Spain vs. Catalonia: A Tale of Two “Countries”

Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” Charles de Gaulle

Millions of Catalonians went to the polls on Sunday in a general mood of hopeful anticipation, tinged with the slightest hint of dread. The exit polls confirmed that over two-thirds of votes will go to pro-independence parties that will probably push for a referendum to break away from Spain.

As expected, it was Artur Mas who took the lion’s share of the spoils, although his party’s number of seats in parliament dropped from 2010. Still, despite falling well short of securing an asolute majority, Mas has cemented his position as leader of the region’s government – though it will probably be as the head of an uncomfortable coalition with the strongly nationalist, left-wing party ERC.

Mas has also sent a clear message to Spain’s right-wing administration: the Catalonian people are ready to negotiate, but this time on its own terms.

Predictably, the message will be met with deaf ears in Madrid, whose current government is also fervently nationalist and thus ideologically opposed to the merest suggestion of loosening the central state’s control over the Catalonian province (Hardly surprising considering Catalonia’s economy represents roughly 20 percent of Spain’s GDP).

Add to this the fact that Spain’s government has barely enough money to meet its own funding obligations, let alone extend significantly more funds to the provinces, and it becomes abundantly clear that any future negotiations are destined to end in deadlock.

Which will leave Mas with just one choice: the nuclear option of holding a referendum. Whether he decides to use it is still far from clear. First, he will have to find common ground to form an alliance with the rest of the pro-independence parties in parliament. This will mean having to make considerable concessions over the direction of social and economic policy in the region.

Some commentators have argued that this will be one step too far for Mas, whose ultimate objective in the elections was to achieve an absolute majority in parliament, in which he obviously failed.

However, this interpretation ignores one key fact: namely, that Mas has already opened the Pandora’s box of Catalonian nationalism. Putting the lid back on will be a whole other challenge.

As Giles Tremlett writes in The Economist, by building up Catalonian nationalistic aspirations, Mas “has jumped on a tiger he can’t fully control.

The Rise of Catalonia, The Fall of Spain

That said, one can understand why many Catalonians have chosen national independence as the only way out of the current crisis.

Spain’s current government has shown itself to be completely incapable of tackling the country’s immense economic challenges. Indeed, the Popular Party’s unpopularity is not just concentrated in traditionally hostile regions such as Catalonia and the Basque Country, but extends across broad swathes of the country.

Such widespread opposition to the current government is perfectly understandable given that, in its current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, and economic minister, Luis de Guindos, Spain has arguably the most incompetent duo of political leaders in the whole of the EU.

Which, let’s face it, is saying something. After all, most of Europe’s leaders have excelled at just one thing since the crisis: hiding the grim reality of European financial collapse from their people. As blogsites such as Zerohedge and The Slog have consistently argued, the eurozone decoupled from reality a long time ago.

Nobody better epitomises this approach than Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime-minister of Luxembourg and president of the Euro Group, who in 2011 famously said: “when it gets serious, you have to lie.”

Few governments in Europe have endorsed Juncker’s modos operandi quite as enthusiastically as Rajoy’s. As a case in point, here is just a brief sample of the Popular Party’s pre-electoral pledges from 2011:

  • Not to make it easier for companies to lay off workers
  • To cut taxes
  • To honour its spending commitments to education and healthcare
  • Not to give a “single euro more” to the banks
  • Not to increase the cost of energy consumption
  • Not to approve a fiscal amnesty for tax avoiders/evaders

Within the space of just six months, all of the above promises had been broken. Taxes – both direct and indirect – have been hiked to unprecedented levels, with self-employed workers paying close to 50 percent more income tax and businesses having to absorb substantial increases in V.A.T (in some cases from 4 percent to 21 percent).

What’s more companies can, and clearly are, laying off workers with much greater ease and at much lower cost than before. And as for the billions of euros Rajoy’s administration has given to the banks, the less said the better.

Desperation and Destitution

Perhaps the pain might all be worth it if there were the slightest prospect of a brighter future. But there is no light at the end of this tunnel, as clearly shown by the government’s increasingly desperate efforts to attract overseas investment.

At the recent Ibero-American Summit in Cadiz, Rajoy joined King Juan Carlos I in calling on its former colonies, many of whom have enjoyed steady rates of growth, to send investments Spain’s way.

In recent years, the relationship between Spain and Latin America has become “clearly inverted” from what it once was, said Vincent Forrest, an economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

There was no better manifestation of this trend than the government of Argentina’s decision in April this year to expropriate a controlling 51 percent stake in the company by seizing shares held exclusively by Spain’s energy giant Repsol.

As the Spanish government’s desperation continues to grow, it has, among other things, announced that it would offer overseas residents a Spanish passport in return for buying a property worth at least 160,000 euros.

Such desparate acts betray a real sense that Spain may actually be in the process of unravelling, both financially and socially. As such, it’s perhaps no wonder that Catalonians are seeking a way out.

Critical Mas

But will Catalonia actually be able to secede from Spain? This is the question on  many people’s minds, both inside and outside Spain.

From a purely legal perspective, the answer is “no.” The Spanish Constitution forbids regions from holding direct referendums on independence. And the current Spanish government is unlikely to give an inch on the issue. The secretary-general of the Popular Party, Dolores de Cospedal, recently warned that Madrid would do anything it could to halt the “illegal” vote.

Not that this has stopped Mas, who has repeatedly warned that he would stage the “consultations” on Catalonia’s future regardless of Spain’s wishes.

Which means that the Mexican standoff between Mas and Rajoy is almost certain to escalate in the coming months, as Mas seeks, at the very least, major financial concessions from Spain – concessions that Rajoy will be both unwilling and unable to deliver.

And as the negotiations descend into deadlock, the desire for real, lasting change among the bulk of the Catalonian populace will inevitably grow. Which, in turn, makes a referendum almost unavoidable.

But would a sufficient majority of Catalonians vote for independence? According to Giles Tremlett of The Economist, Mas may restrict himself to asking Catalans whether they want a “right to self-determination”. The answer to that would be a resounding “yes.” Asking them directly about independence would be another matter. Polls suggest about half of Catalans back the idea, but most want a “velvet” divorce rather than confrontation.

How would Spain react, though? Would the tanks be dispached back onto the streets of Catalonia, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the 1930’s? While highly unlikely, such a prospect can not be dismissed out of hand, especially given the intensity of emotions on both sides.

Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a Spanish MEP with the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), recently courted controversy by suggesting that, if Catalonia continued to agitate for independence, the Spanish government should send in the country’s civil guards to intervene in the “rebellious region.”

Perhaps the most important question is: what would the EU do if Mas went ahead with the referendum? Thus far, the message from Brussels has been fairly mixed.

The Vice-President of the European Commission Joaquin Almunia recently said that “it would be dishonest to state categorically that an independent Catalonia would be left out of the EU.” Other eurocrats have unequivocally dismissed the possibility of a sovereign Catalonia.

For many Catalonians, staying in the EU has a vital bearing on how they view the issue of independence. In a recent poll by the Catalonian newspaper El Periodico, 51 percent of the region’s people favour an independent Catalan state. That number falls to 40.1 per cent, however, if independence would mean leaving the European Union.

Which begs the question: what’s the point of seeking independence from a (more-or-less) democratic country like Spain, no matter how bitter divisions in the country may be, when you’re willing to give it up to a totally undemocratic and unaccountable institution like the EU?

Whatever happens in the coming months in Catalonia, one thing is clear: it ain’t gonna be pretty. Perhaps the greatest irony is that Catalonia is seeking independence at the same time that Spain is on the verge of losing its own.

The moment Rajoy bites the bullet and officially requests a sovereign bailout (which should be months, if not weeks away), the country will, like Greece, depend entirely on the ECB’s “generosity”.

But maybe, just maybe, the Catalonian saga portends an entirely different seuqence of events. Perhaps the “European project,” in the sweetest of ironies, will finally usher in a new age of the European nation-state, as regions and entire nations begin to cast off the financial shackles that bind them together.

The big question is which would be worse: a European superstate with totalitarian designs, or a possible return to the national conflicts and divisions of the past?

As the British historian Antony Beevor said, “The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism. We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken when people realise how little control their politicians have.”

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