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Separatism in times of crisis in Spain: the search for a future

Civil society organisations in Catalonia have generated a feel-good and positive project, purging traditional pro-independence of its most strident anti-Spanish elements.

On September 11, 2012, Barcelona was overcome by what was probably its largest political rally ever, an exceptional event even for a city which has become used to massive, peaceful protest in the last decade. On the occasion of the national day of Catalonia, hundreds of thousands (estimates vary between 600,000 and 1.5 million) of demonstrators from all corners of Catalonia marched under the unequivocal slogan ‘Catalonia, a new state in Europe’. The massive demonstration marks a turning point in Catalan politics, where the issue of independence has become, at least for the duration, an unavoidable point of reference.

Meanwhile, the Basque country and Galicia are getting ready for elections on October 21. Galicia’s election will probably be read in Spanish terms: how weakened is Rajoy’s Popular Party? Are the Socialists recovering from last year’s crushing defeats? Is there room in Spanish politics for a wide coalition of parties to the left of the Socialists? But the Basque Country is likely to embark on dynamics of its own, as the pro-independence Left will probably reap the fruits of running united after years of division over the thorny choice between support or opposition to ETA’s violence and being banned from running in elections.

Last year’s announcement by ETA that it definitely rejects violence has transformed the Basque political landscape in a way that will only become fully apparent after the October elections. If, as early polls suggest, the election results in a Basque nationalist majority including the conservative nationalists of PNB-EAJ (the party that governed the region in all but the last four years since the re-establishment of autonomy) and the openly pro-self-determination EH Bildu (which includes some former pro-ETA leaders, but also many who rejected violence), the door would be open to the formation of a solely Basque nationalist government in Vitoria - Gasteiz, the Basque capital. That may, in turn, very soon steer the Basque government onto a direct collision course with the Popular Party government in Madrid.

The international press has been quick to link the unprecedented pro-independence success of the rally in Barcelona and the surge in secessionist feeling in polls in Catalonia (support for independence seems to be consistently above the 50% threshold for the first time) to the dire economic situation in Spain. Analysts have been puzzled by the fact that this arrives at the same time that the regional authorities in Barcelona, facing the impossibility of the markets financing its soaring debt (the largest both in total and in per capita terms amongst Spanish regions) - have requested a bailout from the Spanish government. Catalan nationalists argue that Catalonia has consistently been transferring a disproportionate amount of its wealth to poorer Spanish regions – the current Catalan government estimates transfers amount to 8% of regional GDP – and complain about the irony that Catalonia may now be subject to additional conditionality in order to receive Madrid’s bailout. The absence of standard official statistics about interregional transfers (deemed too politically sensitive to publish by the Spanish Government in recent years) makes the debate one of faith and a matter of choice about which figures to believe: different economists and studies come to wildly diverging, even contradictory conclusions. 

The feeling of paying too much and bearing a too large portion of the burden (austerity measures have cut faster and deeper in Catalonia than in most regions) has become widespread in Catalonia, but it would be wrong to reduce the current surge in pro-independence feeling to a mere expression of economic grievances. Independence has become an exciting prospect to a disillusioned population, the promise of a new start in times of endless gloom, a common project demanded by civil society where politicians and citizens march together – the latter leading and former following for once. While the socialists strive to shake off their image of having sunk the country into its current state and Rajoy and his Popular Party desperately manoeuvre to make the prospect of a full-blown bailout and the ‘there is no alternative’ discourse palatable, civil society organisations in Catalonia have generated a feel-good and positive project, purging traditional pro-independence of its most strident anti-Spanish elements and attracting large segments of previously sceptical sectors (the twenty- and thirty-something children of workers who came from Andalusia and the rest of Spain in the 1960s and 1970s; the conservative small and medium businesspeople of inner Catalonia; the leftist internationalists) to the pro-secession camp. The Catalan parties which had not already embraced independence – the conservative Catalan nationalists, the socialists, the Left greens – now have visible pro-independence figures and groups, with the obvious exception of the Popular Party, now posing as the champion of the unity of Spain. Independence is thus presented as a cross-cutting project, one that transcends the Left/Right, Metropolitan Barcelona/Inner Catalonia, class and party divides. 

But in Catalonia the Conservative Catalan nationalists of Convergència i Unió need the votes of the Popular Party, not so much in the regional parliament (where they can count on other occasional allies) as in cities and provinces, including the cherished local council of Barcelona, which they took from the Socialists for the first time in 2011. The government is unlikely to go for all-out confrontation with Madrid, even less so when it has to guarantee the bailout funds to ensure the smooth functioning of Catalan self-government. And civil society will soon be mobilised by other causes, in particular resistance to further cuts and fruitless austerity.

The picture in the Basque country is considerably different. Helped by better management of public funds, a generous fiscal agreement that discriminates in favour of the Basque Country (and Navarre) and makes austerity less urgent, the dividends of the end of violence, a much smaller bubble than the one experienced by most of Spain in the boom years and a successful exporting economy, the Basque country is doing considerably better than the Spanish average in this crisis. The political equation there might be about to change with the next elections and the prospect of a large Basque nationalist majority in the regional Parliament. That would not be a novelty in itself (non-nationalists parties only achieved their first majority in 2009), but a large share to the openly pro-independence Left would be new. Pressure on Madrid is likely to grow not only on issues of self-government, but on the thorny management of the post-ETA settlement, including the treatment of the hundreds of ETA members in prison. The political temperature is starting to rise as the election campaign nears. 

All of this puts additional pressure on Mariano Rajoy, who is facing his largest political challenge not from weakened socialists or emboldened secessionists, but from the Right wing of his own party. Leaders such as Madrid’s regional President Esperanza Aguirre, former Prime Minister José María Aznar and European Parliament head of delegation Jaime Mayor Oreja advocate the most uncompromising position towards ETA as well as rolling back the autonomy of Spanish regions. FAES, the vocal, well funded and independent-minded Popular Party think tank headed up by Aznar, has been leading a campaign for recentralisation of Spain in the last two years, arguing that much of the blame for Spain’s current economic predicament lies in excessive political decentralisation. Rajoy will feel the heat from the Right and its media constellation as he tries to stem the growth of pro-independence feeling and political action in Catalonia and the Basque County. The PP has achieved a vast majority in Parliament with relatively modest election results in Catalonia and the Basque and could theoretically afford to antagonise both regions – unlike Zapatero’s PSOE, who needed Catalan voters both to sustain its advantage over the PP and to complete a parliamentary majority with Catalan and Basque nationalist MPs’ votes. But the general situation in the country and close international scrutiny over Spain makes any additional confrontation an unwelcome prospect in times of crisis. 

After years of unsustainable growth, Spain has plunged into a state of pessimism that the Popular Party, despite its unprecedented concentration of local, regional and national power, seems unable to reverse. Independence, an option which was always present but never central in the political debates in Catalonia and the Basque Country, appears as an attractive alternative to a growing number of people. Madrid can choose to ignore or minimise the change of mood evidenced in Barcelona’s rally, as some media like Spain’s public-service television or the Madrid right-leaning press choose to do. It can also try to re-invigorate the anti-independence camp in both regions and enjoy the popular support that a strong hand will probably find in most of Spain’s public opinion and press. But as long as Spain’s politicians and parties are unable to offer a prospect for a better future, a growing number of Catalans and Basques will look at independence as a way out of the current situation. 

Scotland and Québec, two important points of reference for secessionists (and more attractive and comparable than recent cases like Montenegro, Kosovo or South Sudan), are experiencing a revival of their independence debates, followed with great interest in the Basque Country and Catalonia. However difficult and unrealistic the prospect may seem from outside, citizens that embrace this new push for independence suddenly feel empowered and active, shaking off the impotence of passively suffering the effects of the de facto capitulation of politics to market and international imperatives. At a time when its government seems at a loss for an economic and political project to steer Spain out of the debt crisis and a diminished role in Europe’s new periphery, a large segment of the populations of its two most successful exporter regions may find in the fight for independence exactly the kind of daring, radical, forward-looking and cross-cutting project that millions of Spaniards and Europeans crave.  

About the author

Jordi Vaquer is Regional Director for Europe at the Open Society Foundations and a co-director of the Open Society Initiative for Europe. Formerly he was director of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB).


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