Spain’s economic troubles spur Catalonia separatists to take new tack

The economy is flailing, unemployment is sky-high and painful government cutbacks lie ahead. Now is the time, it would seem, for the people of Spain to pull together.

To Joan Puigcercos, it’s all the more reason to split up.

A resident of wealthy Catalonia here in the sunny northeastern corner of the country, Puigcercos blames Spain’s economic woes on the government in Madrid and what he sees as its irresponsible and discriminatory ways.

For years, he says, officials blithely spent huge sums on welfare checks and subsidies for poorer parts of Spain, using plenty of tax money from Catalonia, while ignoring the region’s needs for better infrastructure and quality public services. So now when he hears Madrid preaching the need for austerity and sacrifice from all, a different solution beckons.

“Either we give in to the politics that have always happened with the Spanish government,” said Puigcercos, the leader of the Republican Left of Catalonia party, “or we try to become an independent state.”

Those are fighting words in a region that already holds itself aloof from the rest of Spain. But their appeal threatens to intensify during an economic crunch that deepens Catalonians’ feelings of being forced to pay for the mistakes of others.

It’s a problem with echoes across Europe. Drastic budget cuts to undo years of carefree spending are already tugging at the threads that knit societies together, as workers lose jobs and public services from healthcare to libraries get slashed.

But for Spain and a few other nations, the official penny-pinching also risks aggravating tensions within their borders. In Britain, Scotland chafes against its ties to England, with nationalists urging a referendum on independence. In Italy, the prosperous north throws up its hands at being yoked to, in its view, the lazy, profligate south. French-speaking Walloons and Dutch-speaking Flemish bicker in Belgium.

In Catalonia, separatist sentiment has simmered for decades, fueled by the belief that the region’s needs and interests, as well as its distinctive language and culture, are given short shrift by the establishment in Madrid. The region already enjoys a measure of autonomy under an official arrangement with the Spanish government, but many here say it’s not enough.

Now, Madrid’s austerity measures loom just as Catalonia’s independentistas are turning more and more to economic arguments to bolster their case.

Residents grumble that they contribute more than their fair share to the public purse, but that too little of it returns in the form of public investment or services. A 2007 study said Catalonia gave about $9 billion more in revenue a year to the central government than it got back.

In one oft-cited example, residents allege that schoolchildren in the poor region of Extremadura have more computers in their classrooms — with the help of money from Catalonia — than students here at home.

The region has long pressed for better highways and railways because of its status as Spain’s biggest exporter. But infrastructure projects across the country are likely to be put on ice as part of the government’s cutbacks.

“The first figures that we have seen [show] that the proportion of cutting in Catalonia is bigger than the average for Spain.... We’re going to be hurt more,” said Muriel Casals, the president of a Catalan cultural organization in Barcelona, the regional capital. “We’ve been having these kinds of blows for a long time in history, and it’s for that that we are so sensitive.”

Her organization, Omnium Cultural, sent a wakeup call to the central government last month by staging the biggest show of anti-Madrid feeling in years, a protest of a ruling by Spain’s constitutional court that invalidated parts of the official charter granting Catalonia some autonomy.

Hundreds of thousands of residents, many of them waving Catalan independence flags, marched through the streets of Barcelona. In an act practically tantamount to high treason, some protesters wore Dutch soccer jerseys to urge on the Netherlands in the World Cup final against Spain. (The Spanish team, which included several Catalan players, triumphed anyway.)

Elections for Catalonia’s assembly this year are likely to feature harsher anti-Madrid rhetoric, with the government’s austerity plan offering a convenient whetstone on which to sharpen regional resentment.

“It’s time to tighten our belts, but it’s time for some people to do it more than others. Why? Because we have been paying for [the rest of] Spain more than others,” said Oriol Pujol, the spokesman for Convergence and Union, an autonomy-minded opposition party that could take power after the elections this fall.

Up to the mid-1990s, nationalists such as Pujol relied on romantic notions of a shared identity to enlist the support of their fellow Catalans for greater self-rule, said Joan Botella, a professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Barcelona.

Since then, however, hundreds of thousands of migrants from other parts of Spain have settled in Catalonia, diluting the old-fashioned sense of Catalan solidarity.

So the rhetoric calling for more autonomy, or even a referendum on independence, has shifted. Newcomers from Andalusia or Aragon may shrug at warm-hearted appeals to protect Catalan culture, but they respond to hardheaded arguments about their tax money being spent on schools or hospitals far from Catalonia.

The euro debt crisis and Spain’s economic troubles, including an unemployment rate of nearly 20%, only increase the resentment.

“There are many more pro-independence people who say that the crisis wouldn’t happen if we were not part of Spain,” Botella said.

If Catalonians had more control over the purse strings, there would be more public investment in research and development, to keep attracting talent from all over Europe, said Puigcercos, the leader of the Republican Left, one of the political parties in Catalonia’s ruling coalition.

He and others would also like to see the region’s seaports and airports upgraded to handle more international traffic — to Asia, for example — which would increase Catalonia’s reach as an exporter.

But as long as they remain part of Spain, many residents see little chance of this happening.

“They keep saying no,” said Pujol of the Convergence and Union party. “So there’s nothing to do but jump over the wall and push for independence.”