The Sept. 11 demonstration in Barcelona was by far the largest celebration of the "Diada," Catalonia's national day, ever. Along with the unprecedented attendance, the event's carefully orchestrated rhetoric stood out.
A New Catalan Separatism
The goal of the protest, which was organized by Catalan political organization Asamblea Nacional Catalana and supported by the leadership of the region's ruling party, Convergencia i Unio, was to present a new Catalan independence movement without its historical association with anarchism and socialism. Unlike Basque separatism, this movement would eschew violence.
The organizers succeeded to the extent that the protest had a family-friendly, festive air, with many demonstrators waving the Catalan national flag, or "senyera," in one hand and the EU flag in the other. Instead of the common image of Catalan nationalists as a disgruntled fringe group, the protest offered an image of a mature majority looking to find its voice within the democratic ideals of the European Union.
The emphasis on the European Union is no accident. Despite recent progress on the financial front, Brussels and Madrid continue to be at odds regarding the management of the fiscal crisis in Spain. The European Union is demanding that Spain enact stricter austerity measures and contain its regional budgetary crises. Spain is preparing to rescue the finances of several of its ailing regions with an 18 billion-euro internal bailout. Catalonia is slated to receive slightly more than 5 billion euros, the largest share of the package.
Even so, the Catalan regional government blames Madrid for its current financial predicament. Barcelona points out that Catalonia contributes disproportionally to the tax revenue of the central government while receiving little in the way of benefits and assistance from Madrid in return. Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, accounts for more than 20 percent of Spanish gross domestic product but accounts for less than 15 percent of Spain's population. The regional government argues that it transfers more than 9 percent of its annual GDP to Madrid (20 billion euros), a sizable amount given Catalonia's current debt of 42 billion euros and 3.9 percent of GDP budget deficit, which corresponds to 7.2 billion euros.
To remedy this, the Catalan government argues that it needs the same fiscal privileges enjoyed by Spain's other traditional hotbed of separatism, the Basque Country. The Basque government is entitled to collect its own taxes and spend them at its discretion, something Catalan leaders argue would go a long way in solving Barcelona's financial woes. Spanish unity supporters in Madrid and Catalan separatist radicals alike have argued that the protests are a negotiating tactic orchestrated by the Convergencia i Unio leadership to obtain taxation rights for Catalonia.
Risks and a Referendum
While much of Catalonia's business elite agrees that fiscal autonomy may benefit their interests, they fear full independence. They believe independence would hamper trade with the rest of Spain, the destination for a majority of Catalan products and services. Their fears are magnified by the fact that independence would not involve automatic EU entry for Catalonia, which instead would have to apply for membership.
Since Sept. 11, the protests have taken center stage in Spanish politics, with increasing numbers of high-profile Catalan political, business and media personalities declaring their support for independence. In an attempt to tamp things down, Rajoy has summoned Mas to Madrid for talks. Mas has said that he will raise the issue of Catalan fiscal independence. Madrid is expected to reject the demand, bolstering the strength of the separatist movement, which will then argue that secession is the only alternative.
There is a high probability that the next Catalan elections, currently scheduled for 2014, will turn into a referendum on independence. That would make Catalonia the second region in Europe after Scotland to contest its unification with a nation-state that it claims harms its interests during a time of financial and political hardship. The Scottish referendum will be a key test for regional movements across Europe. If successful, the Scottish example would boost other separatist movements in the Continent, particularly the Catalan movement.
So far, the Spanish government's response has been muted as it seeks to thwart the Catalan separatists, who have been at a high-water mark since Spain's transition to democracy more than 30 years ago. While the Basque separatist movement was highly visible due to violence carried out by militants seeking a split with Spain, the negative reaction to that violence ensured that Madrid was never truly at risk of losing control of the region. The successive waves of shootings and bombings actually helped Madrid strengthen its hold over the Basque region. This new face of Catalan separatism is likely to prove far more challenging to Madrid, which is constitutionally bound to protect the indivisibility and sovereignty of Spain but has no desire to return to Francisco Franco's repression of Spain's restive regions.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this analysis misstated Catalonia's budget deficit.