BARCELONA — It was a soccer game of Super Bowl proportions: Madrid vs. Barcelona, Spain’s two main cities clashing in a legendary rivalry. But when the crowd of nearly 100,000 Barcelona fans erupted in cheers, what they were shouting was, “Independence! Independence!”
The noisy display of Catalan nationalism, the highlight of last weekend’s 2-2 draw, dramatized for a television audience of millions the new swelling of separatist fever in the Catalonia region of Spain. Although the historic quest for Catalonian independence stretches back for centuries, it has suddenly risen again to the top of regional concerns in a very current struggle — over tax money in a time of financial crisis.
“It is like a volcanic eruption,” said Oriol Pujol, a leader of the ruling regional party Convergencia i Unio, which has adopted “our own state” as its latest slogan. “When everybody was rich, nobody thought of how much it cost us to be part of Spain. But now everybody sees it.”
The spectacle of an independence struggle in one of Europe’s oldest states, an example of democracy since the Franco dictatorship crumbled more than three decades ago, has struck many Spaniards as anachronistic, particularly those who feel most strongly that they belong to a 21st-century society and a globalized economy.
For a few alarmists, it has conjured up dark references to the history of terrorism emanating from the now-quiescent Basque Country. But even for the majority of Spaniards who are confident that the tradition of nonviolent struggle will prevail in Catalonia, the challenge of separatism has reemerged when it is least welcome.
Spain is in the middle of an already-difficult struggle to overcome a debt crisis that has pushed unemployment to 25 percent and shrunk the economy for everybody in what only five years ago was one of Europe’s most booming countries. Moreover, Spain’s regions, which account for 35 percent of public spending, have contributed mightily to the problem, piling up debts with extravagant infrastructure projects and seemingly unstoppable accumulations of new civil servants.
Six of the 17 regions, including Catalonia, have gone to the central government for a bailout, forcing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to set aside more than $23 billion to rescue them from bankruptcy when his central administration can barely make ends meet. Catalonia alone has asked for $6.5 billion.
Nevertheless — or in part because of that — Artur Mas, president of the Catalan government, has called early regional elections for Nov. 25 that are certain to revolve around the question of Catalonia’s place in Spain. Moreover, Mas has said that in the likely case of reelection of his independence-minded Convergencia i Unio party, he will convoke a plebiscite so the 7.5 million residents of Catalonia can decide on the status for themselves.
That, officials in Madrid quickly pointed out, would be leading Catalans into separatist illegality. According to the Spanish constitution, they noted, only the central government can organize a plebiscite.
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In Spain, separatist fever rises in time of crisis
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