Mon, Sep 17, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Separatism in EU rears its head as masses march in Catalonia

Amid a stinging EU austerity budget — that is hitting Spain hard — the nation’s wealthy northeastern region of Catalonia is now demanding independence

By Giles Tremlett  /  The GUardian

Illustration: Yusha

The EU must prepare itself for the breakup of countries within its frontiers, Catalonia’s regional prime minister said on Thursday, adding that Spain could not simply ignore a huge independence demonstration which was held in Barcelona last week.

“Europe will at some time have to think about this. It wouldn’t make sense if, because of some rigid norms, it was unable to adapt to changing realities,” Artur Mas said.

His comments came after European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso indicated last week that any new state would have to apply to join the EU.

Mas said there would be no looking back for Catalonia after the march, which police said was attended by 1.5 million people — a fifth of the population of the northeastern region. He also warned Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his conservative People’s Party (PP) government that they would be foolish to try to ignore the apparent desire for greater autonomy.

“This was not a sudden summer fever,” he said. “In Barcelona there was a vast, peaceful multitude of people ... The biggest possible mistake would be to minimize what is happening. It was very important both quantitatively and qualitatively. The feeling was that Catalonia cannot continue on the current path, that it needs its own project.”

His words came as the state television company, TVE, apologized for relegating the demonstration to fifth place in its evening news, a move that underlined the growing disconnection between Madrid and Barcelona.

“This news item was poorly placed on the evening news,” a spokesman said. “That was an error.”

Mas, from the Catalan Nationalist Convergence and Union Coalition, did not openly propose independence, though many members of his regional government were at the march and his party is often accused of calculated ambiguity on the matter.

“I identify with the popular outcry,” he said, adding that only his responsibilities as regional prime minister had prevented him from joining the demonstrators.

“Catalonia needs a state,” he said. “For years we thought it could be the Spanish state.”

However, just as northern Europe was getting fed up with the south, and vice versa, so Catalonia and the rest of Spain were now fed up with one another, Mas said.

He suggested that one way for Rajoy to dampen the surge in separatist feeling would be to agree to a change in funding, allowing Spain’s wealthiest region to hold on to more of the tax it generates.

Catalonia wants to be able to collect its own taxes and send a share to Madrid, rather than the other way around. That would make it different from most of Spain’s other 16 regional government, but similar to the northern Basque country.

Mas is scheduled to see Rajoy this week to discuss what he called an issue of “fiscal sovereignty.” Popular outrage at Catalan money going elsewhere amid health and education cuts was fueling the thirst for independence, he suggested.

Mas said that whatever changes came after last week’s demonstration, Catalans wanted to stay in the EU and the euro.

“We haven’t gone mad,” he said.

Catalonia enjoys a high degree of self-government, running health, education and local policing, but allowing it to form a separate state would be both extremely difficult and potentially explosive. A legal separation would require a change in the Spanish constitution and approval by voters in other parts of the country in a referendum — which seems unlikely.

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