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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

Canada looks happily unified by Spanish standards Add to ...

I figured my Barcelona drinking companion was just being mischievous when he called my plan to travel the following day to Madrid a “bad idea.” But I took the bait anyway.

Porque?” I inquired.

Porque es Espana.”

It seems that almost anywhere you go in Spain, you’re somewhere else (and somewhere better) in the eyes of the locals. Almost 40 years after the death of Francisco Franco, the military strongman who suppressed the country’s many regional and linguistic identities, Spain’s distinct societies are thriving. The country’s 17 “autonomous communities” assert their specificities like never before.

“Spain has no particular identity,” my Barcelona acquaintance explained.

This may seem at first like an odd statement. After all, Spain’s global branding is unmistakeably strong, reinforced by the novels of Ernest Hemingway and the (formerly) winning ways of the national soccer team. From bull-fighting to flamenco dancing, tapas to cava, there are good reasons Spain remains the world’s third most popular tourist destination.

And yet, the country is racked by regional tensions that make Canada look happily unified. The violence once propagated by Basque separatists has waned, thankfully, and the coronation of a dashing new king has somewhat strengthened appreciation for the monarchy as a symbol of unity. But alienation from the central government remains a common trait all Spaniards seem to share.

The threat to national unity dominating the front pages these days, of course, is not Basque separatism, but 9-N – shorthand for the proposed Nov. 9 referendum on Catalonian independence. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists such a plebiscite is illegal under Spain’s constitution. But that only seems to fuel the fiery determination of Catalonia’s independentistas.

The Catalonian flag, known as the Estelada, is draped from Barcelonan balconies in numbers reminiscent of Montreal in the post-Meech Lake days, when much of the city was was a sea of fleurs-de-lis. Given a choice between the status quo and independence, Catalonians seem poised to break up the country, far more so than Scots seem prepared to leave Britain.

That’s why support for a “third way” is building in the countdown to 9-N. The opposition Socialist Party, which has just chosen a telegenic new leader after the party was routed in May’s European elections, is pushing for wholesale constitutional change that would turn Spain into a federation.

But constitutional change is no easier in Spain than in Canada. Defusing the separatist threat before Catalonians vote may come down to negotiating a new deal that would give Catalonia more fiscal autonomy. Outside of the Basque country, the central government collects most taxes and redistributes revenues to the regions. The latter deliver most services and Catalonia has racked up huge deficits. Hence, the rallying cry of the independentistas, including Catalonian President Artur Mas: “Espana nos roba.” (Spain is robbing us.)

If fiscal arguments have overtaken cultural ones among Catalonian separatists, it is partly because the Catalan language is flourishing in post-Franco Spain. Indeed, Barcelonan parents are now more likely to complain that their kids are not mastering Spanish (known as Castilian) enough in school, as the regional government pushes Catalan education first.

Under pressure to avert a full-blown constitutional crisis, Mr. Rajoy and Mr. Mas are to meet Wednesday at the prime minister’s residence in Madrid. But expectations are low. The two leaders have not spoken in months. Each is a prisoner of his political base. Mr. Rajoy’s People’s Party is beholden to anti-devolution hardliners. Mr. Mas’s coalition depends on hardline separatists.

This all comes as Spain’s long-depressed economy shows signs of life. After six years of austerity, economic growth has turned positive and unemployment, though still horrifyingly high, is finally moving downward. A unity crisis threatens this tenuous progress.

But a fiscal pact that gives wealthy Catalonia more control over its own taxes would compromise the central government’s own finances and anger have-not regions. Hence, Mr. Rajoy’s finance minister, Cristobal Montoro, last week released a study on the fiscal balance between regions that showed Catalonia making a much lower net contribution to central coffers than previously thought. At about €8.5-billion ($12.3-billion) in 2011, Catalonia’s net contribution was half the amount contributed by the Madrid autonomous community, despite Catalonia’s larger population. Mr. Mas called Mr. Montoro’s numbers “suspect.”

To this Canadian, it all sounded amusingly familiar, yet strangely comforting. With a much longer and more turbulent history, Spain’s “issues” seem far more intractable than ours. Thankfully, they’ve got tapas.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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