Defeat for Catalonia’s leadership, but independence may still be on the cards

Catalan President Artur Mas Photo: Reuters

It was certainly the result that no one expected.

At the very least, Catalonia’s independence-minded leader, Artur Mas, was expected to hold on to his 62 seats in the Parliament in Barcelona, even if an absolute majority of 68 was beyond him.

In the event, his CIU party lost 12 and is down to 50, a startling defeat for a man who had called the elections early in order to strengthen his hand in the showdown with Madrid.

But this doesn’t mean the independence movement is dead, far from it, because the big winners on the night were a left-wing party, the ERP, who are even keener on secession from Spain.

Pro-independence parties now have a two-thirds majority in Barcelona, and can push hard for a referendum if they choose to.

Mas is in a dilemma. He will still rule Catalonia, but his plan had been to win big yesterday, and use his newly-won authority to threaten Madrid with a referendum if they didn’t grant his region a host of other concessions. That plan didn’t work out so well.

Now, with his authority severely dented, he must try and work with a group of people who don’t see a referendum as a bargaining chip, but as a vital point of principle.

And to make matters worse, the two big pro-independence parties have nothing in common economically.

Artur Mas is quite conservative economically and has been imposing some fairly severe austerity on Catalonia.

His putative allies in the ERP are distinctly left-wing, and want nothing to do with the EU-dictated cuts. It is not going to be a happy marriage, if it is consummated at all.

So where does this leave the future of Spain as a unitary state?

There is no point pretending the issue has gone away, with such a huge majority of Catalans (and with a huge turnout) voting for parties who want out of Spain. And then there are the Basques.

One of the great surprises in all this is that, after a three-decade long terror campaign in favour of Basque independence, it should be the Catalans making the running on this.

It is as if it were the Welsh rather than the Scots holding the first referendum on getting out of the UK. But the Basque separatists are alive and well, and Madrid may be on a collision course with them too.

Just yesterday the Government rejected an offer from the Basque separatists group ETA to disband in return for a Northern Ireland-style release of prisoners and a handover of arms. The response from Madrid was an unequivocal "no".

It is possible that Madrid continues to play hardball with both the Basques and the Catalans because it fears that any concessions would open the floodgates.

They can see the centrifugal forces at work right across Europe: Scotland; the potential break-up of Belgium into its Dutch and French speaking halves; secessionist movements in two Italian regions of South Tyrol and Venice; rumblings in Corsica.

The one thing that all these regional movements have in common is a desire for "independence within the EU", and that may be the Spanish state’s most powerful weapon. At the moment there is no automatic right for a newly-formed state to take its place in the EU.

Under current treaties any of the 27 member states can veto the accession of a 28th, and Madrid would most certainly do exactly that. All the polls suggest that enthusiasm for independence wanes dramatically in Catalonia if EU membership is not to be part of the package.

The reason many Scots will be watching events in northern Spain with more than casual interest is that Madrid would not only veto Catalan membership of the Union, but Scotland’s membership too.

Whatever London’s position, they could not afford to set a Scottish precedent that would then apply to the Catalans or the Basques.

Come 2014 and Scotland’s referendum, the next 18 months in Spain may turn out to have considerable relevance.