Saturday

27th May 2017

Catalan separatist looks to crisis with hope

  • Taking to the streets on Catalan National Day (Diada Nacional de Catalunya) on 11 September (Photo: Ivan McClellan)

It is often said that on the long and winding road to European union, it takes a crisis to move ahead. Now the same may be true for regional independence.

Europe has always had its share of movements calling for the breakaway of an often distinct part of a larger country. Most well-known are Scotland in the UK, Flanders in Belgium, and Catalonia and the Basque Country in Spain.

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But the dire state of much of the continent’s public finances, they say, is giving them a larger audience willing to listen.

Jordi Sole, secretary general of the European Free Alliance, a group in the European Parliament of parties for more regional autonomy, told EUobserver that people have come to see two things.

“One: You cannot lose because the situation is already quite desperate. And two: They see independence as a tool to have hopes for the future,” he said.

He noted that previously, people may have been afraid of the consequences of a unilateral break-up. Until recently, full independence was a radical thought.

“But now, independentism has become a cross-cutting movement, from the left to the right, young and old,” he added.

Solé, who is also the mayor of a small town called Caldes de Montbui, 30km north of Barcelona, was mainly talking about Spain.

On 11 September, Catalonia’s national holiday, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the region’s capital in what became the biggest independence rally in recent history.

Spain has been hit particularly hard and is telling its regions to cut down on spending. Catalonia, the country’s richest region, feels it is paying too much already and getting too little in return - even though it, too, has overspent and received an €11 billion loan from the central government in Madrid.

But also elsewhere in Europe, Sole said, people are looking to regional independence as a way out of the crisis. Most notable is Scotland, which in 2014 is planning to hold a referendum on the issue - even though, being outside the common currency, it has suffered less.

“I am convinced that the eurocrisis is having an impact on the self-determination of several stateless nations in Europe,” he said.

He said the crisis is making people poor, and when people are poor “they are seeking solutions.”

Those most vocal about independence however - Catalonia, Flanders, Scotland - are not poor when compared to other parts of the country to which they belong. It is an uncomfortable reality that opponents thankfully make use of to denounce the movement as selfish.

Sole does not agree. Instead, he says, being relatively rich merely allows a region to stand up for itself.

“The more rich, the more a society can express more easily the desire to belong to [its own] political nation,” he said.

In Catalonia, meanwhile, things are moving fast. Days after the protest in Barcelona, the region’s president Artur Mas and Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy failed to reach an agreement on fiscal reform asked for by the Catalan parliament, sparking the region's president to call for early elections in November.

Polls show a slim majority of voters in favour of independence, twice as high as when the crisis began in 2008. Sole’s party Esquerra, or the Republican Left of Catalonia, the loudest voice for full independence, is expected to jump from fifth to third biggest in the region.

“Things have advanced more in the last 10 days than they have in the last 10 years,” Sole said.

“We could be on the eve of a new state forming. And this could have a domino effect in the EU,” he added.

Regions feel the pinch

Looking to save a buck in every corner of the budget, EU countries are now pointing their arrows at subnational governments, a new study has found. Subsidies are down, as is the number of municipalities.

Interview

'National governments declining in importance'

As more key powers are transferred to Brussels, it poses an existential question for central governments. But regions are anxious to step into the breach.

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