Spain today is not only grappling with major financial rebalancing; this coincides with a growing voice for separation in the autonomous region of Catalonia.
Any nation-building referendums held on this have been legally non-binding – in 2009 and just last year – but more than half the communities in the Catalan northeast of Spain expressed an interest in independence.
Today saw a massive public march hardening that up.
A survey in one of the main newspapers of Barcelona presents figures suggesting that 49.5 percent of the region’s inhabitants support taking Catalonia out of Spain, with 48 percent opposing such a move.
Catalonia is one of the most prosperous regions in Spain but it has not been spared by the economic crisis. Unemployment is at around 22 percent.
The centre-right autonomous regional government, the nationalist CiU, has strongly reined in health and education spending as part of austerity measures, provoking a public outcry.
Catalonia is also the region in Spain with the heaviest debt: 42 billion euros, 21 percent of its regional GDP. Last month it asked the cash-strapped central government in Madrid for 5 billion euros in emergency aid to help service its payments.
Just days ago, Catalonia’s credit rating was cut to junk by ratings agency Standard & Poor’s.
The Generalitat, as the Catalans call their government, wants to renegotiate the region’s tax contribution to the Spanish state.
The nationalists complain they get back less in benefits than they put in, and feel short-changed to the tune of 16 billion euros per year.
This deficit amounts to more than 8 percent of the region’s GDP, according to the Generalitat.
Its president, Artur Mas, who won elections in November 2010, now has a more than 48 billion euro budget deficit on his hands, and at the same time is pushing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to grant Catalonia fiscal sovereignty.
For a view on the mounting separation pressures, we spoke to Ferran Civit, an official from the Catalan National Assembly, who helped organised the independence demonstration on the occasion of the Catalan ‘national’ celebration, traditionally held on September 11.
euronews: Today’s independence turnout must be the biggest in 30 years, and it wasn’t arranged by either political parties or unions, although most of them have attended. Has the economic crisis boosted people’s wish to separate from Spain?”
Ferran Civit: “More than the economic crisis, there are a lot of reasons that have come together. There is a lack of respect for cultural and national diversity in Spain, for different peoples living within the country. There is the fiscal erosion Catalonia suffers, and, it is true: the crisis has made things worse with the severance of social services. But there is also a stronger social conscience of national and individual rights. The reasons have coincided. National Catalonia Day today, 11 September, drew a lot of people, even into the millions, who will go out into the streets of Barcelona to claim a country for themselves.”
euronews: “The president of the government of Catalonia, Artur Mas, hasn’t gone to the demonstration but he told the people in the council to feel free, so they’ll be there. How will this mobilisation influence the meeting Mas has scheduled with Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on 20 September?”
Ferran Civit: “We expect it to be a kind of historic accelerator. The way the crisis is going today, we don’t believe that Spain will accept a change in the way its autonomous communities are financed, and still less accept preferential conditions for Catalonia. Faced with this scenario, the only way out is a state living in harmony in its own right, with the same unity and equal conditions that other European people have, including in the Iberian peninsula.”
euronews: “Catalan economists calculate that 16 billion euros in taxes makes its way to Madrid each year that doesn’t come back. Mas proposes a fiscal pact the same as the Basque Country. Would that be a solution?”
Ferran Civit: “No, that is not the solution. As we are now, the Spanish Constitution only recognises preferential economic agreements with the Basque Country and Navarre. With the exception of the special fiscal frameworks of the Canary Islands and the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. It is very difficult to get that in Catalonia with the wish for centralisation on the part of the Spanish government. We clearly are looking at a complete annulment of the autonomous communities and their responsibilities. This is why the fiscal pact is almost non-viable, if not impossible. Independence from the Spanish state is easier.”
euronews: “The Catalan National Assembly foresees having a referendum on independence in 2014. The same year, the head of the Scottish government, Alex Salmond, wants to have one on separating from England. Is this possible under Spain’s law today?”
Ferran Civit: “It’s not easy because there isn’t the democratic tradition such as Britain has, which is more than a century old. Spain’s democratic tradition as a state is very recent. We see this with the threatening tone of military declarations, which are a contrast to what happens in the UK. But that isn’t what’s relevant. We are beating our own path. And if we can speed the process up and declare independence at the end of the year or the beginning of next year, so much the better.”