Thursday, September 27, 2012

Spain About to Devolve into Three Different Countries?

The FT has a provocative piece about Spain and the possibility, though remote, that snap elections called by Arturo Mas, PM of sub-state Catalonia, may wreak additional havoc on the already beleaguered national polity and unity of Spain itself. Bear in mind that Catalonia [Gothland] and the Basques [the only non-IE speaking group in Europe except the Saami [Lapps] represent two outlying castes who have not intermarried much with the ascendant Castilian and Aragon elites from the sixteenth century under Philip II. Franco's brutal centralist and fascist state heightened the sense of isolation of these two outliers.
The economic crisis has mercilessly exposed the financial incontinence of some of these baronial fiefs, such as Valencia, controlled by the ruling Partido Popular of Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister. Catalonia, amounting to one-fifth of Spain’s economic output, is also heavily in debt. The mainstream nationalist Catalan government led by Artur Mas was elected to secure the same rights as the Basques, who collect their own taxes. Mr Rajoy, whose centre-right PP seems to want to use the crisis to recentralise Spain, rejected this last week. A majority of Catalans feels Madrid takes too much of local income to redistribute elsewhere. The clamour for independence has become mainstream. Sentiment turned when the constitutional court in Madrid – acting on a petition from Mr Rajoy’s PP – struck down democratically approved enhancements to Catalan home rule. This is not just about money. But austerity is politically toxic and intrinsically centrifugal. Nor is this, as some observers argue, a textbook example of how EU integration dissolves national cohesion in less than homogeneous states. The most proximate cause of Spain’s identity politics is Franco’s ruthless attempt to expunge Basque and Catalan identity. EU membership, by contrast, spread wealth throughout all of Spain, albeit unevenly, for the first time in history – and devolution was part of the reason. But that model appears to have run its course, and Mr Rajoy and Mr Mas have backed themselves into irreconcilable corners. Is there a way out? Felipe Gonz├ílez, former Socialist prime minister and emblematic (if tarnished) figure of the democratic transition, last week said the constitution needed to be recast into a more federalist mould. King Juan Carlos, whose image has also been diminished by controversy, last week recalled the spirit of that transition, tacitly invoking the national pacts that made democracy possible. A feasible way forward would be to combine these ideas: a new all-party pact, including Basques and Catalans, to confront the economic emergency and reform the constitution along more federal lines. But federalism is about trying to spread prosperity and iron out regional inequity. It is not clear all actors in the present drama understand this.
On a personal note, I have just finished re-reading Orwell's stunning Homage to Catalonia, a personal gift from Christopher Hitchens thirty years ago, with his personal photograph of the Falcon Hotel in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, taken in the early '70s. Food for thought.

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