Protest Rally in Catalonia Adds a Worry for Spain
BARCELONA — Catalonia’s national day turned into a huge separatist rally on Tuesday, presenting yet another challenge to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy as he seeks to force Spain’s regions to enact drastic budget cuts.
As many as 1.5 million people took over the center of Barcelona around 6 p.m. The protesters, many of whom had traveled here from other parts of Catalonia, waved striped yellow-and-red Catalan flags and signs demanding independence.
Organized under the slogan “Catalonia, New European State,” the rally came as Mr. Rajoy is considering whether to seek help from a new bond-buying program that the European Central Bank agreed to last week.
On Tuesday, Mr. Rajoy was given a reason to hesitate by his Finnish counterpart, Jyrki Katainen, who suggested on a visit to Madrid that Spain should try to avoid tapping the central bank’s offer. Mr. Katainen also warned that Finland could demand that Spain take further “concrete measures” in terms of balancing its budget in return for agreeing to additional aid for Spain.
Indeed, investors remain concerned that Spain will fail to meet budget deficit targets amid a deepening recession and the mounting fiscal problems of regional governments that account for about 40 percent of Spain’s public spending.
Catalonia has been in the front line of the crisis, with its problems compounded by recent credit rating downgrades that have shut it out of the debt markets. Last month, Catalonia requested €5 billion, or about $6.4 billion, from an €18 billion emergency fund set up by Madrid to help regions service their debts and pay suppliers of health care and other basic services.
The financing crisis has added fuel to Catalonia’s longstanding demand for Madrid to grant it greater fiscal autonomy and reduce its contribution to a national system that redistributes some tax revenue to poorer regions of Spain.
“It’s absurd that we are now having to ask the government in Madrid to lend us money that should have been ours to use in the first place,” said Luis Planagumà, who was among a group of about 1,500 protesters from Santa Pau who had traveled nearly two hours by bus to join the rally.
With 7.5 million inhabitants in Spain’s northeast, Catalonia accounts for 16 percent of the nation’s population and 19 percent of gross domestic product, giving it an economy the size of Portugal’s. Catalonia’s €42 billion of debt, however, is by far the largest among Spanish regions.
Catalonia’s fiscal problems have led its regional government to make some of the deepest budget cuts in Spain, particularly in health and education, to lower the deficit from 3.7 percent of gross regional product last year to the 1.5 percent limit set by Mr. Rajoy’s government for this year.
Artur Mas, Catalonia’s leader, did not take part in the rally Tuesday but said he fully endorsed the protesters’ demands. “Never before has Catalonia been so close to national plenitude,” he said on Monday night.
Before a meeting with Mr. Mas on Sept. 20, Mr. Rajoy has sought to play down the separatist push. On Tuesday, he called on Catalans to focus instead on overcoming the economic crisis. “The challenge today for Catalonia, other regions and Spain as a whole is to grow and create employment,” Mr. Rajoy said.