What do you get when you’ve got a conservative prime minister embroiled in scandal who is so deeply unpopular in the province currently run by sovereigntists that he keeps driving voters into the arms of the secessionists?
The Parti Québécois might wish we were talking about Stephen Harper, whom sovereigntists consider their best weapon in the quest for Quebec independence. But the PQ has been unable to translate Quebeckers’ aversion toward Mr. Harper and his policies into sovereigntist support.
That’s not the case in Catalonia, where Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, his centre-right People’s Party and the region’s secessionist government are on a collision course that looks set to culminate in an independence referendum in 2014. While Anglo-Saxons focus on Scotland’s independence vote, most of the rest of the world – and especially Quebec – will have its eyes on Catalonia.
The odds of major political upheaval seem much higher in Catalonia, where more than two-thirds support outright independence or more autonomy from Madrid. As beleaguered Spain’s most prosperous region, with bustling Barcelona as its capital and a distinct language as its cultural glue, a new arrangement with Spain is increasingly sought by Catalonians. Nearly 100,000 of them filled a soccer stadium last month chanting, “Catalonia is not Spain.” Fifteen times that many – one-fifth of the Catalan population – marched for independence in Barcelona last September.
This is one more major problem for Mr. Rajoy, whose leadership has already been sapped by a 27-per-cent unemployment rate and voter discontent with the budget cuts he’s imposed to meet deficit targets set by the European Union.
As bad as it is, the economic crisis isn’t even the biggest threat to Mr. Rajoy. The corruption scandal consuming his party – and dominating the national media – has left him mired in political quicksand. The Prime Minister faces allegations that he received potentially illegal payments from a slush fund set up by a former People’s Party treasurer who is now in prison awaiting trial on fraud and money-laundering charges. Mr. Rajoy denies the allegations, but the scandal won’t soon die.
Given the immediacy of the economic crisis and funding scandal, the Prime Minister has all but ignored developments in Catalonia, taking a legalistic approach toward a problem that almost everyone agrees requires a political solution. Madrid simply says that an independence referendum is illegal under Spain’s constitution, which refers to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”
That has not stopped Catalan President Artur Mas from proceeding with his plebiscite plans. This month, he set up a parliamentary “committee for self-determination” with the overwhelming support of the Catalan legislature. It will set the parameters for a 2014 vote. There seems to be little Madrid can do to stop Mr. Mas from holding a non-binding referendum – similar to the kind Quebec held in 1980 and 1995 – that would strengthen his hand in future negotiations with the central government.
While Mr. Rajoy dithers in the face of rising secessionist sentiment, national Socialist Party chief Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, who heads the opposition in Congress, forged a proposal this month with the Catalan Socialist Party that calls for Spain’s transformation into a truly federal state, with each of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions obtaining constitutionally entrenched powers.
Only the Basque Country and Navarre currently have much power to raise direct taxes. The others, including Catalonia, are dependent on the central government for funding. This has left Catalonia with the country’s highest debt ratio – even though, as the richest region, it sends an estimated €16-billion more in taxes to Madrid than it gets back in central government spending.
“Who the heck is funding whom? It’s Catalonia that funds the Spanish state from many points of view,” Mr. Mas retorted this month, after Spanish Finance Minister Cristobal Montoro insisted that public services in Catalonia were financed “thanks to the Government of Spain.”
The Socialists’ so-called Grenada Declaration would include the principle of “ordinality” in the constitution, under which richer areas such as Catalonia would not see their relative wealth decline as taxes are redistributed to poorer regions.
It’s unclear whether the promise of constitutional change – arguably even harder to achieve in Spain than in Canada – would be enough to tame independence sentiment in Catalonia. Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the defeat of the pro-Habsburg Catalan troops in the War of the Spanish Succession. As referendum timing goes, it doesn’t get any better for the secessionists.