The human chain, half a million strong, according to the organisers, linked arm in arm, stretched unbroken from the French border to Catalonia’s border with Valencia. Four hundred kilometres. They called it “Via Catalana”, and Wednesday’s protest, on la Diada, or Catalan National Day, was undoubtedly the most eloquent expression yet of the region’s secessionist mood.
Although polls show that half of Catalonia’s 7.5 million people want to break from Spain, as many as four in five back the call for a referendum on the issue. That is completely anathema to Madrid – Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy continues to insist any poll would be illegal but has been involved in secret talks on the issue with Catalan President Artur Mas.
He and his coalition partners say they are committed to holding a referendum next year, but their ability to stick to that pledge is far from certain, as is the shape that vote will take. Mas has also raised the possibility that elections scheduled for 2016 could become an effective referendum on independence.
Relatively wealthy Catalonia is Spain’s most powerful region, a fifth of the country’s economic output, and enjoys a degree of political autonomy. The battle by successive Spanish governments to retain it as part of a unitary state is as much now to do with keeping hold of the revenues of the country’s economic powerhouse as with their fierce ideological commitment to national unity. Never mind the fear that its departure would spur other regions like the Basque country in the same direction.
Mas’s hand has been severely weakened, however, by the entanglement of Catalan politicians in corruption scandals linked to the construction crash in 2008. And the Catalan government has been struggling unsuccessfully both to meet its budget deficit target and reduce its €50 billion public debt.The central government had to bail out the region last year but its willingness and ability to do so again is severely constrained by its own economic woes and the envious looks of other regions.