Leaders Centrifugal Spain
Umbrage in Catalonia
Even though the spectre of secession is an unwelcome distraction, Spain still needs to change
George Orwell, a British writer, fought in the trenches in the Spanish civil war to defend Catalonia from General Franco. He would surely be saddened by what is going on in that beautiful, cultured corner of Spain. On November 25th Catalans will vote in a regional election called as an unofficial referendum on independence. Since Catalonia represents a big chunk of the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy, and since Spain is in the front-line of efforts to save the euro, the vote and its aftermath will be felt farther afield.
What could be wrong with 7.5m people with their own language and culture choosing to become a nation-state? At first blush, it is hard to object to what Catalan nationalists call the “right to decide”. In fact, there are many reasons why Catalans should not waste their energy trying to break away from Spain. Start by recalling Orwell’s definition of nationalism as “power-hunger tempered by self-deception”。
Under Spain’s constitution of 1978, Catalonia enjoys more self-government than almost any other corner of Europe. It runs its own schools, hospitals, police, prisons and cultural institutions. It lacks only tax-raising powers and the Ruritanian trappings of statehood, which nationalist politicians appear to be hungry for. As for the self-deception, this is sometimes farcical: Catalan public television offers a weather forecast that includes provinces that have been part of France since 1659, but no meteorological information for Zaragoza or Madrid. And most Catalans still seem happy to be both Catalans and Spaniards. Support for independence has risen mainly because Catalans think it would offer relief from recession.
It would not. An independent Catalonia would have more fiscal revenues, but it would also have a higher debt burden than Spain. The argument that Catalans should not subsidise feckless Andalusians is a dangerous one: apply that more widely and the euro zone would fall apart. Indeed, far from welcoming Catalonia as an independent member, the euro zone’s leaders hardly yearn for an extra nation-state.
Spilling the Spanish beans
All that said, the Catalan problem cannot be wished away. Roughly three-quarters of the next Catalan parliament is likely to vote for the right to decide. The constitution says only the Spanish parliament can approve a referendum—and it will not do so. The constitution has in general served both Spain and Catalonia well—but there is a case for updating it.
The Catalans’ complaints come down to two things. First they feel that Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government in Madrid refuses to recognise that Spain is a plurinational and pluri-linguistic country. Second, they think that, set beside the other 16 regions, they pay too much.
The neatest answer to these grievances would be for Spain formally to embrace federalism, with a federal senate and clear rules about who collects which taxes. Federalism would mean each region was equal, with the same rights and obligations. But it has been a dirty word in Spain since a failed federal government in 1873-74. A messier, but more feasible, alternative would be to accept that some regions—Catalonia, the Basque country and perhaps Galicia—should have more autonomy than the rest and be recognised as cultural nations within Spain. Doing this would require a national pact to revise the constitution. After the Catalan vote, Mr Rajoy would be wise to set that process in motion.