As Spain Protests Austerity, Catalonia Pushes for Independence

WASHINGTON— Thousands of miners entered Madrid last week, singing loudly, setting off fireworks, and waving signs and banners. Some walked as far as 250 miles from the mining regions along Spain’s northern coast. Themarcha negra (black march) ended with a violent clash with police in front of Spain’s Industry Ministry building. Over the ensuing days, laborers and civil servants rallied throughout the city, blocking streets and railways. Some women wore black veils as though for a funeral. The target of these protests was the austerity package passed last Wednesday by the embattled government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — whose future, the miners reminded him, was “darker than our coal.”


The €65 billion package consists of EU-recommended tax increases, public sector spending cuts, city and regional government overhauls, and the liberalization of the transportation sector. The hope is that these measures will help the country, having recently requested up to €100 billion in European aid for its banks, avoid an international state bailout along the lines of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. With government revenues and housing prices falling, and debt on the rise, though, it may well prove to be a doomed effort.


And yet as workers from throughout the country converge on Madrid for protests, a second, altogether different movement is gathering strength in one of Spain’s wealthiest autonomous regions, Catalonia. There, thousands have gathered throughout the summer in towns and villages to call for much more than an end to austerity. Their goal is complete independence for their region of over 7.5 million from the Spanish state. Catalonia, like the Basque Country, has a long and complicated history with Castillian-dominated Spain. But the crippling economic crisis, resentment over transfers of roughly 8 to 9 percent of Catalonia’s GDP to poorer parts of Spain, and incidents such as recent Spanish Supreme Court opposition to Catalan language immersion programs in the region’s pre-schools have combined to form a three-layered gift for the independentistes.


According to recent polls conducted by the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, 51.1 percent of all Catalans would vote for independence from Spain in a hypothetical referendum. This represents a six-point increase in the past four months alone. When asked the broader question of what Catalonia should be vis-à-vis Spain, 34 percent said “independent,” a 20-point increase since the pre-crisis days of 2006. Following the release of the polling data, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría called on all Spaniards to understand that with the country’s other concerns, “now must be a time for stability.” Catalan MP Josep Antoni Duran sought to downplay the results, arguing that a majority of Catalans would still prefer increased autonomy over outright independence.


Yet between now and September, over 200 pro-independence rallies and marches are scheduled to take place across Catalonia, building up to a massive demonstration on September 11, the region’s national holiday. The plan from there, according to the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) will be to organize a referendum on Catalonia’s status for the following year, and proclaim full independence in 2014. “For us, independence is a question of dignity,” says Carme Forcadell, head of the ANC. “We don’t want to live on our knees within Spain when we could stand on our own feet in Europe.”


Spain, with unemployment rates of close to 25 percent, youth unemployment over 50 percent, increasing emigration, and expectations of long-term recession and austerity, should be watched very carefully by policymakers in Brussels and Washington. Its dual crises of social and economic unrest, paired with an unprecedented loosening of the bonds that tie it together as a nation, make it perhaps the most apt microcosm of today’s European Union. As the country drifts towards a possible state bailout, the tightening screws of la crisis are threatening to drive fissures through every aspect of its social, political, and economic life, and push it into the uncharted waters of possible, although still unlikely, disintegration.


During the recent European Championship, the uglier side of pan-European tensions was often on display. “Without Angie, you wouldn’t be here,” chanted German fans during the game with Greece, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We’ll never pay you back,” replied the Greeks. At a wedding I recently attended in Catalonia, I found only one fellow guest tracking the status of the ongoing match between Spain and France, and he was quietly rooting for France. “We Catalans are tired of seeing our tax money go to Spain,” he said, cringing as news of another Spanish goal popped up on his phone. “I guess you could say we understand how Germany feels.”


Nicholas Siegel is Senior Program Officer with the Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC.

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