BARCELONA – Making headway through the streets of Barcelona, closed to traffic for the occasion, seemed almost impossible. A crowd of children, students, retired people, business owners, and the unemployed coming from every part of Catalonia had joined together to wave yellow-and-red flags and voice their support for the creation of an independent state for the “Catalan people.”
According to local police, nearly 1.5 million people --600,000, according the central government --took part in last week's march between Passeig de Garcia and Parliament. They were responding to a call from a group of pro-independence organizations, the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), who rallied them all with the slogan “Catalonia, the next European state.”
Every year, several separatist movements march together on September 11th, Catalan’s national day, la Diada, to commemorate the 1714 siege of Barcelona by Spain's Bourbon troops. Never has the rally been so popular. This time, with the approval of the regional government, separatist organizations gathered for a display of force against “Spain, Europe and the world.”
This success reflects a growing separatist sentiment within Catalan society, extending from the upper classes to the working class, from the right to the left. The economic crisis has fueled the movement with new recruits. For the first time ever, a poll carried out by local authorities has shown that an absolute majority of Catalans, 51.1% to be precise, would vote “yes” on a referendum for independence. This is eight points higher than in 2011.
Paying for the less productive states
The idea that Catalonia would do better without Spain has gained ground. Politically speaking, Catalans are still bitter about the 2010 ruling by the Constitutional Court of Spain, which rejected several articles of a new autonomous status meant to redefine the relationship between the region and Madrid. They no longer accept that a large part of Catalonia’s revenues are used to compensate poorer regions. According to the Centre-Right Catalan Nationalist Coalition (CiU), Catalonia pays at least 16 billion euros -- 8% of the region’s GDP -- in taxes per year to Madrid. This “fiscal deficit” is even harder to accept as Catalonia has also been hit by the crisis.
“Many people have realized today that independence is the only solution,” said Carme Forcadell, the ANC’s president. “We give a lot to Spain and don’t receive much in return, whilst thousands of Catalans struggle to make ends meet.”
With an unemployment rate of 22%, the implementation of harsh austerity measures and difficulties to finance itself on markets (it recently requested a bailout from Madrid), Catalonia is growing frustrated with Spain’s “solidarity between regions” principle.
"Spain doesn’t treat us well, especially on economic issues," says Jesús, a policeman in his forties, marching with his wife. “An economic driving force like Catalonia cannot continue to receive fewer funds than the less productive regions,” he believes.
“We are told about the risks of independence, but we never hear about the risks of dependence,” says Joán, a communication manager in public administration, in his thirties. “Spain is sinking and we don’t want to drown with it. Our economy has a future, Spain’s does not.”
Artur Mas, the head of Catalonia’s regional government, who supported the Sept. 11th march and called for massive participation, is likely to use the rally’s high turnout to negotiate a “fiscal pact” with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to give Catalonia financial and fiscal freedom, in other words to collect its own taxes and do what it wants with them.
“If there is not an agreement on the economic basics, Catalonia’s way to independence is open," Mas warned, threatening to call for early elections. Rajoy has already rejected this idea. “Catalonia has severe deficit and unemployment issues,” he said on September 3. “This is not the time for back-room deals, conflicts, or polemics. It is time to unite and work together.”
In using the threat of independence, Artur Mas is taking a big risk. He needs the support of the People’s Party MPs in Madrid to govern the region, and he needs the central State to pay his bills: Catalonia is Spain’s most indebted region. Unable to reduce its public deficit in 2011, and shut out of financial markets, Catalonia requested a 5-billion-euro bailout in early September to repay its expiring credits. Not really the best time to be asking for autonomy from Madrid.