Catalonia in northern Spain will hold an election this Sunday, set to measure just how badly voters want their own free state.
It is a wealthy region but also in heavy debt, and breaking away from Spain would mean rethinking its place in Europe.
No one is having second thoughts about flying the independence flag, at least.
A street vendor in Barcelona said: “We always sell some, but never as many as today. People come asking for our estelades flag. They’re excited, and they’re keeping an eye on their politicians to see what they do. It looks as if they’re going all the way, to independence.”
Spain has 17 autonomous regions, and Catalonia is one of the richest. Its 7.5 million people are fiercely proud of their own Catalan language. Its government has sweeping powers, including police, health and education policy. But it doesn’t have all the tax-decision powers it wants.
Catalonia has industry and tourism, and is also geographically well-placed on the Mediterranean Sea, bordering France. It has historically pulled Spain along economically. Its 210 billion euro GDP last year made up nearly a fifth of Spain’s total, and was about the same as Portugal’s.
The Catalans complain that they are massively subsidising the poorer parts of Spain – funnelling their taxes through the central Madrid government and not getting enough back.
When the country’s economy went sour, Catalonia felt the bite, too. The regional government slashed public services and people in trouble with their mortgages got kicked out of their homes here as well – more than 7,000 evictions in the first quarter of this year.
Unemployment has reached around 23%, and the region is carrying 44 billion euros in debt, which is 22% of its GDP. To service that, it has taken out a loan of five billion from Madrid.
Independence supporters are convinced that the taxes Catalonia pays to the Spanish state are the main source of its economic difficulties. The village of Gallifa is the first to rebel outright.
It has paid its latest instalment of taxes to the Catalan tax agency. Mayor Jordi Fornas said: “ If we leave the Spanish state behind, we will also leave the crisis behind.”
In order to better understand the importance of Catalonia’s elections, we spoke to Marti Carnicer, economic secretary for seven years under the previous left-wing government.
Vicenç Batalla, euronews:
“Mr Carnicer, you headed talks with Madrid aimed at improving funding for the region, but three years down the line, plans have been buried because the new government wanted a fiscal pact similar to the Basque country. What happened? How did things get so bad that Catalonia is now demanding separation from Spain?”
“I think there are two fundamental reasons. The first is the lack of consensus, of affection, of tenderness, whatever words you chose to describe the attitude of the rest of Spain towards Catalonia. First of all, that stems from the People Party’s appeal against the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, and from the partial annulment by the Spanish constitutional tribunal.
“But things get more complicated when you take into account the economic crisis which has a much greater impact on funding and the good functioning of the economy.
“So these two elements, the lack of understanding of Catalonia’s position and the dire economic situation help explain what is happening in Catalonia.”
“Has Madrid failed to stand by the agreements dating back to when you were economy secretary?”
“Yes, absolutely, yes. I can give my opinion when it comes to funding. The statute contained mechanisms such as additional measures regarding funding for autonomous communities, something Madrid has not respected at all. It is true that Madrid hasn’t kept its word.”
“People say that Spain’s federal model is impossible to reproduce. But would an independent Catalonia be economically sustainable, whether it were part of the European Union or not?”
“Those who want independence explain that the federal model doesn’t work any longer. Is independence possible, more simple to establish than a federal state? I don’t think so. Logic tells us it must be easier, more feasible and probably more sustainable and fair to establish a federal state. That would require an agreement between the different parts of Spain in order to move forward and build a common space. If a federal state is difficult, and I don’t deny it, independence will be much harder.”
“Are you afraid that people in other parts of Spain will threaten to boycott Catalan products?”
“I don’t think we need to worry about that. Catalonia is relatively well-exposed to the outside world. Its exports are high and growing, probably the highest in the whole of Spain. So Catalan competitiveness is guaranteed. Should we fear boycotts? There have been some in the past, but people forget over time. I don’t think that is the most important factor to consider.”
“During your time as economy secretary, there were cases of corruption among members of the Convergencia party in power today. This is making front page news again. Do you think there is a direct link with the current president, Artur Mas?”
“I am confident and I think we must wait. I hope that is not the case. I hope no link is found. But that’s up to the courts to decide. Justice must be done, and everyone must be given a chance to defend themselves and prove their innocence.”