A European season of separatist fervor kicked off Thursday with Catalan lawmakers voting in favor of asking for the right to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. The European Union was watching closely as Belgium’s Dutch speakers gear up to push for greater autonomy in May elections, and Scotland prepares to hold its own referendum on breaking away from Britain in the fall. The vote was a milestone in years of mass protests by Catalans, who are fiercely proud of their distinct culture and language, demanding the right to decide whether they want to secede. As lawmakers debated at the Catalan parliament in Barcelona on Thursday before the vote, about 150 Catalans outside waved independence flags. A smaller group unfurled Spanish flags before the debate began, yelling “Catalonia is Spain!” But the vote was also largely symbolic.
Catalonia can ask Spain for permission to hold an independence vote but Madrid still has the power to say “no” — and it almost certainly will.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has repeatedly said he won’t allow a Catalonia secession referendum because Spain’s 1978 constitution doesn’t envision anything but a unified Spanish state, and mandates that referendums affecting Spain must be held nationally and not regionally. He has an absolute majority in parliament that assures he will prevail, and the main opposition Socialist party also opposes a referendum vote.
The Thursday vote could fan the flames of an already impassioned independence drive, even though it fell just short of the two-thirds majority that supporters hoped for. A strong separatist message may also inspire independence movements elsewhere in the European Union at a time when European unity has been rocked by economic crisis.