Spain's fiscal crisis exposes deep regional fault lines
ANALYSIS:THE LAST thing beleaguered Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy needs at this moment is a constitutional crisis. Certainly, that is the opinion of the Spanish king, Juan Carlos, who last week took the unprecedented step of intervening directly in politics with an internet letter reproaching those who “encourage dissent” and “chase chimeras”.
Nobody doubts he was referring not only to the growing opposition to the harsh economic measures with which Rajoy is attempting to placate EU concerns about Spanish solvency, but also, and especially, to the related surge of support for independence in Catalonia. Spain’s acute economic woes have stretched the carefully woven fabric of the 1978 constitution, revealing flaws in the stitching that may require an entirely new garment. Significant change to that constitution, a delicate compromise between the heirs of General Franco’s 1939-75 dictatorship and the democratic opposition, has long been considered unthinkable by most of the Madrid establishment, both right and left. But it’s amazing what a little pressure from the streets can do. The spectre of Catalan independence was unleashed by a massive demonstration in Barcelona earlier this month. As in most of Spain, Catalonia’s economy has been wrecked by a property bubble and bad banking practices.
But Catalan nationalists believe that the region, one of the richest in the country, could recover very quickly if its taxes were not partially redistributed to poorer autonomous communities. Last week Rajoy rejected a demand from the Catalan nationalist first minister, Arturo Mas, for a new “fiscal pact” that would give the region full control of its own taxes. Mas then threatened early elections that could become a surrogate referendum on establishing a separate state.
And now Spain, on the left at least, is suddenly full of federalists, willing to contemplate the prospect of a new state structure that would give full recognition to Catalonia’s status as a nation, rather than face the nightmare of the break-up of Spain.
These sudden converts to radical constitutional reform include Felipe González, the very influential former prime minister for the Socialist Party (PSOE), and that party’s current leader, Alfredo Peréz Rubalcaba. One of Spain’s leading opinion formers, the founder and former editor of El País, Juan Luis Cebrián, warned Catalan nationalists at the weekend that they risked awakening “the wild beast” of right-wing Spanish nationalism. He predicted that Catalan independence would lead to poverty and misery for both Catalonia and Spain, and then also advocated a federal state as the solution. This proposal, however, is still anathema to most conservatives, so it is hard to see how it could attract the necessary consensus to gain national traction.
Meanwhile, the far right, which has so far found a curiously comfortable home within Rajoy’s conservative Partido Popular (PP), is reacting to the Catalan challenge with a rhetoric that suggests Cebrián’s “wild beast” is already wide awake and baring its teeth. For example, Martin Prieto, in La Razón, has accused Mas of “high treason”. He added with apparent regret that the Catalan leader “enjoys the advantage of knowing that in these times nobody in Spain gets executed”.