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    Conseller Mas-Collell at Wall Street Journal

    An European Nation Within Spain

    Catalonia has a distinctive culture. Its people deserve to vote on self-determination


    April 3, 2014
    I recently attended the spring conference of the British Liberal Democrats. The party recommends a “no” vote in the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence. I was struck, however, by the language used by Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg in his final speech: “We are a family of four different countries,” he declared of the United Kingdom. “I want to see Scotland stay in our family of nations.”By contrast, there is no significant party in Spain whose leader could possibly use terms such as “country” or “nation” when referring to Catalonia, whose people hope to hold their own referendum on independence this November. We Catalans, the result of many waves of immigration, have a long collective history and a distinctive culture. Yet we aren’t recognized in the terms Mr. Clegg used for Scotland.We admire the British position on the legitimacy of the Scottish referendum. We wish that the Spanish government would act likewise. The opportunity to do so is near. As in Britain, the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, has been asked to delegate to the Catalan government the power to organize a referendum on Nov. 9, 2014, on Catalan independence. In contrast to the Scottish poll, ours would have three choices: to maintain our “autonomous community” status quo; to become fully independent; or to become a “state within Spain,” the meaning of which would presumably be settled as the outcome of a negotiation. The vote in the Spanish parliament will take place on April 8. It is very unlikely to succeed.As a second option, the Catalan constitution gives the Catalan government the right to call a consultation on independence. The Spanish government may appeal such a move to Spain’s Constitutional Court. Given the hostility against Catalan self-government that the highly politicized Constitutional Court has displayed in recent years, that appeal might result in a ruling against the consultation.Since the Catalan parliament and government first called for a referendum, a campaign of opprobrium has been unleashed against us for daring to request the same rights as Scots. But we haven’t gone crazy. We are a government of moderates—centrist and business-friendly. We are propelled forward by massive and orderly popular sentiment in support of the referendum, a reaction to the recent, dramatic reversals in the extent of self-government that Catalonia once enjoyed.We are under serious attack. This attack was launched by Spain’s Popular Party, then in opposition, long before the economic crisis. After the center-right party came to office in 2011, it began passing legislation to re-centralize policy making across all fronts—economic, educational, health, welfare, public administration—under the cover of fighting the economic crisis and fostering efficiency. This was merely a pretext. Some of the world’s most efficient and productive economies—the U.S. and Germany among them—are the products of decentralized governments. Spain’s re-centralization effort ranges from the transcendent (for instance with detailed control of school curricula, municipal appointments and fiscal duties) to the petty (attempts to reclaim the functions of ombudsmen, for example, or of the agencies of meteorology, university quality-assessment and many others).

    Perhaps the Popular Party hoped that its re-centralization agenda would go unnoticed. But we do notice. It is a reckless and provocative policy. Spain’s priority now should be economic recovery, not turning back the clock on Catalan self-governance. In this respect our conscience is at ease: We have acted responsibly, and Catalonia, led by its cosmopolitan capital, Barcelona, is today at the forefront of Spain’s economic recovery.

    Once again, the Spanish government appears to have opted for a policy of uniformity, and dilution of Catalan identity. It is a worrying policy: Previous Spanish governments, most recently that of Francisco Franco, have tried and it has always failed. It will fail again. Would it be so difficult to recognize that Spain is multinational and act accordingly? If the U.K. can do it, what has Spain to fear?

    The Catalan government is committed to the rule of law, to the European Union and to democratic processes. We aren’t going to do anything reckless. Catalan public opinion is strongly pro-European. Our roots are in Europe, and we root for an EU with stronger federal powers. The EU has been built on exquisite respect for difference and for the multiplicity of cultures, and we like that.

    The EU has taken the position that issues such as those currently posed by Scotland and Catalonia are for member states to resolve internally. Fair enough. I will applaud if the Spanish government changes its attitude, rolls back its re-centralization drive and opens negotiations that can lead to a new arrangement, which will need to be put to a vote. If this doesn’t happen, the Catalan question will unavoidably become an internal matter, yes, but of the EU rather than merely of Spain.

    Mr. Mas-Colell is Catalonia’s minister of economy and knowledge.

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