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October 17, 2013 1:05 pm

Crisis looms as Catalan disenchantment with Spain deepens

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Rajoy and Mas may have to reach deal sooner rather than later
Artur Mas, regional president of Catalonia, remains an unlikely revolutionary©EPA

Artur Mas, regional president of Catalonia, remains an unlikely revolutionary

Just over a month ago, hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands to form a human chain stretching across the region. It was the latest in a series of mass rallies in the prosperous territory that urged a historic break with Spain, and the creation of an independent Catalan state.

In the weeks since, attention has shifted from protesters to politicians – and from high-flowing symbolism to worldly demands for cash. On Tuesday, the Catalan government unveiled a 50-page document detailing the region’s grievances against Madrid. It included an estimate of the financial claims that Catalonia says it has against Spain after years of alleged under-investment and over-taxation: €9.4bn.

The two events neatly capture the two faces of Catalan politics today: on the one hand, more and more Catalans want to live in a state of their own. It is a desire that is rooted in their understanding of history, and grounded in language, culture and a genuine sense of nationhood. And it is, most probably, a desire that cannot be stilled through financial concessions or the promise of greater autonomy within Spain.

On the other, there is a large number of Catalans who dislike the status quo but who remain reluctant to break with Spain. They resent the way that regional tax revenues are carved up, and worry about recent moves by Madrid to curtail the use of Catalan in state schools. Their grievances may be hard to resolve, especially at a time when Spain is still struggling to emerge from a deep recession. But their demands ultimately boil down to money and legal guarantees. They simply want a better deal.

The man navigating between these two camps is Artur Mas, the Catalan president. He has offered strong backing to the pro-independence rallies, and has vowed to hold a referendum on the future status of Catalonia (which Madrid says is illegal). Mr Mas currently governs with the support of the separatist, leftwing Esquerra Republicana movement – an alliance that has nudged him further still towards a pro-independence stance.

Yet the Catalan president remains an unlikely revolutionary. In temperament and political background, he is not unlike the man who faces him across the regional divide in Madrid: Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister. Both men are seen as dry politicians who prefer quiet deals over grand gestures. Neither is a rabble-rouser, although Mr Mas has occasionally been more than happy to stoke the separatist fire.

The question is whether the two leaders today have the fortitude – and the political space – to strike a deal that tackles Catalan grievances but leaves the region as an integral part of the Spanish state. Both say they are ready to talk. But Mr Rajoy and Mr Mas are also deeply reluctant to rush into a deal.

If elections in Catalonia were held today, the big winner would be not Artur Mas but his hardline separatist allies

Spain’s prime minister has always been a cautious, wait-and-see kind of politician. He knows that offering a generous deal to the Catalans would enrage large parts of his conservative base – and infuriate many of Spain’s other regions. Mr Rajoy and his advisers are also convinced, rightly or wrongly, that the recent surge in Catalan separatist sentiment is closely linked to the economic crisis. Once the recession starts to fade, so goes the theory, some of the Catalan discontent with Spain will disappear as well.

Mr Mas is also in no mood to rush. Senior officials in Barcelona point out that the next general election, scheduled for late 2015, is unlikely to produce another landslide victory for Mr Rajoy’s Popular party. Even if the PP wins again, it will need partners and allies, creating more leverage for Catalonia and its demands. A victory for the Socialists, traditionally more sympathetic to Catalan nationalism, would suit Mr Mas even better.

On the ground, however, patience is wearing thin. Polls show that half the Catalan population wants an independent state, a sharp rise compared to recent years. And if elections were held today, the big winner would be not Mr Mas but his hardline separatist allies. No less significant is the palpable deterioration in the way Catalans think and talk of Spain and the rest of Spain thinks and talks of the Catalans. Whatever still binds the two sides together, it is fraying by the day.

Unless this trend is reversed, Spain faces a constitutional crisis on a scale not seen since the country returned to democracy more than four decades ago. Their political instincts may tell them otherwise, but Mr Mas and Mr Rajoy may need to explore a deal sooner rather than later.

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