Spain is on the verge of splintering. The eurozone’s fourth-largest economy is in the midst of a severe crisis. Unemployment exceeds 25 percent, and the country’s massive debt threatens to bring about a Greece-style default. Madrid can now add the specter of secession to its list of woes.
Recent local elections in Catalonia have given a major boost to the Spanish region’s growing independence movement. The Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which champions social democracy and a sovereign Catalonian state, more than doubled its number of deputies to 21 in Catalonia’s 135-seat assembly. The pro-separatist Catalan premier, Artur Mas, and his Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition did worse than expected, but the party’s 50 seats become a majority when joined with the ERC. Mr. Mas is a fiscal conservative and government reformer. The CiU and the ERC differ on almost every key issue, except for one: breaking away from Spain.
Mr. Mas has pledged to hold a referendum on Catalan independence within the next several years. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has made it clear that Barcelona will not be allowed to secede without Madrid’s approval. Even if a majority of Catalans vote yes, Mr. Rajoy vows that Spain’s parliament will block it. From Madrid’s point of view, Catalan secession could encourage other restive regions — the Basque country and Galicia — to follow. Spain could potentially break up into several entities, causing economic chaos and ethnic conflict.
For Madrid and Brussels, however, there is a deeper problem: The eurozone’s debt crisis and severe recession are pushing wealthier regions — like Catalonia — to reject subsidizing poorer, less developed ones. Catalans have their own distinct language and culture. The region’s 7.5 million inhabitants have created an economic powerhouse, becoming one of the richest parts of Spain. It is home to modern car factories, high-tech firms and a vibrant business sector. Barcelona’s principal complaint is that it is underwriting Madrid’s bloated welfare state, providing more in tax revenue than it receives.
Catalonia already has substantial self-government. It runs its own schools, hospitals, police and cultural institutions. To avoid losing Catalonia altogether, Madrid may be wise to consider revising Spain’s constitution and grant the Catalans more autonomy — something approaching home rule.
The European Union’s highly centralized, socialist superstate is provoking a nationalist backlash. Separatist movements are spreading, not just in Spain, but across Europe. A referendum on Scotland’s independence is planned for 2014. In Belgium, Flemish political parties are demanding secession. Even in North America, French-speaking separatists in the province of Quebec are vowing to hold another referendum on breaking up Canada.
Catalan demands for more regional control and less intervention from Madrid are not going away. Relations between Barcelona and Madrid are poised to get worse over the next few years. Many Spaniards may not like it, but sometimes acknowledging reality is better than fighting the inevitable. Spain is a multilingual, multicultural nation. The only way it can survive is through devolution. Otherwise, the country’s centrifugal forces may result in dissolution.
The Washington Times