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Catalonia: Explaining the independence referendum

The basic issues behind the push for Catalan independence

Spain’s Constitutional Court on Monday suspended the Catalonian independence referendum that had been scheduled for Nov. 9 to decide the future of the northeastern region. While the court's decision to agree to hear a legal challenge brought by Spain's government — which says the referendum is unconstitutional — automatically suspended the vote, local officials have vowed to press ahead with their independence efforts. The referendum is expected to include a two-part question, “Do you want Catalonia to become a state? If yes, do you want that state to be independent?” The vote would determine whether Catalonia maintains the status quo, forms a state but remains part of Spain or becomes completely independent. A final court ruling on the case could take years.

Here are the basic issues behind the Catalonian independence movement:

Why the push for independence?

Catalonia’s appeal for independence stems from a wide range of issues — the most notable of which are cultural and economic.

Catalans who support independence believe that the taxes residents pay to Spain’s central government are not commensurate with the benefits the region receives. That sentiment has been heightened by rising unemployment and debt resulting from the global financial crisis — especially as Madrid focuses on bolstering poorer regions of the country.

Identity politics also play a role in Catalonia’s push for independence. Residents speak Catalan, a language previously banned under the long dictatorial rule of Francisco Franco in the middle of the 20th century. They have invested great effort in protecting their language and culture, which have contributed to the creation of a strong national identity.

Is the independence referendum supported by Catalans?

Most Catalans favor holding a referendum, according to poll results released in March by the Center of Opinion Studies (COS), which is run by the Catalan government. But they are divided in their support for independence. An April COS poll indicated that 47 percent of the region’s population favored independence and 28 percent were against it.

However, the pro-independence numbers dipped when Catalans were informed that a Catalonian state would remain outside the European Union. A recent poll by Metroscopia showed that only 38 percent would vote for independence if that meant life outside the EU.

What does Spain think? 

Madrid opposes the independence referendum. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy recently said it “divides Catalans” and “alienates them from Europe and the rest of Spain.”

What’s more, the Spanish government says that holding a referendum would amount to a violation of Spain’s constitution and that any decision on national sovereignty issues requires the consultation and approval of the majority of Spaniards, not just a single region.

Given its ongoing economic recovery and unemployment woes, Spain would suffer a significant economic hit if Catalonia — which accounts for 20 percent of the country’s economy — were to become independent. “A separate Catalan state would devastate an already struggling Spain economically,” The New Republic wrote earlier this month. 

Similarities and differences with Scottish vote

Reports indicate that Scotland’s recent experience with holding an independence referendum and its close result have boosted hopes of those who favor Catalonia’s independence. 

While the Scottish referendum had the backing of the Westminster government, which agreed to accept the results regardless of the outcome, the Spanish constitution prohibits independence referendums. Catalonia adopted nation status in 2006, but Madrid’s Constitutional Court dismissed the effort.

Artur Mas, Catalonia’s regional president, recently said that Scotland still provided “a great lesson in democracy.” He has vowed to let Catalans vote on breaking with Spain.

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Catalonia, Spain

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