A scale model of European implosion

The budgetary austerity zealously applied by Madrid has revitalised demands for independence in Barcelona. Engaged in a fiscal and economic power struggle with the central government, Catalonia is threatening to disrupt the social and regional equilibrium that underlies Spanish democracy.

Published on 2 October 2012 at 16:10

For the fifth time in its history, Catalonia is faced with the prospect of independence. The trajectory towards emancipation from Madrid has both a long-term and a conjunctural logic. The Spanish state is a political creation that depends on a web of agreements guaranteeing the permanence of its economic and social dominance, which is superposed on a plurality of nations with their individual identities and long-standing histories. In 1978, this structure showed itself to be a very fragile in the course of a constitutional transition which strained to bridge the gap between nationalisms and centralism: the concession of autonomy to the regions was the institutional and legal consequence of the bargain struck on that occasion.

But that was not the only aspect of the deal: the autonomous communities were also given the opportunity to tap into generous funds, for civil works, modernisation, and future development. While there was money to inject into investments that consolidated the peaceful domination of local elites, the arrangement worked. The exchanges between the national and regional right were typical of the state of mind that prevailed at the time: when José María Aznar [Prime Minister from 1996 to 2004] announced from the Moncloa Palace, “Spain is doing well”, Jordi Pujol [President of the Catalan government from 1980 to 2003] replied from his HQ at the Palau de la Generalitat, “And Catalonia is doing better”.

A monument to the absence of common sense

But then the conjunctural factors came on stage. The right-wing Convergència i Unió government in Catalonia now has to contend with 822,000 unemployed workers in the wake of 22 months of successive cuts in social welfare benefits. This potentially explosive situation has been compounded by the freezing of funds for the autonomous regions, which was pushed through by the central government following a revision of the Spanish constitution implemented at supersonic speed to comply with an order issued by Berlin and Brussels. And what is remarkable is that the zeal with which this order was executed by the local representatives of Brussels and Berlin — the People’s Party (PP) and the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – has now been replaced with a vehement insistence on the part of these two same parties to the effect that the constitution cannot be modified to allow the Catalans to hold a referendum on their right to self-determination.

In the context of the demand for constitutional change, the new budgetary pact between Madrid and the autonomous regions appears, by virtue of its obsession with austerity, to be a monument to the absence of political horse sense: specifically with regard to the refusal to envisage the explosive consequences that major cuts in public funding would have on relations between the central government and the regions. Like they have done in Portugal and Greece, the pyromaniacs from Berlin and their local assistants have succeeded in setting a torch to the social equilibrium in Spain, with no thought for the terrible demons that might be awakened by the uninterrupted blaze of the sacrificial fire that must be kept stoked on the altar to the goddess of austerity.

Political conscience forgotten

**And the Catalan government has been quick to exploit this lack of political responsibility. In making himself a standard-bearer for the cause of independence, the current President of the Generalitat [Catalan regional government] Artur Mas has much in common with Alberto João Jardim [the President of the government of Madeira]: in response to the catastrophic economic and social results of his mandate, which was marked by a strategy to dismantle public services and social entitlements, the conservative Mas has accused Madrid of being a sinkhole for Catalan funds that is unwilling to invest in public services and projects in the region. Does that not sound familiar? The cause of independence much vaunted by the Generalitat is first and foremost a very convenient means for deflecting attention from the socio-economic decline that has resulted from its own policies.

More than Portugal or Greece, Spain is increasingly a scale model of European implosion, which demonstrates how the remedies prescribed by the troika result in what is now an ongoing process of social, political and territorial fragmentation.You would think that they could have learned from the tragedy of the Balkans. But it is too much to hope that the representatives of the troika and their employers might have a political conscience, which their actions show they are clearly intent on subverting.**

From Catalonia

“Catalan train too fast-moving to stop”

In Catalonia, the possibility that the region might secede from Spain is necessarily viewed as a catastrophic, as columnist Fernando Ónega points out in the Barcelona daily La Vanguardia —

**When a parliament rises up to demand consultation on the launch of a process of national transition, and central government announces its intention to block that consultation, the basis for a conflict has been defined. I might add: when the newspapers in Catalonia speak of democratic rights while their furious rivals in Madrid speak of the “lunatic attitude” of Catalonian governor Artur Mas, the conflict has penetrated society and is no longer confined to politics.

The main question therefore concerns the manner in which the transition can be achieved without a full-on collision between two trains. […] With this horizon in mind, Mr Mas is committed to consultation, even if [Prime Minister Mariano] Rajoy is against it. In the context of power struggle where the exercise of democracy has become a challenge, let there be no illusions in Madrid: it will be impossible, or very difficult to reverse this process. […] I believe it may well be too late. The Catalan train is too fast-moving to stop.**

Are you a news organisation, a business, an association or a foundation? Check out our bespoke editorial and translation services.

Support independent European journalism

European democracy needs independent media. Voxeurop needs you. Join our community!

On the same topic