The heated debate over potential Catalan independence from Spain took a new turn Wednesday when the Catalan regional parliament approved a declaration alluding to sovereign rights.
It is not an outright statement of independence, but parliament’s declaration insists that the Catalan people, in northeast Spain around Barcelona, have the right to self-determination.
Over sharp opposition from the conservative Spanish government in Madrid, the Catalan parliament voted 85-41 for the declaration, with two abstentions. Five other regional members of parliament chose not to vote at all.
A key part of the declaration reads: “The people of Catalonia have – by reason of democratic legitimacy – the character of a sovereign political and legal entity.”
It vows that Catalonia will hold talks with the Spanish government, European institutions and the international community over the self-determination issue.
The vote – the latest in a series of actions pushing self-determination – comes during a tumultuous period in Catalan and Spanish politics, in the midst of Spain’s deep economic crisis, which some analysts say is what has brought the long-simmering independence issue to the forefront.
Last September 11, an estimated 1.5 million people – 20% of Catalonia’s population – filled the streets of Barcelona, the Catalan capital and Spain’s second-largest city, demanding independence.
But the Spanish government insists the Spanish constitution does not permit any one of Spain’s 17 regions to unilaterally break away.
Soon after, the ruling Catalan nationalist president, Artur Mas, called snap regional elections, two years early. His government had already enacted deep spending cuts trying to balance the regional books and had asked Madrid for $6 billion in emergency credit to pay its bills.
But the elections on November 25 did not go as Mas had planned. Instead of winning a broad majority for his Convergence and Union formation, he lost 12 of his 62 seats, while seeing a sharp rise of the Catalan Republican Left party.
While both of these parties favor independence, they differ on most other issues, especially economic policy.
The Republican Left eventually backed Mas to carry on as Catalan president but insisted on setting 2014 as the year to hold a self-determination referendum.
The date and year for such a referendum were not included in Wednesday’s parliamentary declaration, but many analysts see it as an attempt to keep the independence topic at the forefront.
Voting against the declaration were the regional members of parliament from the Spanish prime minister’s conservative Popular Party and most of the regional members from the Socialist party, which is the main opposition party at the national level.
Catalonia has its own flag and language, produces 19% of the nation’s wealth and argues that it sends far more in taxes to Madrid than it gets back in central government spending.
A survey last November by the Catalan government’s polling center showed 57% of Catalans would vote for independence, a 6 percentage-point increase from last June and a 14 percentage-point increase from mid-2011.