Catalonia: the canary in the Euromine?

As the financial crisis intensifies divisions within European nations, Catalonia’s independence movement could be a sign of things to come

Mick Moran
Mick Moran

For years now our sights have been fixed on Greece as the most likely point of fracture in the Eurozone.  But the election campaign in Catalonia in November highlighted an even more likely set of fracture possibilities: along the lines of national and regional identity.

The result in Catalonia of the 25 November elections was widely represented in the English language media as a setback for separatism and a breathing space for the maintenance of Eurozone solidarity.  That was far from the reality.

Artur Mas, the right wing premier of Catalonia, did indeed respond to the polling evidence showing a majority favouring independence, and to massive pro independence demonstrations, by opportunistically calling an election that, as he frankly admitted, was designed to get separatism off the streets and into the voting booths.  And Mas represented the election as a prelude to an independence referendum.  The fact that his party lost 12 seats in the election has indeed derailed Mas’s ambitions. But it has not derailed separatism.

Just about the only thing Mas had going for him was the attempt to ride the nationalist wave.  He is identified with a ferocious austerity package.  Even Catalonia, Spain’s richest region, is suffering hugely under the cuts.

Voters have delivered a complicated message: in favour of independence, but against austerity.

The big winner in the election was another pro-independence party, Esquerra Republica de Calalunya (ERC), the Republican Left Party of Catalonia, which gained almost as many deputies (11) as Mas lost.  The elections have therefore delivered a solid parliamentary majority for independence, to match popular support.

But the visions of an independent Catalonia offered by these two flag-bearers are diametrically opposed; the ERC’s advance has been precisely on the back of opposition to Mas’s austerity programme.

To put it mildly that is complicating the (still continuing) search for a coalition.  At time of writing, Mas is pressing for a coalition and is trying to soften his austerity rhetoric (but not his policies) to attract the ERC; the latter is declining to enter a coalition and is demanding an independence referendum by September 2013.

The Catalonia result also fits a bigger Spanish picture: the continuing implosion of the Socialists, still identified with the catastrophe of former Prime Minister Zapatero’s economic management: their support in Catalonia is now at a historic low, and they remain paralysed over what position to adopt on independence.

The complexity of coalition calculations has at least postponed an independence referendum.  But the ramifications of a pro independence result produce huge uncertainties: from the symbolic (will Barcelona still play in La Liga?) to the most substantive institutional questions (where would Catalonia stand in any queue for admission as a member to the EU?).

A major problem for Mas is that his structural base – big business in Catalonia – is fearful of the disruptive consequences and the threat to markets in the rest of Spain.  But Catalonia nevertheless still functions like the canary in the coalmine: as an early warning signal of the pressures to come.

In the aftermath of the election, while trying to induce the ERC into a coalition, Mas has nevertheless been compelled to intensify the programme of cuts in order to meet Madrid mandated austerity targets.  In Spain the round of regional elections – in Galicia, in Asturia and in the Basque country – show similar centre-periphery strains.  And across the Union the crisis is reopening once settled jurisdictional settlements.

In Italy, for instance, the problem does not only consist of the Lega Nord.  In Tyrol, which was annexed by Italy as long ago as 1915, the German speaking population feels variously Bavarian or Austrian depending on location, and every aspect of the culture, right down to driving habits, is deeply Germanic.

That population is looking over the border at economies with low youth unemployment, efficient public services and sound economic infrastructure – and wondering about the point of continuing to live as Italians.

Greece had led us to expect that the crisis might tear the EU apart along national lines.  But it is evidently as likely to deepen regional fissures within national member states.