Financial Times – Q&A: Catalonia’s sovereignty push

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Q. Is Spain going to break up as a state?
A. At present this appears unlikely. But pro-independence pressures are developing rapidly in Catalonia, the most powerful of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. It is the most serious test of the decentralised Spanish system of government since the nation returned to democracy in the late 1970s after Franco’s dictatorship.

Q. How will Spain’s economic crisis affect the outcome?
A. In one sense it fuels the secessionist mood in Catalonia. It causes Catalans to blame their economic troubles on a national tax system which, in their view, obliges them to make a disproportionate contribution to the rest of Spain. In another sense it strengthens the hand of the central government in Madrid. Catalonia has appealed for €5bn in liquidity assistance from a government fund for debt-stricken regions. Predictably, Madrid wants, in return, to see the Catalans exercise self-restraint on the independence question.

Q. What exactly do Catalonia’s political and business leaders, as well as public opinion, want?
A. Artur Mas, Catalonia’s president, and his governing centre-right Convergència i Unió party are not an explicitly pro-independence movement. Their primary short-term goal is more control over taxes collected in Catalonia, an objective with which Catalan business sympathises. But Mr Mas and his party have not kept up in recent months with the radicalisation of broad sectors of public opinion and, consequently, have begun to harden their stance. A resolution to be debated by Catalonia’s parliament suggests that “fitting Spain and Catalonia together” is “a path without direction”.

Q. How does the rest of the EU view the prospect of Catalan independence?
A. Without enthusiasm. There are other countries – Belgium, Cyprus, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and the UK – where separatist movements and national minorities might draw inspiration from Catalan secession. In extremis, though, the EU would have little choice but to respect an independence process that scrupulously observed international law. The EU was unhappy about Czechoslovakia’s break-up in 1993 but accepted it nonetheless.

Q. When did the idea of Catalan independence take off?
A. Catalonia has a proud tradition of self-rule dating from the Middle Ages. The Catalan revolt against Spanish overlordship in 1640 and the subsequent war, resulting in Catalonia’s defeat, reverberate to this day. In recent times a decisive moment came in 2010 when Spain’s constitutional court largely rejected a new statute of autonomy for Catalonia approved by the national parliament in 2006. The statute was favoured by Spain’s former Socialist government but opposed by the centre-right Partido Popular, which now holds power in Madrid.

Q. How far does Spain’s crisis of regionalism extend beyond Catalonia?
A. In modern times violent Basque nationalism has plagued Spain ever since the restoration of democracy. A regional election in the Basque Country on October 21 may strengthen the nationalist forces, but there is not widespread public support for secession in the way that is emerging in Catalonia. The Basques already enjoy extensive autonomy in tax matters.

Q. And elsewhere?
A. Also on October 21 there will be an election in the north-western region of Galicia, but attention there will focus on how well the PP fares. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, is a Galician. More broadly, the regional crisis is a crisis of fragile public finances and economic recession, caused primarily by the collapse of Spain’s construction and property bubble and by banks with unhealthily close ties to regional political interests.

Q. Could Catalonia make it as an independent state?
A. Yes, but it would not be plain sailing. Catalans have a highly developed sense of national identity. Even many second-generation Catalans – children of Spanish speakers who moved to Catalonia from other parts of Spain from the 1960s onwards – are attracted by the prospect of independence. But Catalonia’s economy has struggled in recent years: its per capita disposable income and labour productivity have grown more slowly than the Spanish average.

Q. What do the Spanish armed forces think about it all?
A. They have stayed in their barracks since a failed 1981 coup, but historically they have seen themselves as the ultimate guarantor of the unity of the Spanish state. A serious prospect of Catalan secession is the one issue that might draw them into the political arena.

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