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As Spain Protests Austerity, Catalonia Pushes for Independence

WASHINGTON—Thousands of miners entered Madrid last week, singing loudly, setting off fireworks, and waving signs and banners. Some walked as far as 250 miles from the mining regions along Spain’s northern coast. The marcha negra (black march) ended with a violent clash with police in front of Spain’s Industry Ministry building. Over the ensuing days, laborers and civil servants rallied throughout the city, blocking streets and railways. Some women wore black veils as though for a funeral. The target of these protests was the austerity package passed last Wednesday by the embattled government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy — whose future, the miners reminded him, was “darker than our coal.”

The €65 billion package consists of EU-recommended tax increases, public sector spending cuts, city and regional government overhauls, and the liberalization of the transportation sector. The hope is that these measures will help the country, having recently requested up to €100 billion in European aid for its banks, avoid an international state bailout along the lines of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. With government revenues and housing prices falling, and debt on the rise, though, it may well prove to be a doomed effort.

And yet as workers from throughout the country converge on Madrid for protests, a second, altogether different movement is gathering strength in one of Spain’s wealthiest autonomous regions, Catalonia. There, thousands have gathered throughout the summer in towns and villages to call for much more than an end to austerity. Their goal is complete independence for their region of over 7.5 million from the Spanish state. Catalonia, like the Basque Country, has a long and complicated history with Castillian-dominated Spain. But the crippling economic crisis, resentment over transfers of roughly 8 to 9 percent of Catalonia’s GDP to poorer parts of Spain, and incidents such as recent Spanish Supreme Court opposition to Catalan language immersion programs in the region’s pre-schools have combined to form a three-layered gift for the independentistes.

According to recent polls conducted by the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, 51.1 percent of all Catalans would vote for independence from Spain in a hypothetical referendum. This represents a six-point increase in the past four months alone. When asked the broader question of what Catalonia should be vis-à-vis Spain, 34 percent said “independent,” a 20-point increase since the pre-crisis days of 2006. Following the release of the polling data, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría called on all Spaniards to understand that with the country’s other concerns, “now must be a time for stability.” Catalan MP Josep Antoni Duran sought to downplay the results, arguing that a majority of Catalans would still prefer increased autonomy over outright independence.

Yet between now and September, over 200 pro-independence rallies and marches are scheduled to take place across Catalonia, building up to a massive demonstration on September 11, the region’s national holiday. The plan from there, according to the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) will be to organize a referendum on Catalonia’s status for the following year, and proclaim full independence in 2014. “For us, independence is a question of dignity,” says Carme Forcadell, head of the ANC. “We don’t want to live on our knees within Spain when we could stand on our own feet in Europe.”

Spain, with unemployment rates of close to 25 percent, youth unemployment over 50 percent, increasing emigration, and expectations of long-term recession and austerity, should be watched very carefully by policymakers in Brussels and Washington. Its dual crises of social and economic unrest, paired with an unprecedented loosening of the bonds that tie it together as a nation, make it perhaps the most apt microcosm of today’s European Union. As the country drifts towards a possible state bailout, the tightening screws of la crisis are threatening to drive fissures through every aspect of its social, political, and economic life, and push it into the uncharted waters of possible, although still unlikely, disintegration.

During the recent European Championship, the uglier side of pan-European tensions was often on display. “Without Angie, you wouldn’t be here,” chanted German fans during the game with Greece, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “We’ll never pay you back,” replied the Greeks. At a wedding I recently attended in Catalonia, I found only one fellow guest tracking the status of the ongoing match between Spain and France, and he was quietly rooting for France. “We Catalans are tired of seeing our tax money go to Spain,” he said, cringing as news of another Spanish goal popped up on his phone. “I guess you could say we understand how Germany feels.”

Nicholas Siegel is Senior Program Officer with the Transatlantic Academy in Washington DC. 

Image by DenPics

Posted in Economics, European Union, Germany, Greece, Immigration, Politics, Spain, Transatlantic Relations, Transatlantic Take163 Comments

Spain’s Growing Catalan Conundrum

WASHINGTON—On September 11, 2012, a tsunami hit Spanish politics. Months of independence marches through small Catalan towns and villages culminated in the heart of Barcelona, when as many as 1.5 million people —over 22 percent of Catalonia’s population — took to the streets under the banner “Catalonia: A New European State.” The march came just as some polls recorded that, for the first time since the 1970s, the majority of Catalans would vote for independence from Spain. 

The reasons for this shift within Spain’s most economically prosperous region have been accumulating for years: the crippling financial crisis, resentment over transfers of roughly 8 to 9 percent of Catalonia’s GDP to poorer regions of Spain, the 2010 evisceration by the Spanish Constitutional Court of an enhanced Catalan statute of autonomy, and a lingering concern that Madrid is unable or unwilling to sufficiently appreciate the richness of Spain’s plurality. 

Yet if the Barcelona march rattled Madrid, it had seismic effects on Catalan politics. First, it helped persuade the ruling center-right Convergence and Union (CiU) coalition — which has governed Catalonia for 25 of the last 33 years on a moderately nationalist platform, preferring always to push for greater autonomy rather than outright independence — to do an about face. In late September, when denied his request for a new fiscal pact with Madrid by embattled Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Catalan President Artur Mas stunned the country, and Catalan nationalists, by dissolving the regional legislature. He called for new polls, asking the Catalan people to give CiU an “indestructible majority” to hold a referendum on Catalonia’s future within four years. It was a two-fold lurch into uncharted waters. Suddenly CiU had appeared to become a secessionist party, and the Catalan nationalist movement had been offered an actual referendum on splitting from Spain. Catalan elections, expected in 2014, were moved to November 2012, and Mas’ visibility in Spain, as well as Europe, began a sudden, meteoric rise.

However, on November 25 CiU dropped from 62 seats in the 135 seat Catalan Parliament to 50, its worst showing since 1980. Instead of earning an absolute majority, Mas was granted at best four shaky years of minority rule. In Madrid, Rajoy broadsided the Catalan premier, saying that he had never seen as ruinous a political operation as Mas’. Spanish pundits explained the outcome by pointing to the success of the pro-unionist Citizens Party, which tripled its representation from 3 seats to 9, and the modest gains for Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP), which rose from 18 seats to 19. 

It is true that Mas miscalculated in thinking he could appropriate the cresting wave of Catalan patriotism for CiU. But Rajoy also risks missing the bigger picture. Almost two-thirds of the votes in the election went to nationalist parties in favor of a referendum, with the largest gains going to the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), a fiercely pro-independence party. Catalan nationalists viewed Mas’ abrupt and still murky pro-independence turn with suspicion, and many voters in favor of independence flocked instead to ERC. The fear among many was that Mas viewed the proposed referendum as a bargaining chip for his real goal, fiscal autonomy. And while Mas, despite his shift, still hesitates in using the actual term “independence,” ERC has had no such reservations. Alfred Bosch, leader of ERC in the Spanish Parliament, displayed the Catalan secessionist flag with combative flair during a recent parliamentary speech in Madrid. 

So while Catalan nationalists have temporarily been denied a clear figurehead to drive their cause boldly forward, the wind is not entirely out of their sails. ERC will continue to oppose CiU on economic grounds — it was a vociferous opponent of the three recent austerity packages pushed through by the Mas government, with close support of the PP. But it will unwaveringly push for a referendum process that is no longer controlled by Mas. The plebiscite, and a potential constitutional crisis in Spain, will if anything come sooner now than had Mas and the CiU triumphed. 

In a recent interview, Spanish Justice Minister Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón said “People talk about Catalonia as if it was a limb that could be amputated and the rest of Spain would survive….But what the independence of Catalonia really means is the disappearance of Spain as a nation.” Rajoy, along with many other leaders in pluralistic European states, will hope that CiU’s slide signifies the beginning of a nationalist decline in Catalonia. And perhaps the region will follow the path of Quebec, where a landmark referendum in 1995, in which the pro-independence vote fell just short of a majority, deflated the Quebecois independence movement. Yet the reconfiguring of Catalan politics could just as likely mark the deeper entrenchment of secessionist sentiments, with leaders less willing to compromise now gaining ascendancy. Policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic would do well to keep a close eye on the swirling politics of Catalonia. 

Nicholas Siegel is Senior Program Officer with the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC. 

Image by Ivan McClellan

Posted in Culture, Democracy, European Union, Spain, Transatlantic Take2 Comments

Turkey’s Troubles Cost it the Olympics

The 2020 Olympic Games should have been Turkey’s to lose. A win for the city of Istanbul, in its fifth bid to host the Olympics, would have seen the games take place for the first time in a predominantly Muslim country, in a majestic and storied city spanning Europe and Asia. Yet on September 7, the International Olympic Committee’s delegates in Buenos Aires opted 60-36 for Tokyo over Istanbul in the final round of voting. Many called Tokyo the “secure” or “safer” option.

For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), the decision marks a bitter disappointment. Recent doping and match fixing scandals have tarnished Turkey’s sporting image, and may have hurt the bid, as may have the country’s increasingly shaky economic prospects and concern as to how the $19.2 billion infrastructure budget for the games would be met. Yet above all is the sense that the defeat in many ways reflects, and to a degree is likely a result of, the many troubles Turkey is facing both at home and abroad.

The two faces of Istanbul were clearly on display the night the Olympic Committee made its decision. The shock and dejection shown by supporters of the bid in the heart of the city’s conservative Sultanahmet district seemed light years away from the jubilation in liberal Taksim, where for three weeks in June running street battles took place between authorities and anti-government demonstrators. One reveler notably tweeted, “Tokyo won, Tayyip lost!” Ankara’s AKP mayor, Melih Gokcek, for his part blamed the loss on the “traitors from Gezi.”

“Peace at home, peace in the world,” is one of the best-known maxims of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. However, today Turkey is emerging from a tumultuous summer of domestic unrest in a world at which it is increasingly ill at peace, and more divided and partisan than at any point in recent years.

Since winning his first of three successive terms as prime minister in 2002, Erdogan has overseen a decade of growth and prosperity in Turkey, brought about through much needed economic and political reforms. However, recent years have seen the prime minister adopt an increasingly authoritarian style of leadership, while the country has dropped in international indices ranking everything from human rights protection to press freedoms. In applauding police brutality against the June protesters, and condemning them as “terrorists” and “vandals,” Erdogan appeared at every turn the kind of illiberal figure he had promised to vanquish from Turkish politics.

A series of high-profile court cases aimed at cleansing Turkey’s alleged “deep state” have further divided the country. Few would dispute that one of the most important accomplishments of Erdogan’s tenure as prime minister has been to rein in the Turkish military, which intervened in the country’s politics in 1960, 1971, 1980, and most recently 1997. But last year’s conviction of more than 300 military officers and this August’s conclusion of the five-year Ergenekon case against some 275 generals, lawyers, academics, opposition politicians, and journalists for plots against Turkish democracy, have left many asking whether he seeks justice or revenge. Many in Europe and the United States initially supported the cases as efforts to put an end to the era of military coups. But by 2012 the European Commission, in a progress report on Turkey’s bid to join the EU, said that the cases had raised “real concerns about their wide scope and the shortcomings in judicial proceedings.”

Abroad, the lofty Turkish dream of “zero problems with the neighbors” has long since unraveled. Turkey’s ties with Israel began to break down following the latter’s war with Gaza in 2008-2009. While Ankara was once viewed as an honest broker and constructive partner in regional disputes, it now increasingly forges a partisan path vis-à-vis its troubled neighbors, from Iraq, to Egypt, to Syria. In Egypt, the most populous state in the Arab world, Erdogan’s relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood compelled him to stand by ousted President Mohammed Morsi, even as this cost him dearly in his relations and leverage with the interim government in Cairo. And throughout its dealings with its neighbors, particularly in the Syria crisis, Turkey has increasingly assumed the role of a partisan Sunni player in an ever-more sectarian Middle East. This can be seen even at home when, following the May 2013 bombings in Reyhanli, Erdogan publicly lamented the “53 Sunni citizens” killed, causing ripples of unease among Turkey’s 20 million non-Sunni Alevis.

Despite the country’s troubles at home and abroad, Erdogan’s approval ratings remain around 50 percent, and the AKP still appears on track to do well in the March 2014 parliamentary elections. But as resurgent anti-government protests in numerous cities over the past week have shown, being the prime minister of the 50 percent is no longer enough for an increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse public hungry for a more liberal democracy. An effort to reinsert inclusiveness and pragmatism into the heart of Turkish domestic and foreign policy will be the country’s best hope to again live up to Atatürk’s famous dictum. It will also help ensure that, in some future decision on the Olympic Games, Istanbul might be considered the safe choice.

Nicholas Siegel is Senior Program Officer with the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington DC. 

Posted in slider, Transatlantic Take, Turkey1 Comment


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