As the spring and summer riot season sets in across Europe, the Spanish government and the Catalans seeking independence from Madrid appear locked on a collision course.
On Tuesday, the Spanish parliament overwhelmingly rejected Catalonia’s request for a referendum to determine whether the northeastern province on the Mediterranean could secede from its mother country.
Spanish lawmakers said the referendum would be unconstitutional. But Catalan leaders were undeterred. Citing popular support for disunion, they’re now vowing to hold the vote in November anyway.
"If laws are used to deny reality, they will not manage to avoid reality, and the problem will grow deeper roots," said Catalan President Artur Mas, speaking to the province’s parliament today.
The discord promises to birth yet another separatist crisis in Europe, as Russia’s bear hug tightens around Crimea, Scotland decides in September whether to exit the United Kingdom, Venice secessionists push to revive their defunct republic, and Belgium teeters on partition between its Dutch and French-speaking halves.
Like other independence movements, Catalonia’s urge to go it alone stems not only from its unique language and culture but — surprise, surprise — money.
Whereas much of Spain is broke, Catalonia and its beautiful beachfront capital of Barcelona are relatively prosperous. Catalans feel like they’re getting screwed as Madrid hikes taxes and cuts spending to balance its books amid the Eurozone crisis.
It’s a similar story throughout the Old Country, said Adriano Bosoni, an analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm in Austin, Texas.
“You see wealthy regions saying ‘Hey why do I have to pay taxes to subsidize poorer regions?’” Bosoni told VICE News.
The summer tourism season should give the Spanish economy a little boost, and chip away at the youth unemployment rate of 60 percent, said Bosoni. But he added that Catalans are nonetheless stockpiling their brickbats.
“Our forecast for more protest and more social unrest still stands,” he said.
The question is, how bad might it get?
The Institute for Economic Studies (IEE), a Madrid think tank with ties to corporations that oppose separation, recently published a report that said Madrid had the right to use troops to quell a Catalan rebellion. The IEE report also likens conservative Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to Abraham Lincoln for defending the Spanish Constitution, and indirectly equates the situation with the illegitimate American South during the Civil War.
This all raises the prospect of a repeat of the violence depicted in George Orwell’s great “Homage to Catalonia,” which depicts the heroic Catalan resistance to the fascist General Francisco Franco — whose regime later banned teaching the Catalan language in schools.
Rajoy, incidentally, led a campaign that resulted in Spain’s top court striking down laws that spelled out Catalonia’s autonomy in 2010, sparking mass demonstrations.
“Rajoy is under pressure from the hawkish sectors of his party to show a very hard, rigid position regarding Catalonia,” said Bosoni.
The role of politicians in fomenting conflict can’t be ignored in Catalonia’s independence bid, said Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, who keeps in contact with Catalan friends from her time as a Fulbright scholar in the region.
“For politicians, regional pride is a very good thing to cynically exploit,” Lemmon told VICE News.
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