Catalan with Spain’s future in his hands

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

It is rare, even in Spain, for parliament to be debating the whys and wherefores of the War of the Spanish Succession, commonly construed as a struggle over the balance of power in early 18th century Europe. It was not, Spanish government MPs pointed out to their Catalan counterparts this week, a war of secession, even if at its conclusion Catalonia, having gambled on the losing side, was stripped of the attributes of self-government. History is always alive in Spain.

Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan Generalitat, had just left a meeting in Madrid empty-handed – failing totally to negotiate a new fiscal pact with Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister. Inevitably, he said a “historic opportunity” to ensure Catalonia could still fit comfortably inside a plurinational Spain had been squandered.

Back home in his own parliament in Barcelona, Mr Mas called a snap election that will surely turn into a proxy referendum on Catalan secession from Spain and – in case Madrid was not paying attention – Barcelona voted to call an actual plebiscite on Catalonia’s right to self-determination. A full-blown constitutional crisis, in which the survival of the Spanish nation-state within its present boundaries is at stake, will now collide head on with the eurozone and fiscal crises.

The arguments in this family dispute are already tangled and often tendentious but, as identity politics starts to overwhelm reasoned debate, they are turning visceral. Yet Mr Mas is an unlikely harbinger of revolutionary separatism.

Until now, he has always appeared to be a mainstream nationalist from the Convergència i Unió coalition, the very embodiment of the Catalan bourgeoisie and its traditionally prudent mercantile values. CiU has dominated Catalonia since home rule was restored after the end of the Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s, and is a byword in Catalan politics for its philosophical ambiguity on independence, and in the Spanish arena for its political ambidexterity, allying episodically with both left and right in Madrid.

Mr Mas came to power, like Mr Rajoy, at his third attempt in 2010. A technocrat by background, he was elected on a promise to secure a better budgetary deal from Madrid. In essence, the Catalan government wants the right to collect its own taxes, something the Basques already do. With fiscal autonomy at the heart of their self-government, the Basques have resurrected their once moribund rust belt economy into an engineering powerhouse that is now the most prosperous region in Spain. Catalonia, by contrast, has slipped down the wealth league table.

With an economy the size of Portugal’s, it has acquired the heaviest debt burden of any region. Catalan officials and economists say they would be solvent if they had a similar agreement to the Basques, who transfer up to ten times less per capita to the Spanish fiscal pot than they do. Catalonia, they say, hands over to Madrid about €18bn a year, or 9 per cent of economic output – an amount that exceeds the demands of equitable transfer to poorer regions, which many federal systems cap at around half that level.

Thus, while launching a forced march towards national sovereignty, Mr Mas finds himself, cap-in-hand, seeking a €5bn fiscal bailout from Mr Rajoy. If this were just about money, the square-jawed Catalan leader would be looking a bit foolish.

But the separatist sentiment he is now trying to channel started swelling long before the onset of the financial crisis. The clamour for independence became mainstream after enhancements to Catalan autonomy, launched by the Socialist regional government in 2006 and endorsed by the Spanish and Catalan parliaments, were struck down by the constitutional court in Madrid. The Mas fiscal pact strategy which Mr Rajoy’s centre-right government was never going to countenance – now looks like a tactical springboard to a broader sovereignty movement. Just how broad was revealed to a startled Spain this month during the Diada – the annual commemoration of Catalonia’s defeat in 1714 – when more than a million separatists took over the streets of Barcelona. But is Mr Mas leading or following this seemingly elemental surge?

An austere, disciplined and devoutly Catholic man, Artur Mas, now 56, was educated at the French Lycee in Barcelona – giving him a taste for Symbolist poetry and meandering subclauses – before training as an economist. He has no anti-Francoist pedigree, only joining CiU in 1987, but rapidly becoming the anointed heir of Jordi Pujol, who ran the Generalitat from 1980-2003. Mr Pujol epitomised Catalanism, which, unlike separatism, sought to build on Catalonia’s culture, language and historic identity within the confines of the Spanish state.

The constitutional evisceration of the reformed statute of autonomy persuaded Mr Mas, as well as Mr Pujol, his erstwhile mentor, that Catalonia had to go its own way.

“Mas always wanted independence, but the [court] decision to take the word “nation” out of the statute was the last straw”, says Edward Hugh, economist and longtime resident of Catalonia. “The fiscal pact proposal was really only a way of getting broader sections of Catalan society behind him. Then came the [Diada] demonstration and the discovery that a large cross section of society weren’t behind him, they were ahead of him. I think at that point he made the leap – he sees history in front of him, and wants to try to grasp it”.

Mr Rajoy will do everything to ensure he cannot. The premier’s deputy, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, on Thursday warned that only the Spanish state can legally call a referendum. “Not only do legal and institutional instruments exist to prevent a referendum, there is a government here that is willing to use them”, she said menacingly.

History, no doubt, will have some say in the outcome. “Leaders are people who interpret the meaning of every historical moment”, said Mr Mas at his investiture, and “it is the government’s duty not to shut the doors on the desire of a people”.

The writer is the FT’s international affairs editor

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.