BARCELONA — The world financial crisis, now four years old, has claimed the heads of nearly every western European government where elections have been held: Ireland, Britain, Greece, Portugal, Spain and France. The next victim of the crisis may be the Spanish state itself.
The first indication will come next month, when semi-autonomous Catalonia will hold regional elections, which almost certainly will strengthen Catalan separatist parties. After that will come a referendum to decide whether Catalonia — one-fifth of the Spanish economy — should seek secession from the rest of the country.
Such a referendum is likely to succeed here, given the angry mood on the streets of Spain’s second city, and, as Catalans would say, its cultural capital. When Barcelona recently played Real Madrid in the Spanish soccer cup — El Clasico — the Barcelona supporters began singing the Catalan hymn at precisely 17 minutes and 14 seconds into the game. This was a reminder of the year 1714, when, during the War of Spanish Succession, Catalan independence was crushed by Spanish troops. Few here have forgotten.
The president of the Catalan parliament — Artur Mas — has been leaning increasingly toward Catalan independence in recent years, following a Spanish constitutional court ruling that important parts of Catalan regional autonomy statutes were unconstitutional. The anger here at the Madrid government is spilling into the streets, most notably in an independence demonstration last month that drew 1.5 million people — a fifth of Catalonia’s population.
Other recent developments have exacerbated the always tense relationship between Barcelona and Madrid. The first, not surprisingly, is the unprecedented economic crisis, with 25 percent unemployment in the country as a whole, and 18 percent in Catalonia.
Another source of dispute is the refusal of the government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to grant the kind of fiscal autonomy that the Basque region already enjoys. Indeed, the Basques transfer to Madrid only one-tenth of the tax revenue per capita as Catalonia. This may not be unrelated to Catalonia’s relative economic stagnation, compared with the dynamism of the Basque provinces, now Spain’s richest region.
In fact, it was with this good fiscal deal that Madrid essentially bought off the Basque drive toward independence. Better economic prospects helped the Spanish police (with French cooperation) to dismantle the once-dreaded ETA terrorist group, so that a measure of peace and prosperity now reigns in Basque cities.
Here in Catalonia, the conflict with the central government has ratcheted up another notch, with ugly exchanges this month between Madrid and Barcelona over education. The central government has made a number of provocative statements over what it sees as the neglect of Spanish language and history in Catalan schools, which now favor the Catalan language and local history.
This amounted to waving a red flag at the Catalan nationalist bull. (Incidentally, in yet another show of Catalan independence, the quintessentially Spanish sport of bullfighting has been banned here.) The local government responded that there was no way it was going to change its language and history programs, which led some Madrid conservatives to mutter darkly about sending in the Guardia Civil.
For those familiar with the Spanish Civil War — which remains etched in the Spanish consciousness more powerfully than does World War II in most of Europe — the Guardia Civil is the ultimate brutal enforcer of the Spanish state. The Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, one of the civil war’s victims, called them “patent leather men with patent leather souls.”
While no one in either Barcelona or Madrid is speaking about violence yet, the atmosphere is deteriorating on a daily basis. Madrid points out that Catalonia is the most indebted of Spain’s 17 regions, partly because the local government embarked on a series of white elephant infrastructure projects — notably several airports with virtually no passengers.
One particularly foolish program of the regional government was to hire a small army of Catalan-Spanish interpreters, even though everyone here understands both languages. There is also at least one independent study that says that corruption among Catalan politicians and civil servants is even worse than in most other Spanish regions, hardly a recommendation for greater fiscal autonomy.
Yet the strength of Catalonia’s independence movement remains inversely proportional to the deterioration of the Spanish economy. If civil war is virtually impossible in contemporary western Europe, sporadic violence is not. For both Catalonia and the rest of Spain, the outlook is singularly grim.
Eugene native Kevin Capé (www.kevincape.net) is a writer based in Nice, France.