The restive Spanish region of Catalonia has just taken its boldest step yet toward independence from Spain. Earlier this week, Catalan officials released a massive grievance statement, culminating with an estimation that the Spanish government owes it nearly 10 billion euros. Essentially, the region argues that as one of the wealthiest parts of the country it bears an outsize share of the country’s tax burden, while much of this money is spent on poorer areas in the country. Combine these financial grievances with the longstanding cultural and political difference between the Catalans and the Spanish and you have a recipe for a rise in separatist sentiment.Fortunately, it seems that neither Catalan President Artur Mas nor Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is eager to push the conflict forward, but the FT warns that the situation may be slipping out of their control:
On the ground, however, patience is wearing thin. Polls show that half the Catalan population wants an independent state, a sharp rise compared to recent years. And if elections were held today, the big winner would be not Mr Mas but his hardline separatist allies. No less significant is the palpable deterioration in the way Catalans think and talk of Spain and the rest of Spain thinks and talks of the Catalans. Whatever still binds the two sides together, it is fraying by the day.Unless this trend is reversed, Spain faces a constitutional crisis on a scale not seen since the country returned to democracy more than four decades ago. Their political instincts may tell them otherwise, but Mr Mas and Mr Rajoy may need to explore a deal sooner rather than later.
It’s possible that in more prosperous times, the two sides could agree on a deal in which Catalonia gets much of what it wants in return for withdrawing its demands for independence. But Spain is in desperate financial straits and is under intense pressure from the European Union to get its finances in order. Madrid needs as much tax revenue as it can get, and it can’t afford to spend it on paying off its own territories.Although it’s far from clear that Catalonia will break away in the near future, there’s a distinct possibility that the Euro crisis could eventually lead to the break up of a European state. Then Spain will face a new question: Will the Basques stay in if the Catalans go?[Artur Mas photo courtesy of Rastrojo]