SPAIN: AT BREAKING POINT? A political and economic analysis for 2013 IBERIANS OF THE YEAR: The most influential people and groups of 2012


| Category: Politics, Featured | |

In Catalonia, the fringe is setting the agenda

The moderate nationalists who govern the northern region are being heavily influenced by pressure from pro-independence radicals who represent only a small section of the populace.


Who's leading the nationalist agenda? Photo: BarcelonaYa.

The last Catalan elections saw a shift both to the centre-right and to moderate nationalism, both embodied by Artur Mas’s Convergència i Unió (CiU). Although Mas didn’t win an absolute majority, as president of Catalonia he has been able to implement austerity measures, revise the existing legal corpus and get moving on his favourite issue of a new fiscal pact with Spain; all well within his mandate, the statutes of his parties and the legal framework.

However, there is another, key matter Mas might have lost control over, handing it to the radical fringe: Catalan identity and whether or not Catalonia will continue to be part of Spain. Mas has certainly sought to continue the nation-building his political godfather Jordi Pujol started in the 1980s and 90s. He has also made some thinly veiled threats in the direction of Madrid that his demands for a new fiscal pact better be met, or else. And he has also done some courting of his own party’s pro-independence youth movement.

Some expect that one day Mas will appear on the balcony of the Generalitat, Catalonia’s governing institution, to ape Lluís Companys, who in 1934 declared independence, thus defying a right-wing government in Madrid. Mas, too, could look south to a conservative administration in the capital after November’s general elections.

But even if Mas does ultimately go down this road, his control of the situation is undermined by the radical pro-independence fringe. Although they suffer from infighting, they are ideologically well-equipped and have shown an ability to coalesce around a common objective. Their main cause goes beyond the simple independence of Catalonia.

This fringe, which represents less than 20 percent of Catalans, ranges from nostalgics of the armed struggle predicated by Daniel Cardona in the 1920s to the ERC, encompassing SI and a range of other parties as well as civic organisations such as Sobirania i Progrés. Not only do they share the ambition of Catalan independence, but their statutes and manifestos also define Catalonia as all the territories historically inhabited by Catalan speakers, such as Valencia, the Balearic Islands and French Roussillon: a sort of “Greater Catalonia”, the so-called Catalan Lands.

An academic argument

It is this pan-Catalanism, rather than their small numbers, that today keeps them on the fringes of Catalan society. But a very powerful fringe it is. The force of the simplicity of ethnocentrist arguments should not be underestimated and this fringe could, at the right time, attract millions. The backing of certain academics, such as Ferran Requejo and Antoni Abat, boosts the movement’s appeal, especially when politicians have lost so much credibility. These academics’ arguments may be pure populism, but they have cachet to burn. It’s Plato perverted.

Mas’s weak position on this issue is plain to see. He might be leading Catalonia legally and institutionally, but in the present debate over independence he has been a mere follower, rushing to whatever position the pro-independence advocates have set up for him.

It was these organisations that conducted the series of unofficial, unbinding referendums on Catalan independence between 2009 and 2011, and in which Mas voted “yes”. It was also these organisations that held a poorly attended demonstration in favour of independence on July 9, and to whom Mas sent the message that, according to a poll cooked up by his very own Generalitat, 42.9 percent of Catalans want independence.

Mas’s mistaken strategy

Whether or not Mas will one day become the new Companys, or a more successful reincarnation of him, is not clear. But at the moment, it is the radical fringe that is setting the Catalan agenda. Mas might think that flirting with its ideas can help him to stay on top of the game. He might want to reconsider: the Catalan Socialists did something similar by buying into significant parts of Catalan nationalist ideology. They ultimately lost half of their electorate and had to give way to the real McCoys.

To really lead you need to present ideas of your own. Mas might be a valid administrator but, unlike Pujol, he has never been seen as either inspired or inspiring. When under pressure, Mas can go into attack dog mode, instead of holding his position with the self-assurance of someone who knows which way to go.

Likewise, when confronted with a political current that might cost him the leading role he treasures, Mas is not averse to shifting towards the perceived popular ground.

It is the radical fringe’s academics and politicians who have the ideas that dominate the airwaves and the op-eds. Under pressure from them, Mas’s options are being reduced. Soon the question will not be about whether he can offer an alternative to this fringe, but rather whether he is leading them or being led by them.

Two things are already clear. The first is: Mas has no mandate for either of the latter. The second is that any fringe needs an extraordinary situation to grow. Mas might be on the way to providing the Catalan nationalist fringe with such a situation, one way or the other.

Related stories:


Published: Aug 15 2011
Category: Politics, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL:
You can follow any responses to this entry via RSS 2.0
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

14 Comments for “In Catalonia, the fringe is setting the agenda”

  1. 1. A well known leadership expert has said, “if you follow your people, you can lead them anywhere.” By that definition, Mas is bravely & craftily waiting for a sufficient majority in favor of Catalan independence to coalesce.
    2. A more careful reading of the recent non-binding independence polls shows that support is growing among those who trace their family roots outside of Catalonia.
    3. Your arguments assume the best outcome is Catalonia remaining within Spain. Stripped of that bias, they have little merit.

    • ad 1. Everybody has seen that Mas can be patiently waiting for power. That he is also brave and crafty is indeed not part of my text, for some reason or the other.

      ad 2. I am entirely unable to read the referendum that carefully.

      ad 3. Not guilty, your Honour. I still haven’t even made up my mind what would be the best outcome. And I have no subconscious on these things.

    • Too used to senseless quotes I just jumped yours, which anyway is no real quote, not only because it’s not sourced, especially because if it were so important, I’m quite sure it would show up on Google.

      The whole lack of sense of quoting anonymously while still trying to awe the reader with the expert-effect might become clear when I say that I think you were paraphrasing Goebbels. Then why not use the better: “Nun, Volk, steh auf, und Sturm, brich los!”

  2. Candide calls those wanting independence a “fringe” and says they represent less than 20% of those in Catalunya. That’s wrong. The latest Baròmetre d’Opinió Política shows that 42.9% of Catalans would vote for independence, 28.2% would vote against, and 23.3% wouldn’t vote.

    Now it’s true that if there was an option for Catalunya to be part of a federal Spain, more (33.0%) would choose that option than either independence (25.5%) or remaining an autonomous community (31.8%). So it’s up to Spain whether it wants to offer it or not. But at a minimum it would have to include the same kind of fiscal arrangements that the four Basque provinces have with Spain (i.e that they collect all taxes themselves and only give Spain a negotiated sum to pay for the few services provided centrally by Madrid, plus a degree of “equalization”or “solidarity” funding to help support poorer parts of Spain) which is Artur Mas’s immediate aim. However, as I read the situation, Spain is in no mood to do that and it could only happen in the event of CiU holding the balance of power in Madrid after the election in November.

    If Spain refuses to allow Catalunya that sort of fiscal arrangement, then federalism will clearly be out of the question and independence will be the only way forward.

    • Please understand that if you misquote the text I have to answer: I call them “fringe” because one central political aim of their’s is not shared by a very large majority of Catalans. And I did refer to the 42.9% you mention again. And the “fringe” and those 42.9% are not identical groups, far from it.

      The large rest of your comment I do find interesting.

  3. Yes, you did mention the poll, Candide. But you called it something “cooked up” and I wanted to show people reading this that it was a perfectly proper question, asked as part of the regular survey of public opinion conducted by the CEO every three months.

    I also wanted to show that those who would vote for independence outnumber those who would vote to remain part of Spain by 42.9% to 28.2%. That would easily be enough to win a referendum.

    As for the other Catalan Countries, surely it’s up to people who live there to decide whether they want to remain part of Spain (or France) or become independent. Of course there are people and parties in Catalunya who would love to see those territories break away too, but the independence movements there are a long way behind and I don’t think anyone who wants independence for Catalunya will wait for them to catch up. Instead, they’ll hope that a successful, independent Catalunya will encourage people in these other territories to want independence in their turn … and if you believe in democracy and the right of people to decide for themselves how they are governed, that’s nothing to be afraid of.

    • A totally valid question per se, yes. However, there’s something fishy when the office which did the survey (Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, or CEO) had just been put under direct control of the Department of the Presidency of Catalonia and a well known pro-independence activist had been chosen to head it, Jordi Argelaguet (ex-MDT, ex-ERC, now CDC), who is also a Political Sciences professor like Ferran Requejo, see above.

      So we are talking here about anything else but an independent survey.

      I do basically agree with your last paragraph, but your conclusion is naive. The people do not decide, they majority does. Ferran Requejo himself has criticised the “tyranny of the majority” in

      As usual, that’s a superficial and biased text, and there’s a lot to say about the majority vs minority question, especially when we talk about the internal organisation of a state.

      Much more straightforward is the conclusion your very own words demand, which is that if the fringe has its way the new Catalan state would right from its birth have territorial claims over its new neighbours. Or that’s what especially Spain and France, but potentially also Andorra and Italy would have to assume.

  4. I’m glad you realize it’s a valid question, Candide. I too had noticed it was new; and obviously welcome, as it’s important to accurately measure public opinion on something that has now become one of the main political issues in Catalunya.

    As for naïvety, what else did you think I could possibly mean other than that a democratic majority would decide? You do seem to jump to very strange conclusions, and your idea that anything I’ve said supports a “territorial claim” over the other Catalan Countries is another of them. Everyone else who reads what I said can see for themselves that I made precisely the opposite point: that it was up to people in those other territories to decide how they want to be governed.

  5. Oh, you’re perfectly right. But where is the difference between encouraging (passively? actively?) and staking a claim? Most probably it’s a matter of perception; which is what I wanted to indicate with my last sentence about what Spain, France etc. “would have to assume”. Presently, we have a conflict between some in Catalonia and others in Valencia that seems to be based just on that problem of diverging perceptions.

    Now, I’m pretty aware that Catalans have a good (con-)federative tradition. But take Sobirania i Progrés and you find that they talk of the Catalan Lands, not of Catalonia.

    Take the people of the Catalan National Assembly, who even maintain that the Catalan Parliament’s definition of Catalonia as a nation has to be understood as “jointly with the other Catalan Lands”.

    And if I may quote ERC: “achieving independence for the Catalan Lands (…) constitutes an non-renounceable objective.”

    BTW, I have dared to mis-quote you in a way I hope just extended one argument of yours to all details of the issue, and here especially to that of a referendum. If you feel that this is unfair, tell me and I’ll take the necessary steps.

  6. The difference is obvious, Candide. “Staking a claim” is about the right to something that is not currently yours. The people of Catalunya (i.e. the current autonomous community) have no right to decide what happens in other territories. That right belongs to the people who live in those territories.

    Of course people can use encouragement, debate, argument and probably a hundred other means of trying to persuade people in those territories to do one thing or the other … but the decision should always lie entirely with the people of that territory.

    As for misquoting me on your blog, don’t expect me to join in or give any sort of credibility to it. If you want a discussion with me, you must deal with what I say, not with a misquoted version of it. I’ve looked at it, and the language you use in some of your posts shows me that you aren’t really interested in constructive debate, but in foul-mouthing everybody and everything you disagree with.

    So this will be my closing contribution. You seem to be in a state of denial about something which is obvious: that a very significant part of the population of Catalunya want independence from Spain. If you don’t accept this poll, then look at the fairly similar result from a poll conducted for El Periódico in June 2010, which showed 48.1% would vote in favour of independence with 35.3% against. I talked about it here:


    Polls like these are only snapshots of public opinion, and I don’t know whether a binding referendum would be won or lost; but when opinion polls show margins of 12.8% and 14.7% in favour of independence for Catalunya, I certainly think that a referendum to decide the issue should be held. You talk about freedom, but the simple truth is that Spain has consistently denied both Catalunya and Euskadi the democratic freedom to hold such referendums.

    The only reasonable conclusion is that Spain is afraid of letting Catalans decide their future for themselves.

  7. Please, before writing something for poblic audience , document yourself!
    Independentists a small number? You know nothing about it!

    • There are secessionists left, right and centre, but the hard-core fringe, those who want immediate independence (of Catalonia proper and ultimately of all Catalan Lands), are far smaller in numbers.

      I guess elections are worth for something. The results of the last regional elections as to the fringe parties:

      ERC 7.00%, SI 3.28%, 1.28%. That makes a total of 11.56%. I’ve left out some splinter groups and shady PxC (with 2.42%). Factoring in the so-called civil society through its unofficial referendum we get to somewhere around 20%.

      Please do let me know if I missed anything.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Recently Commented

  • Tim: From my point of view, girls working in a brothel are not forced,...
  • tom scott: sorry, but after having known someone for only one evening you...
  • tom scott: really stupid article! of course there are other options! the fact...
  • Matt: I am English and my girlfriend is from Madrid. My girlfriend’s ex...
  • betty: I hope that these comments will be read by new afa press applicants....