September 20, 2012, 4:30 am<!– — Updated: 4:30 am –>44 CommentsBy JONATHAN BLITZER
BARCELONA — Perched high atop a building on the northern corner of the Plaza de Catalunya is a huge banner announcing, in English: “Catalonia: Next Independent State in Europe.” It was still intact on Saturday, days after Sept. 11, when more than one million Catalans swarmed the streets of Barcelona in a remarkable show of fervor for independence.
The Diada, as the date is known, is an annual commemoration of Catalonia and a wistful nod to its troops who were defeated in the 18th-century War of the Spanish Succession. The day’s celebrations are a habitual spur to local pride. But this year the massive turnout surprised everyone, in Spain and abroad.
The economic crisis has magnified longstanding exasperation among the residents of Barcelona and the region, who feel that the national government routinely belittles their identity. The percentage of Catalans supporting independence has doubled, to 46 percent, since 2008.
Regional leaders are in no rush to temper the sentiment. Artur Mas, the president of the Catalan government, has been playing it up ahead of a meeting on Thursday with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to discuss the terms of a pending fiscal pact.
But Mas should be more careful not to overdraw popular expectations. Catalonia is in a difficult financial position, and despite the ebullience of popular demonstrations, he is in no position to call the shots.
Catalonia, which represents one-fifth of the country’s entire economic output, is deeply in debt: it’s on the hook for 42 billion euros of the 140 billion euros — or $55 billion out of $183 billion — that Spain’s 17 regions together have run in deficits. It has asked for 5 billion euros, about $6.5 billion, in emergency relief from Madrid. And Mas, citing “fiscal sovereignty,” wants the money without strings attached.
To many locals the request is a drop in the bucket given all the tax money Catalonia has handed over. Each year the region pays between 12 and 16 billion euros more in taxes than it gets back from Madrid in public investments in social services and infrastructure.
There’s also resentment over austerity. The conservative Mas, though himself a willing budget-slasher, has loudly bemoaned the deficit-reduction targets set by the national government. While public investment by the national government has dropped by almost 25 percent across the country since 2011, it has fallen by nearly 45 percent in Catalonia.
Distress over this economic situation is key to understanding the high turnout on Diada. So is the recent fate of the hotly contested Statute of Autonomy, a regional constitution negotiated between Catalonia and the national government in 2006.
In spite of successful talks at the regional and national levels, and a subsequent approval by a regional referendum, a national constitutional court struck down parts of the deal in 2010. Those articles would have given privileged status to the Catalan language and recognized the region as a “nation”; they would also have allowed Catalonia to collect its own taxes. Though the statute remains in effect, a broad swath of the Catalan public feels it has essentially been gutted.
Disaffection among Catalans is real and needs to be reckoned with. But Mas risks overplaying his hand with Rajoy. He has already insinuated, with deliberate ambiguity, that a failure to reach a financial agreement would open the “road to freedom” for Catalonia. But for Catalonia to secede, the Constitution of Spain would have to be amended (which is unlikely) and the region’s independence would have to be approved by a popular referendum among all Spaniards, not just Catalans (which also highly unlikely).
By 10:30 p.m. last Saturday, with the sign proclaiming a “Next Independent State” barely visible in one dark corner of the Plaza de Catalunya, a bus pulled up in another. It disgorged some 50 passengers — Catalans returning from a day of mass demonstrations against austerity measures in Madrid.
Many wore black shirts that read, “Without rights, without a future, I’ve got nothing.” This was not a comment on independence, one protester said.
“What happens between Rajoy and Mas,” another added, “is political theater. We just know we’re hurting.”