonia could remain a member of the EU after declaring independence.

The European Commission has suggested repeatedly that there cannot be automatic membership for possible breakaway states such as Scotland – also planning an independence referendum in 2014 – and Catalonia, which instead would have to reapply to join the Union and demonstrate that they are in compliance with the entire body of European law. Opponents of an independent Catalan state see this potential complication as a crucial argument against secession.

The deal between the two parties is no formal coalition agreement, as Esquerra Republicana will not join the cabinet, leaving Mr Mas to preside over a minority government.

Aside from their commitment to greater Catalan independence, the two parties share little common ideology. They were effectively pushed into an alliance by Catalan voters in last month’s regional election, which saw the CiU emerge once again as the strongest party in parliament. However, the party lost a fifth of its seats, forcing Mr Mas to seek support from other parties.