Financial Times

April 8, 2014 6:44 pm

MPs to stoke tensions with refusal of Catalan referendum request

By Tobias Buck in Madrid

The Spanish parliament has delivered the clearest signal yet that it will not tolerate any move by Catalonia towards regional independence, striking down a formal request by the region to hold a referendum this year on its status.

The Catalan appeal was rejected in a vote late on Tuesday by 299 members of parliament, or 86 per cent, with just 47 voting in favour.

Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister, declared during a heated debate before the vote that he could not allow an independence referendum because it violated the constitution of Spain.

“Spanish sovereignly resides with all Spaniards,” he said. “There is no regional sovereignty, or provincial sovereignty or local sovereignty.”

In a combative speech, Mr Rajoy attacked Catalan leaders for presenting an “idyllic” vision of an independent state that ignored economic realities. He warned that an independent Catalan state would be left outside the EU, the euro and all international treaties, with Catalans finding themselves deprived of EU subsidies and the right to free movement within the bloc. “What you are offering resembles Robinson Crusoe’s island,” he said.

The only option for Catalonia was to change the country’s constitution, the prime minister added.

Catalan leaders vowed to press ahead with a referendum – whether binding or not – regardless of Tuesday’s vote. Jordi Turull, a member of Catalonia’s ruling Convergéncia I Unió party, said a referendum was legally possible as long as there was political will in Spain. He told parliament: “The Catalan people have embarked on a path and there is no turning back.”

But his appeal was also rejected by Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the opposition, who recalled that his Socialist party had always offered staunch support for Catalan self-governance, Catalan culture and the Catalan language. Now, he said, the region was taking a step too far. “We are absolutely against a right to self-determination and independence for Catalonia,” Mr Pérez Rubalcaba said.

The speeches and projected vote made clear that the Catalan push for independence is running into a solid wall of opposition in the rest of the country, stretching from the ruling centre-right to the Socialists, and from the government and parliament to Spain’s constitutional court.

Under a plan presented by the Catalan regional government last year, the region would vote on its status on November 9 – only two months after Scotland’s independence referendum.

Just as in Scotland, Catalonia has seen a sharp rise in support for the creation of a new independent state. Unlike the UK government, however, Madrid has been adamant it will not allow Catalonia to secede or hold a referendum on independence, arguing that the constitution leaves no room for regional self-determination.

Under pressure from business leaders and other European governments, both sides have said repeatedly they are ready to hold talks but they remain sharply divided on what exactly negotiations should be about.

While Mr Rajoy and his advisers suggest they are ready to consider a further transfer of financial power to Barcelona, Catalan leaders want talks to pave a legal path towards holding a referendum on the region’s political future.

Parliament’s firm rejection of the Catalan application is unlikely to be viewed as the end of the road in Barcelona. Speaking before the vote on Tuesday, Catalan politicians insisted the regional parliament had the right to call a non-binding popular “consultation” even without the support of Madrid.

Francesc Homs, the spokesman for the Catalan government, said: “Today we are seeking collaboration. We would like to vote in collaboration with you. [But] if we don’t get it, we will vote all the same.”

Observers expect the parliament in Barcelona in the coming months to draw up its own legislation allowing a vote to go ahead – a move that will set the stage for a new legal clash in front of Spain’s constitutional court.

In a ruling released last month, the Madrid-based court made clear that no Spanish region had the right to self-determination – and left no doubt that it would strike down any attempt to hold a referendum on regional independence.