Up TO one million people are expected to join a pro-Catalan independence rally tonight in Barcelona called under the slogan “Catalunya: a new European state”.
Spain’s economic woes have helped to transform what was a minority tendency into a mainstream political movement. Recent polls show 51 per cent of the region’s population back independence, twice as many as when the economic crisis hit six years ago. The groundswell of support has caught the ruling nationalist CiU party off guard. The CiU, which has governed Catalonia for 25 of the 33 years since democracy was restored to Spain, has never aspired to independence and preferred to play the kingmaker with minority governments in Madrid in return for greater autonomy. With a right-wing government with an absolute majority installed in Madrid, the CiU has been reduced to bleating from the sidelines.
Artur Mas, the Catalan president, initially said he had no intention of joining the march but has bowed to popular pressure, and will attend in a personal capacity, but not as president.
“I have little confidence in the politicians we have, both for now and for a future independent state,” says Carme Vidal, a yoga teacher.
Vicki Vicente, who teaches languages, adds: “I don’t know if we’d be better off with an independent government. Everything depends on the ideology and the degree of corruption of the politicians and, looking at what we’ve got, I’m not very optimistic.”
Catalan nationalism is driven by issues of language and culture, as well as nostalgia, but the real issue is money. Catalonia was the first region in Spain to industrialise and remains one of the wealthiest. Catalans have long complained that they contribute far more to the Spanish state than they get back. When the regional government asked Madrid for a €5 billion bailout earlier this month it claimed it was asking for money that rightfully belonged to it.
Carles Brugueras, a documentary film-maker, says he is not a nationalist but favours independence from a strictly economic perspective. “For a long time, Catalonia has been generating a lot of resources for Spain but the fiscal balance has been very unfair.”
“I’m sure we are viable as an independent state,” says Montse Agell, who works for a charitable foundation. “There will probably be a bit of inertia to begin with, but later I’m sure we’ll be better off. Businesses have to internationalise and look beyond Spain.”
Yet, if Catalonia were to become independent, a resentful Spain might launch a boycott of Catalan goods, argue the economists Modest Guinjoan and Xavier Cuadras in their book Sense Espanya (Without Spain).
“A boycott could lead to a 40 per cent drop in exports of consumer goods to Spain,” says Mr Cuadras, adding that it is unlikely that a widespread boycott could be sustained for long.
While the majority of English people appear indifferent to Scottish independence, Spaniards in general view the Catalans as disruptive, disloyal and demanding. This attitude is another spur to seeking independence. “I’m fed up with the way we’re criticised whatever we do,” comments Gemma Soler, a secretary. “And I’m tired of having to justify myself … we’re not the extremists they make us out to be, as if we went around burning cars and flags all the time.”