Last week was not a good one for Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. First there was the train disaster in his native Galicia and second he has been ducking and diving over his involvement in the Barcenas corruption scandal. Then to make matter worse a letter was placed on his desk.
After months of speculation over the independence referendum in Cataluña, which Rajoy’s Government bitterly opposes,the region’s bid for self-determination is now formally on the table.
The Catalan president Artur Mas has written to Rajoy seeking to open the negotiations on an accord that would see Cataluña hold its referendum. Of course Rajoy knows well enough what Mas plans but it is only now it has been put in writing. That being the case Madrid will now have to make a formal response.
The scenario threatens to put the Spanish State in direct conflict with the Catalan Parliament whose MPs have voted by a majority to hold a referendum on independence. Indeed it was the central issue in the recent Cataluña general election with voters giving the go-ahead.
Although Cataluña has always had ambitions to be independent the current crisis started after a breakdown of talks between the Spanish and Catalan governments over a fiscal pact last autumn. As a result Mas now has a mandate to call the referendum as soon as possible.
Mas has called for immediate talks with the Spanish Government to open a dialogue and to negotiate an accord by which the people of Cataluña can celebrate the referendum as soon as possible with all the marks of legality.
Mas in his letter talks of the coming referendum in the UK which will see the people of Scotland asked whether they wish to remain in the Union or not. The Catalan leader sees distinct similarities between the two cases and of course in the UK the referendum process has been allowed by the British Government.
A number of other countries have also followed this path including some in the EU. Mas has called for the Catalan problem to be solved in the same way by the democratic will of the people in a legally binding referendum.
All of this helps Gibraltar in a number of ways. First with the Catalans in open conflict with Madrid and a referendum held either legally, or more likely illegally, then the Spanish Government’s eyes will swivel east rather than south. Second other Spanish regions are likely to be emboldened by the Catalans to seek new relationships of their own with the State be they full independence or fuller autonomy. In other words we will start to see the disintegration of the Spanish State. Third, if the Spanish State is breaking up – with its components seeking the same rights and status as Gibraltarians – then Madrid also loses any pretence to a right to sovereignty over us.
What is currently a battle of views and words could soon ignite in to something more akin to what is being witnessed in Egypt and Turkey. There could be open protests and riots on the streets in Cataluña over the independence referendum and in wider Spain against the economic crisis and corruption. Elements in the Spanish armed forces have already hinted at intervention to preserve the State. A time bomb is ticking.
In the meantime whilst Britain’s staunch defence of Gibraltar is welcomed and is the corner stone of our security: it is events in Barcelona and not London that could be our eventual deliverance.