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Crisis Fuels Catalan Independence Push

David Gardner, Financial Times

Catalonia no longer fits within Spain and needs to explore the option of independence, according to a leading nationalist and former head of the Catalan regional government.

Christopher Groenhout | Lonely Plant Images | Getty Images

“I haven’t changed; the country has changed,” says Jordi Pujol, president of the Generalitat, the Catalan government, from 1980 to 2003 and long a bulwark against separatism and a bridge-builder for governments of both right and left.

“We don’t fit any more inside Spain,” Mr Pujol, Catalonia’s pre-eminent nationalist leader during the transition from the Franco dictatorship to democracy, told the Financial Times in an interview in London.

“I have no arguments left against independence because Spain has made this so, it is making our country [Catalonia] unviable and we can’t accept this situation any longer.”

More than any other figure, Mr Pujol personifies the febrile shift in Catalonia’s debate about its future, which has seen separatist sentiment vault from the fringe into the mainstream – a trend that started to accelerate before the onset of the euro zone and fiscal crises that are shaking Spain to its foundations.

For the first time, polls this year revealed that a majority of Catalans now want an independent state – a demand that will reach full voice on Tuesday in mass rallies marking the Diada, Catalonia’s national day, under the banner of “Catalonia: a new state in Europe”.

The critical date, however, falls the week after, when Artur Mas, the Catalan president, meets Mariano Rajoy, Spanish prime minister. Mr Mas, a mainstream nationalist from Mr Pujol’s Convergencia i Unio party, is seeking Madrid’s commitment to fiscal autonomy – the right of Catalonia to collects its own taxes, as the Basques do – the pledge upon which he was elected.

Almost no one believes Mr Rajoy’s centre-right Partido Popular government is either ideologically willing or fiscally able to concede this demand. Most analysts therefore anticipate an early Catalan election, probably in the spring, which will become a de facto referendum on independence.

That election will follow early elections called in the Basque country next month, where the separatist Bildu coalition is hoping for a breakthrough, having won more seats than the mainstream Basque Nationalist party (PNV) in municipal and general elections last year.

Mr Pujol, who punctiliously observes the protocol whereby former leaders do not comment on their successors, refuses to be drawn about the options open to Mr Mas – but clearly sees them as very limited.

“It seems our understanding of our place within Spain has changed,” Mr Pujol says. He points to two main causes: first, a fiscal system whereby Catalonia, which has a relatively rich economy the size of Portugal’s, transfers up to 9 percent of its gross domestic product to Madrid each year; second, the 2010 decision of Spain’s constitutional court to strike down reforms approved by the Catalan and Spanish parliaments that significantly enhanced home rule.

“Until the 2000s, we tried to combine a policy of national and linguistic identity, but to project this within the Spanish framework,” Mr Pujol says. He emphasises that “we made an important contribution to establishing stability in the transition [to democracy] in Spain”, at a time of serial coup plots by the army and Francoist right, who were viscerally opposed to the restoration of historic Basque and Catalan rights.

Catalans always accepted that as a relatively rich part of the country, they “needed in justice to contribute” to a central budget channelling resources to less developed regions such as Andalucia, says Mr Pujol. But they “fell into the solidarity trap”, and “this has led to the total abuse of our [fiscal] situation”, he argues.

Catalonia last month had to seek a 5 billion euros rescue package from Madrid, which Cristobal Montoro, the Spanish finance minister, has indicated will come only with increased central control of its government. But the Catalans argue they could refinance their 42 billion euros debt and manage their budget deficit – 3.9 percent of GDP last year – if they could collect their own taxes and keep more of their revenue.

“It is not a question purely of numbers, it is the [Spanish] attitude behind it,” says Mr Pujol, adding that “there is a before and an after to the verdict of the constitutional tribunal”, which convinced many Catalans, including himself, that Catalonia no longer has a place inside a pluralist Spain.

As if to confirm a widespread conceit among state enthusiasts that Catalonia is like a slice of northern Europe on the Mediterranean, Mr Pujol quotes Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s foreign minister. “Europe without solidarity would not be possible,” he says. “But at the same time an excess of solidarity would make Europe impossible.”