Under Spain’s constitution of 1978, Catalonia enjoys more self-government than almost any other corner of Europe. It runs its own schools, hospitals, police, prisons and cultural institutions. It lacks only tax-raising powers and the Ruritanian trappings of statehood, which nationalist politicians appear to be hungry for. As for the self-deception, this is sometimes farcical: Catalan public television offers a weather forecast that includes provinces that have been part of France since 1659, but no meteorological information for Zaragoza or Madrid. And most Catalans still seem happy to be both Catalans and Spaniards. Support for independence has risen mainly because Catalans think it would offer relief from recession.
It would not. An independent Catalonia would have more fiscal revenues, but it would also have a higher debt burden than Spain. The argument that Catalans should not subsidise feckless Andalusians is a dangerous one: apply that more widely and the euro zone would fall apart. Indeed, far from welcoming Catalonia as an independent member, the euro zone’s leaders hardly yearn for an extra nation-state.
All that said, the Catalan problem cannot be wished away. Roughly three-quarters of the next Catalan parliament is likely to vote for the right to decide. The constitution says only the Spanish parliament can approve a referendum—and it will not do so. The constitution has in general served both Spain and Catalonia well—but there is a case for updating it.
The Catalans’ complaints come down to two things (see article). First they feel that Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government in Madrid refuses to recognise that Spain is a plurinational and pluri-linguistic country. Second, they think that, set beside the other 16 regions, they pay too much.
The neatest answer to these grievances would be for Spain formally to embrace federalism, with a federal senate and clear rules about who collects which taxes. Federalism would mean each region was equal, with the same rights and obligations. But it has been a dirty word in Spain since a failed federal government in 1873-74. A messier, but more feasible, alternative would be to accept that some regions—Catalonia, the Basque country and perhaps Galicia—should have more autonomy than the rest and be recognised as cultural nations within Spain. Doing this would require a national pact to revise the constitution. After the Catalan vote, Mr Rajoy would be wise to set that process in motion.
For it, Jordi Galí in The Guardian:
In the case of an independent Catalonia, we are dealing with the unique opportunity to design the institutions and regulations of a new state from scratch. A wide array of economic policy instruments that are currently under the exclusive control of the Spanish government and parliament would suddenly be at the Catalonians' disposal. It would allow us to define our own policies and a new regulatory framework for the labour, fiscal and financial sectors, as well as public administration – with no more additional restrictions than those coming from European regulations. It would thus be a good idea to enrich the current debate with proposals that answered the following question: independence, to do what?
To summarise: I believe it is important to recognise that the independence of Catalonia, in and of itself, could make us richer (because we would end the fiscal deficit), but not necessarily more productive. This second aspect would require us to make good use, the day after the celebrations are over, of the unique opportunity and the enormous possibilities offered by the building of a new state. Whether we are prepared for this challenge or not will depend exclusively on us Catalonians, and we will no longer be able to lay the blame on others. In the end, maybe that would be the best gift that independence could bring us.
I must admit (full disclosure, I am Catalan myself) that The Economist makes the better case here. By and large, my impression is that the renewed vigor of Catalan secessionism is a byproduct of the deep recession that Spain is in. Fiscal grievances have been simmering for centuries. The Catalan nationalist leaders have merely seized on the moment to push for an agenda of more self-governance.
I also believe that the secessionist position of Artur Mas (the leader of Catalonia's majority party) is merely strategic. He and most of his party, I think, would be as happy as a clam if Spain moved on to fiscal federalism, even if Catalonia was never granted the right to a independence referendum. Ironically, the only party in the election that has taken federalism as its banner, the Socialist Party (PSC), is the one that is slated to lose the most votes in tomorrow's elections relative to 2010, according to the latest polls.
Either move from the status quo --independence, or mere fiscal federalism--, however, requires a modification of the Spanish constitution, which is a big no-no for the ruling party in the Spanish parliament. I am, therefore, quite skeptical that any of those changes will take place before the end of the current political term, which is in 2015. If the current government in Madrid manages to hold on to power until then, it probably will be because the economic situation improves. By then, Catalonia's secessionist fever may have cooled off.