September 11 has great symbolic meaning across the globe since the tragic events of 2001 in the USA. In Barcelona and in others towns and cities across the rich north east of Spain, the date has another significance: the 1714 fall of the besieged regional capital during the War of the Spanish Succession. It is marked annually as Catalan National Day. But this year was quite different than any other as up to 2 million people ― more than a quarter of the population of Catalonia ― marched through the streets of Barcelona shouting one word, “independencia”.
The destructive forces of austerity coupled with the authoritarian centralising instincts of Spain’s Popular Party government have given a long held desire for more freedom from Madrid a radical edge and a sense of urgency. With nationalists on a stride in the Basque country too, a break-up of Spain has never been more likely. Artur Mas, the leader of the conservative nationalist Convergence and Union (CiU) party, is on course for victory in elections on November 25 and has said he would see this as a mandate to hold a Catalan independence referendum, to be held within the new Catalan parliament’s four-year term. A series of local referenda over the past three years and recent polling suggest he might well get a majority.
A central bone of contention between Catalonia, producing a fifth of the Spain’s wealth, and Madrid is that the region pays out €16 billion a year (or 8% of Catalan GDP) more to the central government’s coffers than it receives in return. When the times were good the issue could be contained, but this “solidarity” payment to finance poorer regions has come sharply into focus since the housing bubble burst in 2007-8, hitting Catalonia harder than other regions. Catalonia’s economy has been contracting, though at a less dramatic rate than the overall Spanish economy, while unemployment and debt, as with the rest if Spain, is at record levels. To get better deal, Mas proposed a ‘fiscal pact’ with Madrid, but Rajoy rejected it. Along with a request for a no-strings-attached €5 billion bailout. And so Mas, seizing on the popular mood, swung behind the successionist cause.
But will independence really bring more prosperity to Catalans? One study, by Convivencia Cívica Catalana, suggested that an independent Catalonia would see a 20% fall in GDP, representing a loss of €5,600 euros annually for each Catalan, and a 17% increase in unemployment. It found, for example, that the region has a healthy commercial balance with the rest of the country, compared to a deficit with the rest of the world. Catalan firms sells more to Murcia that the United States, more to Aragón than Germany. There is also much uncertainty about whether Catalonia will even be part of the European Union, which would bring some substantial additional costs, although it seems unlikely that the EU would turn down an application from such a wealthy, advanced region at the heart of the Continent.
Moreover, the liberated Catalonia that Artur Mas has in mind won’t be the enlightened socialist vision championed by some anti-Franco Left nationalist groups in 1960s, or today’s less radical ‘plurinational federalism’ of the Catalan affiliate of the communist-led United Left. Until recently, Mas was a great political friend and ally of prime minister Mariano Rajoy in the push to make ordinary Spaniards pay for an economic crisis caused by greedy bankers. Before Rajoy was even in sight of the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Mas was hard at work privatising and slashing essential public services like health and education. Now Mas – a very late and opportunist convert to independence – is wrapping himself up in the Catalonian flag to avert the heat in the streets over cuts. And polls suggest he’s been successful.
In his bid to cement his power, he has been greatly helped by the brutal reaction from Madrid – including threats by two coronels of military intervention. Coming amid an escalating assault by the Popular Party against the Catalan language and culture, memories have awakened of the oppression against Catalans under the dictatorship, where politically the Popular Party can trace its roots.
But at root the Catalonian question reflects the fact that ‘solidarity’ is collapsing in Europe.
Swingeing spending cuts and tax rises, soaring unemployment, rising poverty and the ripping up of welfare states are adding to the longer term Balkanisation effect of the one-size fits all Euro currency. The richer north is kicking back against what the media tells them is a bill for lazy, profligate southerners (even though it is actually a tab for their own bankers and their idiotic lending decisions).
The same pressures are appearing within member states, and not only in Spain. Following some 18 years on from Italy’s Northern League with its mythical Padania, last month in regional elections the Flemish separatist leader, Bart de Wever, gained control of Antwerp, the Flemish capital and Belgium’s second city, gaining a bridgehead on his campaign for a country called Flanders.
Of course the biggest divide in Europe is not geographical but one of class, between the richest 1% and the rest. And that’s a divide that Artur Mas, a man unhealthily close to Catalonia’s 1%, the Church hierarchy and corporate interests who betrayed the Catalonian people during the Franco years but are now joining the independence jamboree, will only deepen.
This first appeared in Tribune Magazine