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Monday December 3, 2012

Independence at a price?

Catalan regional president Artur Mas must be licking his wounds following Sunday’s snap election in Catalonia, Spain’s wealthiest region, which saw him re-elected albeit with his majority slashed.

In what has been regarded as a Pyrrhic victory, Artur Mas’s Centre-right Convergence and Union party, CiU, which put its weight behind a separatist agenda, lost 12 seats leaving it with a mere 50 in the 135-seat regional parliament. Unhappily for Artur Mas, the pro-independence left-wing ERC party gained ten deputies while the main socialist party of Spain, although sustaining losses, still retained 20 seats, one more than that held in the region by the country’s conservative PP party.

Back in September thousands took to the streets of Barcelona on Catalan National Day to demand independence for the region and Artur Mas took the bait, firmly believing that in promoting self governance and calling for a referendum, he would see his popularity surge. It didn’t happen. Instead the Catalan electorate punished him for the severe austerity measures imposed on it since the economic crisis mushroomed in Spain. The region which has a population of 7.5 million produces a quarter of all Spanish exports and is responsible for a fifth of Spain’s economic output. Yet despite its prosperous status Catalonia has a €44 billion debt and recently had to go cap in hand to Madrid for €5 billion to keep it afloat. It therefore seems that the region’s voters also wanted to draw attention to a blatant mismanagement of funds in the region.

It appears that Artur Mas’s master plan will be to form a pro-independence coalition and to call a future referendum on self determination. This would allow a region which already enjoys a good deal of autonomy with its own language and culture, to turn its back on the rest of its countrymen. Whether when push comes to shove, Catalans would really want to see their region break away entirely from the mother ship of Madrid remains to be seen but if it were to happen, the disgruntled Basque region would surely follow in its footsteps. Then what? Spain would be rather like a plane with both its wings severed, economically disabled and a sad shadow of its former self.

If in a future referendum Catalans were to give Artur Mas a strong mandate it would surely be for Spain’s central government to attempt a path towards maintaining unity and fiscal cooperation. Tricky times lie ahead for the country on the issue of independence but given the severity of the current recession, Mariano Rajoy is likely to be putting it on a back burner until the threat of a referendum becomes a reality.

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