Financial Times

September 9, 2014 5:41 pm

Mas looks to Scottish referendum as a springboard for Catalonia

By Tobias Buck and Roula Khalaf in BarcelonaAuthor alerts

A Yes vote in the Scottish referendum would boost Catalonia’s own independence campaign by paving the way towards international recognition and continued membership of the EU, the Catalan leader told the Financial Times.

In an interview in Barcelona, Artur Mas, president of the Spanish region that is seeking to hold its own independence referendum in November, said: “The first [factor] will be the reaction of European leaders. I am sure they will accept the result of the Scottish referendum. The second is that negotiations will start very quickly between Edinburgh, London and Brussels to keep Scotland within the EU. Both things are very important for Catalonia.”

His comments underline the potential fallout of Scotland’s independence campaign for the rest of Europe, and in particular for Spain and Catalonia.

The Spanish region has long looked to the Scottish referendum as a precedent for its own struggle with Madrid, and has urged the Spanish government to follow the UK example and allow a popular vote on the region’s political future. The Spanish government insists, however, that a Catalan independence referendum is illegal, and has vowed to use all its powers to prevent the November vote.

“There is no reaction in Madrid apart from saying ‘no’ to everything,” Mr Mas said. He contrasted the UK approach with that of the Spanish government, and accused Madrid of “putting democracy at risk”.

Asked about the economic cost of a Spanish break-up, the Catalan leader conceded that “any independence process has its cost”. But he stressed the region’s willingness to negotiate a smooth transition: “We understand we have to share a significant part of the Spanish debt. We also have to share a significant part of the Spanish assets . . . and pension burden.”

He acknowledged that markets had reacted negatively to the recent shift in the Scottish polls, but insisted that investors would quickly adjust to a Yes vote and the creation of an independent state: “Once independence is a reality, everybody in the economy accommodates to the new situation.”

This [a Catalan referendum] is not the whim of some leader in Catalonia. This is the popular sentiment, and political leaders have to try to channel it in the best possible way

- Artur Mas

The Spanish government has repeatedly warned that Catalonia would be the main loser of a break-up, claiming the region would find itself outside the EU and the single currency, as well other key international institutions.

But analysts say there is little doubt that a secession would also hurt Spain, depriving the country of a crucial economic engine: Catalonia accounts for almost a fifth of the Spanish economy, and has long served as a base for large foreign corporations and a key destination for foreign investment.

Mr Mas said he was “very determined” to push ahead with the November referendum, pointing out that Catalans were overwhelmingly in favour: “This is not the whim of some leader in Catalonia. This is the popular sentiment, and political leaders have to try to channel it in the best possible way.”

He acknowledged, however, that the Catalan move could run into opposition from Spain’s constitutional court, which is expected to rule on the legality of the planned vote in the coming weeks. Mr Mas is under fierce pressure from some of his allies and, more importantly, from a powerful civil society movement to hold the plebiscite regardless of the court’s decision.

The tensions leave Mr Mas facing a tricky decision in the run-up to the planned November vote as he balances domestic pressures against the reluctance to alienate international governments, especially in Europe. He said any referendum required “all the democratic guarantees” and needed to be seen as “fair” by the international community – suggesting that he has little appetite to lead the Catalan government into open defiance of Madrid.

Analysts predict Mr Mas may ultimately decide to call an early regional election instead of a referendum, in a bid to give Catalans the chance to air their support for independence by voting for pro-independence parties. The Catalan leader declined to be drawn on the issue, but said: “There are always other ways to vote. Our only plan is to vote.”

He insisted that politicians in Barcelona and Madrid needed to heed popular demands for some form of popular vote: “The Catalan issue is a democratic issue . . . Imagine the frustration if we do nothing.”