The Solution to the Catalan problem?

11th November 2011, Comments 0 comments

A possible pact involving fiscal controls and use of the Spanish language in schools might just soothe tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.

Catalan separatism has two anchor points, the traditional one is of a cultural nature with the Catalan language at its core, the other one, of more recent creation and which has built up a new group of pragmatic followers making inroads even among Spanish speakers, is based on money: the fiscal deficit of Catalonia with the central state has over the past year or so evolved into the main argument for secession.

This makes one feel that to get rid of the problem of Catalan separatism, Madrid only has to throw money at the region. And that it had better do, because this new group has the potential to grow into a serious problem, unlike the ethnocentrists, whose numbers remain basically the same.

A confirmation of sorts that a deal touching on both culture and money is finally in the pipeline between Barcelona and Madrid came fromEl Mundo editor Pedro J. Ramrez on Wednesday.

Pedrojota is a long-time insider of Spanish politics and has been critical of Popular Party PP leader Mariano Rajoy in the past, and even more so of Catalan nationalism. He combines insight with the right amount of vanity to speak publicly about what is cooking behind the scenes. Ramrez has highlighted the advantages of a possible future deal between Rajoy, most likely the next Spanish prime minister, and Catalan premier Artur Mas, of the moderate nationalist CiU. This suggests that the hard-core right-wingers of the PP, Rajoy’s internal opposition with whom Ramrez has been known to collude, are fine with it. And the other regions? Almost all have been in the hands of the PP since this years spring local elections.

Says Ramrez: “Yesterday I had an interesting supper with politicians from all Catalan parties and up came the subject of a new fiscal pact. I think this is very important to Catalonia but, well, a fiscal pact like the one the Basque country has is completely unfeasible, although I believe that there is some margin to do things, under the condition that Catalan nationalists also make concessions in other fields… for example concerning the issue of linguistic immersion. I don’t think you can ask the Catalan nationalists to make a u-turn, but I do believe that they have to be less rigid in some ways, and guarantee to citizens that their constitutional rights are being respected, concerning the official use of the Spanish language.”

The language issue and the money issue

The central word here is “constitutional”, i.e. legality. But first let’s observe that however much Catalan nationalist politicians have spoken of a casus belli should Madrid insist on changing the monolingual immersion system in Catalan schools in favour of Catalan-Spanish bilingualism, the issue Mas will bring before Madrid after the elections is money. It’s the new fiscal pact he is aiming for, not the conservation of privileges of Catalan cultural supremacy - which are legally untenable.

On the one hand there is the legal imperative to allow for Spanish as a classroom language, on the other hand there is no legal imperative for Madrid to lower Catalonia’s fiscal deficit. Mas and Rajoy will not be meeting eye-to-eye.

Mas has been doing some grandstanding over the past months but neither that nor his own regional governments opinion polls fool anyone. He has been provocative at times, but the Socialists and PP didn’t respond in kind. In hindsight, that now makes sense. All nationalist and separatist Catalan parties combined will, once again, not even come close to winning the majority of the 47 seats allotted to Catalonia in the Spanish parliament. On the contrary, in Catalonia the PP now has a chance to overtake Mas’s CiU nationalists and come in second after the Socialists.

Indeed, a PP government in Madrid would be strong and confident enough not only to not give the Catalans a single extra cent, but also to make them finally respect the Constitution. But that would spell total confrontation. Better to split the Catalan separatist troops in two by appeasing the pragmatists with a fairer fiscal deal and leave the old-fashioned ethnocentrists out in the rain; effectively solving the problem of Catalan separatism and winning huge bonus points in the rest of Spain.

That tricky deficit

The trick here is that Mas relies on the same, fragile culture-and-money coalition. He knows he has no allodium to question the unity of Spain. Instead of becoming the Father of Independence he has to look after his constituency like any off-the-shelf politician who wants to get re-elected. His core constituency are middle-class conservatives.

Mas will be extremely lucky to negotiate a new fiscal pact with Madrid that lowers the deficit from 8 percent to 5 percent of Catalan GDP and have its effects show on the ground in time for the next Catalan elections. If it is true what some observers in Madrid say, that the net deficit is closer to 6 percent, both Madrid and Barcelona might win a lot by simply agreeing on the math.

There will be a tug-of-war about one percentage point less here and two more hours of schooling in Spanish there, but the general necessity for both sides to reach common ground through a tit-for-tat deal seems to be there.

Both sides should be able to reap the profits, but Rajoy looks marginally more likely to come out on top than Mas, who will be facing an ethnocentrist opposition that has grown both in opinion polls and decibels. No headache anymore for Spain, but enough of one to make Mas’s life miserable right on his home turf. He will have to throw some money their way.

And if Madrid worries about leaving Mas in a precarious position in Catalonia, it can still pre-emptively sugar-coat The Deal somehow to let him appear as the winner to his own voters.

Mas’s love-and-hate relationship with the radical fringe could thus enjoy a happy ending, although he knows, and would be held accountable for the fact, that it was he who sealed the integration of Catalonia into the Kingdom of Spain.

He’d hate to go down in history like that.

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