Catalans Vote on Secession as World Leaders Warn on Risks

  • Obama, Merkel, Cameron urge Catalans to stay with Spain
  • Secession would threaten bond markets, industrial ties to EU

Catalans head to the polls on Sunday to decide whether to try and create a new European state with the international community telling them they could be making a costly mistake.

While Catalans are officially choosing lawmakers for the 135-seat regional assembly, their president, Artur Mas, has formed a pro-independence alliance with his traditional rivals within the separatist camp in a bid to win a clear mandate for breaking away from Spain.

Supporters of Catalan independence attend a rally ahead of the vote in Barcelona, on Sept. 25.
Supporters of Catalan independence attend a rally ahead of the vote in Barcelona, on Sept. 25.
Photographer: Pau Barrena/Bloomberg

The legal barriers to a breakaway remain high, but many Catalans are determined to push forward regardless. The campaign risks seeing their region excluded from the European Union and its single currency, roiling the market for Spain’s 1 trillion euros ($1.1 trillion) of sovereign debt and wrenching the industrial links that tie Catalan manufacturers to clients and supplies across the continent.

“It’s an issue of growing concern,” said Thomas Bernd Stehling, a director at the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation, a not-for-profit organization linked to Germany’s ruling party. “There is a need for dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona, and we are concerned that for whatever reason this dialogue is not the priority it should be.”

Falling Short

A poll published by Cadena Ser radio station on Monday showed Mas’s alliance, known as Junts pel Si, is set to win as many as 65 seats, three short of a majority. The anti-capitalist group CUP, which supports independence but refused to join Junts, was projected to win at least nine seats.

More than 5.5 million Catalans are eligible to vote, according to Catalan government data, and polls will open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Catalan challenge comes as Spain is recovering from its worst recession in a generation and is battling to stabilize its public debt, which is close to 100 percent of its annual output. Catalonia, which accounts for almost 20 percent of the country’s economy, is a net contributor to Spain’s tax system, helping to finance poorer territories such as Andalusia.

Secession Planning

Mas and his main separatist ally Oriol Junqueras want to use a majority in the regional assembly to force central-government officials in Madrid to the negotiating table with a view to completing secession within 18 months.

On Friday, Junqueras said that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his People’s Party colleagues have played into the separatists’ hands, antagonizing voters with their hardline rhetoric and raising the profile of their demands by discussing them with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The help that the PP and most of the Spanish parties have given us is immeasurable,” Junqueras said at a news conference.

Rajoy says that granting Catalans a formal vote on independence would be unconstitutional. Last year he blocked Mas’s attempts to hold a non-binding referendum with an appeal to the country’s highest court.

The international community has lined up to oppose Mas’s plans.

President Barack Obama said the U.S. wants to work with a “strong and unified Spain,” while Merkel, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker all warned that Catalonia faced exclusion from the EU if it pushed ahead with independence.

Closing Rallies

Rajoy threw his support behind conservative candidate Xavier Garcia-Albiol as
the People’s Party of Catalonia wrapped up its campaign in Barcelona Friday
night. Rajoy urged Catalans to vote on Sunday, arguing that there is a silent
majority that wants to remain in the kingdom.

Turnout will be the key in the vote, with union parties betting that while pro-independence voters mobilize in great numbers, many Catalans that want to stay in have dodged the debate until now.

”You need to vote to put an end to this mess,” Rajoy said. ”They want you to
stay at home, like this has nothing to do with you, but it has a lot to do with you. If you stay quiet, they’ll win. You’re just as Catalan as they are.”

Rajoy’s comments were echoed by Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president who also attended the event in Barcelona. He said Europe needs a “strong, united” Spain and criticized the “weak” who want to separate and divide.

Across Barcelona, Junts pel Si celebrated the vote an historic opportunity to finally break free.

“This vote will bring economic prosperity, social justice, solidarity,
hope, dignity and freedom,” Mas told the crowd Friday night. Organizers say 70,000 people attended the event.

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