Beyond The Bubble

By Danny Zhang

Over the past three years, the world has become familiar with the financial woes of the European Union. Countries previously associated with vacational paradise, such as Greece, Spain and Italy, have seen their borrowing costs soar and even faced the possibility of default.

In exchange for emergency bailouts to keep the government afloat, these countries have imposed severe austerity measures on their citizens. These austerity measures have been wildly unpopular and so far resulted in little economic success.

In Spain’s case, the national government is facing one additional challenge: keeping the country together.

In the northeastern parts of the country, the long-simmering nationalist sentiments of Catalonians have moved to the forefront of their political dialogue. This past Sunday, Catalonia held regional elections widely seen as a litmus test for the viability of future secession.

With 50 percent of the ballots counted by Sunday night, incumbent Regional President Artur Mas’s party won a plurality, leading in 48 out of 135 parliamentary districts. Combined with three other parties advocating Catalonian independence, the separatist faction is poised to control approximately 84 seats in total.

These preliminary results showed a slightly weaker performance for the separatists than what many say is needed for a serious secessionist movement. President Mas’s party will almost certainly fall short of a parliamentary majority and the separatist bloc will likely not attain a two-thirds supermajority.

These regional elections came almost two years before originally scheduled. President Mas called them in response to massive separatist demonstrations. On Sept. 11, a crowd of more than 1.5 million Catalonians swelled the streets of Barcelona, Spain’s second largest city, demanding secession from Spain.

These secessionist sentiments are hardly new as Catalonia uses its own language and sees its culture as unique from that of the rest of Spain. However, the separatist movement has been exacerbated by what many Catalonians see as a losing marriage with Spain.

The region generates tremendous wealth for Spain, with its car factories, banks and tourism. Catalonians, especially in the middle of the Eurozone crisis, think that they are reaping fewer benefits from the national government than the contributions they make in taxes. Many believe that the region would be better off financially on its own.

Regional President Mas is a recent convert in the secessionist movement. Prior to the separatist fever that struck in September, Mas was in favor of gaining more regional autonomy via negotiations. However, during the course of this campaign, he has promised to hold a referendum on independence within this upcoming parliamentary term.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said that the national government will not allow an independence referendum in Catalonia. In 2008, the Spanish national government successfully appealed to the constitutional court to cancel a non-binding referendum on independence in Basque country, another northeast Spanish region with a long history of secessionist agitation.

The national government is backed by the 1978 Spanish Constitution, which states: “The Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards.”

Even if Catalonia falls short of secession, these regional elections are another sign of the difficult task Prime Minister Rajoy faces in maintaining domestic stability. The youth unemployment rate continues to linger around 54 percent, while the European Central Commission predicts the Spanish economy to contract 1.4 percent per year in both 2012 and 2013. A general strike in protest of budget cuts all but shut down the country on Nov. 14, the second such event this year.