Catalans vote in the European elections with self-determination and budget cuts in their minds

The 2014 European parliamentary elections are likely to become a milestone for Catalan people for three main reasons, which taken together send a strong message to the international community, the EU institutions and Member State governments, including that of Spain. Firstly, political parties and civil society organisations supporting self-determination have called citizens to vote in these elections as a way to push for a referendum on independence to take place on the 9th of November of this year. This may significantly increase turnout from the low 36.94% registered in 2009. Secondly, the two main self-determination parties are likely to be the most voted parties in Catalonia. In addition, the Left-Wing Independence Party (ERC) may go from 4th place in the 2009 poll to 1st place this time around. Thirdly, support for the two main parties behind the EU austerity measures that turned into drastic budget cuts in southern Europe – the People’s Party and the Socialist Party – is likely to plummet in Catalonia.

CiU's final campaign rally (by ACN)
CiU's final campaign rally (by ACN) / ACN


May 23, 2014 11:15 PM

Barcelona (ACN).- The 2014 European parliamentary elections are likely to become a milestone for Catalan people mostly for three main reasons, which taken together may send a strong message to the international community, the EU institutions and the Member State governments, including that of Spain. Firstly, political parties and civil society organisations supporting self-determination have called citizens to go to vote in these elections as a way to push for a referendum on independence to take place on the 9th of November next, the day agreed upon by the majority of the Catalan Parliament. If citizens are mobilised and significantly increase the low 36.94% turnout registered in 2009, this should be interpreted as support for a democratic vote on self-determination and proof of the pro-European will of the majority of Catalans, with EU membership for an independent Catalonia in mind. This message will be even clearer if abstention grows in the rest of Spain and across the EU. Secondly, the two main self-determination parties are likely to become the first and second most voted parties in Catalonia, in elections that have, apart from in 1994, always been won by the Catalan Socialist Party (PSC). As well as this, the Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC), which in the 2012 Catalan Parliament elections already became for the first time the second most voted party, might now move from 4th place in 2009 to 1st place in this Sunday's vote to elect a new European Parliament. Thirdly, support for the two main parties behind the EU’s strict austerity measures that turned into drastic budget cuts in southern Europe - the People’s Party (PP) and the Socialists – is likely to plummet in Catalonia and may result in their worst outcome ever. Therefore, if the forecasts are correct, Catalans would be sending three main messages: they support European Union integration; they want to hold a vote on self-determination; and they are critical of the austerity plans approved by the Troika. These have been the axes around which the two weeks electoral campaign has turned.

In the middle of the independence debate and the right to hold a vote on self-determination, a debate which has been significantly ever-present in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain over the past few months, the campaign for the European Parliament elections has not been an exception to this debate and the issue has been one of the main topics of discussion. Parties supporting independence and those supporting self-determination have spoken about it at almost every public event. However, the parties against self-determination and independence, which also criticise those in support of these ideas for constantly speaking about them, have also referred to these issues at almost every public opportunity. Indeed, the topic is definitely linked to the European Union, since a Member State government – Spain – is blocking a democratic vote by ignoring the peaceful demands of EU citizens from a cultural and linguistic minority whom come from a stateless nation at the core of Europe, Catalonia. In fact, this case speaks directly to the EU founding values based on democracy, peace, diversity and plurality, as well as to an EU close to its citizens and their will. However, it also speaks to the EU as a union of States, run by inter-governmental decisions and where the territorial integrity and constitutional frameworks of Member States are to be respected. Therefore, the case of Catalonia presents a true dilemma for the EU, where the membership of a hypothetical Catalan independent state is at stake.

EU institutions have fuelled the independence debate in the campaign

It must be also noted that EU institutions and candidates have also played an important role in putting this topic at the centre of the debate during the past few months and during the campaign. The EU membership of an hypothetical independent Catalonia has become the decisive argument that could stop the growth of independence support. The European Commission has sent contradictory messages in the past two years regarding the independence of Catalonia and Scotland, their right to hold a vote on self-determination and their potential EU Membership. Two years ago, Commissioners Joaquín Almunia and Viviane Reding stated respectively that “it would be dishonest” to say that an independent Catalonia would be automatically excluded from the EU and that the Treaties do not say anything about expelling a region that secedes from a Member State. However, after strong complaints and pressure from the Spanish Government, they firstly retracted what they had said and a year later stated the contrary. In addition, the Commission started off saying that Catalonia’s self-determination was an internal matter for Spain to address, but a few months later began to repeat the “general principle” that a part seceding from a Member State would no longer be part of the EU effective the day of its independence, although it also left room for nuances. The Commission was saying this and at the same time also insisting it wanted to remain neutral and not interfere in an internal matter, knowing that EU membership had become the main argument against independence. Meanwhile, it was repeating the expulsion thesis without mentioning possible political negotiations and transitory arrangements and without a legal argument to support its thesis.

In fact, several EU experts have stated that an automatic expulsion would be a political decision rather than a legal one, and therefore accepting Catalonia as a new Member State would also be a political decision. On top of this, despite EU Treaties not being clear on this issue, the European Commission President, José Manuel Durao Barroso, and the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy – both famous for following the instructions of Member State governments – have openly taken sides and explicitly stated they are against both Catalan and Scottish independence, and repeated that they would be excluded from the EU. The European Commission had to correct its own President the day after those statements, saying that Barroso's statements were not accurate. Therefore, EU institutions, by siding with the Spanish Government and not supporting Catalonia’s right to self-determination, have taken sides on the issue, thereby making independence an EU topic.

Commission candidates were asked about Catalonia’s independence

The candidates aiming to head the European Commission – one of the great novelties of these elections, since for the first time each political party has named them beforehand – were asked about Catalan and Scottish independence and their potential membership of the EU in the first and only television debate between them. This proved, once again, that despite the statement of Barroso and Van Rompuy, the issue is far from clear. Juncker (People's Party) and Schulz (Socialist) called for respect for constitutional frameworks and insisted that Scotland and Catalonia are internal matters for the UK and Spain. Verhofstadt (Liberals) emphasised that the EU has to listen to the citizens and that it cannot intervene in a negative way, as it has done regarding this issue so far. Keller (Greens) promised that if Scots and Catalans vote for independence, she will work for an automatic membership. Tsipras (Alternative Left) recognised the right to self-determination but suggested greater autonomy within their respective countries as the best solution for Catalonia and Scotland.

Independence was present in the campaign since the 9th November is fast approaching

Furthermore, there are internal reasons for having self-determination and independence at the centre of the campaign. The 9th of November is fast approaching and the Spanish Government continues with its no-to-everything attitude of the past two years. On this day, Catalans are supposed to hold a self-determination vote, as agreed by a two-thirds majority of the Catalan Parliament following the electoral mandate of the 2012 elections. However, the Spanish establishment is totally opposed to such a vote and is blocking it, calling it illegal. Catalan Constitutional experts identified up to five legal ways to hold the vote, but the Spanish Government and Parliament are so far ignoring or rejecting these ways. In this situation, the EU institutions and the international community are seen as a potential referee of the process.

Self-determination parties and organisations call for increased turnout

The parties supporting self-determination and the civil society organisations behind Catalonia’s independence process have asked citizens to participate in these elections in order to send Europe a message. The Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the organisation behind the massive 2012 and 2013 independence demonstrations which, according to police estimates, were each attended by more than 1.5 million people, last week called for supporters to vote for the three parties supporting the 9th of November consultation vote: the Centre-Right Pro-Catalan State Coalition (CiU) – which runs the Catalan Government, the Left-Wing Catalan Independence Party (ERC) and the Catalan Green Socialist and former Communist Coalition (ICV-EUiA). The ANC did not ask voters to support the fourth party supporting self-determination (CUP), as they are not running in the European elections. A strong turnout in the European elections would pave the way towards the independence referendum and tell the EU institutions that Catalans want to vote, stay true to democratic principles, and remain within the EU.

CiU is asking for wide support in order not to weaken the Catalan President

The CiU is Catalonia’s largest political force at the moment, but it lost support in the last Catalan Parliament elections in 2012 because of the budget cuts approved while running the Catalan Government. Back then it went from 62 to 50 MPs and media from Madrid interpreted this as a voter backlash for having supported the self-determination process. Many concluded that the leadership of the President of the Catalan Government and CiU ‘number 1’, Artur Mas, had been weakened. However, support for self-determination globally increase, as citizens voted other parties beyond the CiU, such as the ERC and the CUP. Now, the European elections are the next ones after that loss and polls indicate that the ERC could overtake the CiU as the most popular party. The CiU – which is running together with the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) – has as their main candidate the current MEP Ramon Tremosa, whom will certainly be re-elected. Tremosa, an economics professor, has participated in many fiscal debates at the European Parliament, and has also vindicated the need for austerity policies in order to have sustainable budgets rather than pay for the Welfare State. He has been a staunch defender of the European banking union. In the second week of the campaign, the Catalan President Artur Mas increased his presence, insisting on the need to support those leading the self-determination process and taking responsibility running the Catalan Government.

The ERC might have a second MEP

The ERC is running a new candidate, Josep-Maria Terricabras, a veteran philosophy professor and member of PEN international. Polling surveys show they have a chance to become the most voted party in Catalonia, profiting from a high degree of mobilisation of pro-independence voters. It would be the first time that the ERC wins an elections since the 1930s. They have mostly focused their speeches on Catalonia’s right to hold a self-determination vote and say that they will work to have EU institutions to back such a right. They have also proposed to create an agency to re-industrialise Europe, funded with money from the European Investment Bank. In these elections they are partnering with the smaller, new party Nova Esquerra Catalan (New Catalan Left), founded by the former central PSC figure Ernest Maragall. Maragall quit the PSC as he disagreed with the way the Socialists were dealing with Catalonia’s self-determination claims and because he felt they were overly-dependant on the PSOE, which totally opposes self-determination. Now, Maragall is running as the ERC’s ‘number 2’ and might be elected. He is the brother of former Catalan President Pasqual Maragall, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and also quit the PSC back in 2007. One of the campaign’s notable anecdotes occurred when the former President attended one of his brother’s electoral rallies and Spanish nationalists and some PSC members hugely criticised the ERC for “using Alzheimer’s patients”. The day after, Pasqual Maragall’s wife explained that the former President had only expressed his wish to attend his brother's rally on the same day of the event and that the ERC had in no way pressured him to attend. In fact, when President Maragall arrived at the rally, those in attendance gave him a loud and long round of applause.

The ICV-EUiA offers a dual vote: for self-determination and against austerity

The ICV-EUiA is also running a new candidate, replacing the well-known Raül Romeva, one of the most active Members of the European Parliament over the past 10 years. Ernest Urtasun is now leading the ICV-EUiA list, which is running at Spanish level with Izquierda Unida. The ICV-EUiA neither supports nor opposes independence, since they first focus on the right to hold a self-determination vote, which they strongly defend. In fact, the Green’s main candidate at European level, the German Ska Keller, has been the most ardent supporter of Catalonia’s self-determination process and its EU membership in the event of independence. Urtasun has also played this card but has also tended to focus his speeches on the Troika and the austerity measures imposed on citizens. He insisted on the need to change these policies, whilst also criticising the Socialists (PSC/PSOE) for having supported the People’s Party when approving the austerity measures and the strict bailout conditions. He insisted on the need “to punish” those responsible for the austerity measures, namely the PP, the PSC/PSOE and the CiU.

The PSC is embracing Martin Schulz

The Catalan Socialists are going through a very low point, having gotten their worst results ever in the last elections for the Catalan Parliament and with many people abandoning the party, which risks splitting up since members supporting self-determination completely disagree with the current leadership and its obedience to the Madrid-based PSOE. In this situation, the PSC could not avoid the self-determination debate. The PSOE’s ‘number 2’, Ramon Jauregui, has given details of the broad Constitutional Reform his party proposes, which is intended to shape a truly federal Spain where Catalonia would not have its right of self-determination recognised, nor its nationhood status. However, Catalans would have a better fiscal deal and their powers of self-government would be respected. Jauregui proposed to have Spanish elections by the end of 2015 to write this new Constitution. This proposal seems too weak, too late to arrive, to be implemented even later, and to be unfeasible due to a lack of support from the PP. This Constitutional Reform is the so-called 'third way', one between the current status quo and independence; the option preferred by the EU institutions and the international community. This, however, seems totally insufficient for many Catalans and too much for Spanish nationalists. In this scenario, the PSC’s main moment was the rally in Barcelona with Martin Schulz, the Social-Democrat candidate bidding to head the Commission, and with Manuel Valls, France’s new Prime Minister, born in Barcelona and a Catalan speaker. The PSC is also running a new candidate, Javi López, replacing Maria Badia and the veteran Raimon Obiols. López insists that he represents the most useful vote to stop the conservative Juncker from heading the Commission by electing Schulz instead.

The PP is insisting on its threats against independence and the economic recovery

The People’s Party (PP) – which runs the Spanish Government – has put forward the MEP Santiago Fisas as their main Catalan candidate. Fisas has highlighted the positive economic figures of the last few months in order to present the PP and the Government chaired by PM Mariano Rajoy as those responsible for the incipient economic recovery. However, the PP – which holds an absolute majority in the Spanish Parliament – is also constantly taking about Catalonia’s independence. The PP is not trying to seduce Catalans by listening to part of their claims and offering a better deal, for instance regarding fiscal matters or the respect for Catalan language and culture. Instead, the PP has employed omnipresent language focusing on threats, where being out of the EU and becoming “Somaliland”, “Abkhazia”, or “Kosovo”, with a huge drop in wealth and a dramatic increase in poverty, are put to the fore as their main arguments against Catalonia’s independence. Moreover, the PP has a great interest in talking about Catalonia’s independence, since this way it can avoid talking about austerity, budget cuts and unemployment.

Spanish nationalists continuously talk about Catalonia’s independence

The elections to the European Parliament have only a single constituency for Spain in its entirety. This time small Spanish nationalist parties such as UPyD, Ciutadans (C’s) and Vox are competing with the PP and the Spanish nationalist voters of the Socialist Party (PSOE). Therefore, in this campaign, the PP has stressed its nationalistic speech, with its opposition to Catalonia’s independence being its main argument. For example, in one of Vox’s meetings during the campaign, candidates onstage tore up fake ballot slips of a hypothetical Catalan referendum. Vox, which has far-right supporters behind, has as its main candidate the former PP member and MEP Alejo Vidal-Qaudras, famous for his vehement opposition to Catalan nationalism. UPyD denies being Spanish nationalists, although their speech constantly betrays them. They insist on the need to put the citizen at the centre of all EU policies. A similar speech is shared by C’s, which is running in the European Elections for the first time and has lawyer and TV star Javier Nart as their main candidate.

Using hate as an electoral weapon

The People’s Party has accused supporters of Catalan independence of “creating tension” and “hate”, despite the self-determination movement in Catalonia being entirely peaceful. The PP has been insisting on this for some months already, in a clear strategy to link Catalan independence and violence. For instance, it has compared Catalan democratic and peaceful claims for independence with the activities of the terrorist group ETA, which tried to gain the independence of the Basque Country by murdering people in cold blood. It has also used an incident concerning the car carrying the Spanish Finance Minister, Cristóbal Montoro, to say that violence and hate are tearing Catalan society apart and those defending the unity of Spain are being oppressed. Montoro’s car was hit by protesters this last Wednesday when he was leaving a campaign event in Vilanova i la Geltrú, a coastal city in central Catalonia. The Catalan Home Affairs Minister, Ramon Espadaler and the main police trade unions in Catalonia confirmed that Montoro’s security ignored the instructions of the Catalan Police and decided not to wait for back-up, which was only two minutes away. Montoro’s security detail decided to leave the area using another exit, disregarding the Catalan Police’s instructions. A group of some 30 protesters, a mix of anarchists, pro-independence supporters and people from the home eviction platform, surrounded the car, hit it and insulted the Spanish Finance Minister. Nobody was injured and the car left within a few seconds. The PP and the Spanish Government linked this event to Catalonia’s independence, despite many people protesting unemployment or the bank repossessing their home. Two weeks ago, in León, in northwest Spain, a leading member of the PP was shot dead by other PP members apparently for personal revenge. In addition, last year, in Burgos, in the centre of Spain, an entire neighbourhood was engulfed in riots for a few days because people were protesting against austerity measures, high unemployment and home evictions. However, the PP only speaks of “hate” when it refers to Catalonia and immediately link it to independence, with many Madrid-based and Spanish nationalist media repeating these arguments. Unfortunately, this campaign will also be remembered for these events and this strategy.