Catalonia: Artur Mas – the man with Spain’s future in his hands

Has he opened the floodgates? Artur Mas at a meeting in Barcelona's Palau Sant Jordi, November 26, 2010.
Has he opened the floodgates? Artur Mas at a meeting in Barcelona's Palau Sant Jordi, November 26, 2010.
Financial Times (London)

Not only is Spain in the midst of a devastating economic crisis, but it also faces the prospect of a constitutional one, after nationalist leader Arthur Mas, president of the autonomous Catalonia region, called an election widely considered as a plebiscite on independence. A profile.

It is rare, even in Spain, for parliament to be debating the whys and wherefores of the War of the Spanish Succession, commonly construed as a struggle over the balance of power in early 18th century Europe. It was not, Spanish government MPs pointed out to their Catalan counterparts this week, a war of secession, even if at its conclusion Catalonia, having gambled on the losing side, was stripped of the attributes of self-government. History is always alive in Spain.

Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan Generalitat, had just left a meeting in Madrid empty-handed – failing totally to negotiate a new fiscal pact with Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister. Inevitably, he said a “historic opportunity” to ensure Catalonia could still fit comfortably inside a plurinational Spain had been squandered.

Back home in his own parliament in Barcelona, Mr Mas called a snap election that will surely turn into a proxy referendum on Catalan secession from Spain and – in case Madrid was not paying attention – Barcelona voted to call an actual plebiscite on Catalonia’s right to self-determination. A full-blown constitutional crisis, in which the survival of the Spanish nation-state within its present boundaries is at stake, will now collide head on with the eurozone and fiscal crises.

The arguments in this family dispute are already tangled and often tendentious but, as identity politics starts to overwhelm reasoned debate, they are turning visceral. Yet Mr Mas is an unlikely harbinger of revolutionary separatism.

Until now, he has always appeared to be a mainstream nationalist from the Convergència i Unió coalition, the very embodiment of the Catalan bourgeoisie and its traditionally prudent mercantile values. CiU has dominated Catalonia since home rule was restored after the end of the Franco dictatorship in the late 1970s, and is a byword in Catalan politics for its philosophical ambiguity on independence, and in the Spanish arena for its political ambidexterity, allying episodically with both left and right in Madrid.

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