By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
BARCELONA, Spain – On Tuesday evening, an estimated 1.5 million people rallied in the Spanish city of Barcelona. The rally protested Spanish tax laws asserted by the central government in Madrid. Additionally, Catalonia seeks fiscal independence, a government bailout of tax debt, and political autonomy.
The independence rally, or march, is held annually on September 11 to coincide with National Day or Diada. The date marks the end of the Siege of Barcelona 300 years ago during the War of Spanish succession. This year’s peaceful rally aims to be the largest ever, drawing a crowd of some 1.5 million people from around Catalonia.
The marchers, already filling the designed route by the time the march began, carried pro-independence flags: the red and gold striped flag of Catalonia with the addition of a blue triangle and single white star, and banners with the motto “Catalonia, New European State.”
The independence movement had received limited support prior to the financial crisis. However, polls Tuesday showed that 46.4% of Catalans support independence; double the figure in 2008 when the crisis began. However, not all Catalans offer their support. Particularly, traditionally rural Spanish immigrants and people from other European states would be very unlikely to vote for independence.
Spurred by the financial crisis, many Catalans object to what they perceive as a disproportionately high tax contribution to the central government compared to what is returned. Catalonia, in the north-east corner of Spain, is also Spain’s wealthiest region, representing a fifth of Spain’s economy.
In Spain, one in four people are unemployed and the economy has continued to decline for three consecutive quarters. The Catalonia region is also struggling. This year, it took out €13billion (£10bn, $16.6bn) in loans to refinance a maturing debt in addition to funding its deficit for the year.
A recent credit ratings downgrade has also shut Catalonia out of the debt market. There is also concern that the Catalan government may have barely enough funds to pay its public sector employees.
In August, Catalonia requested a €5 billion (£4bn, $6.4bn) bailout from Madrid from an €18 billion emergency fund created to help regions pay off debts and suppliers of health care and other basic services. It is believed that this is what the government owes Catalonia in overpaid taxes.
“It’s absurd that we are now having to ask the government in Madrid to lend us money that should have been ours to use in the first place,” said Luis Planagumà, a protestor from Santa Pau who traveled two hours by bus with a group of about 1,500 to join the rally.
Consequently, many Catalans want to see Catalonia gain greater fiscal autonomy from Madrid, and therefore reduce its tax contribution to the central system. As seen from the rally Tuesday, many Catalans desire a further step as well: political autonomy.
Law student Laura Nuñez explained her confidence that political autonomy would improve the Catalan economy. “We’re economically the most powerful part of Spain, because of industry and tourism, and we contribute more than other Spanish regions,” she said. “We shouldn’t be subject to this internal discrimination.”
However, the Catalan CiU (Convergència i Unió) nationalist government may not be prepared for the idea of independence. The CiU has governed Catalonia for 25 years, but has never pushed for autonomy. Catalan President Artur Mas did not plan to participate in the rally. A spokeswoman, Carme Forcadell, for the group behind the march, made clear that “[a]nyone who attends should understand that they will be considered pro-independence.”
President Mas did, however, support some of the demands of the marchers. “Catalonia produces sufficient resources to live better than we live,” said Mas. “There is no more urgent battle or challenge than fiscal sovereignty, and now more than ever.”
However, Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy opposes fiscal independence for Catalonia. He claims that it would achieve nothing in Spain’s overall battle against economic collapse. Instead, Rajoy places emphasis on employment: “This isn’t a moment for big gestures like this. What we need to do is create jobs.”
At a press conference following Tuesday’s rally, Mas expressed his pride in the Catalan people, but cautioned that the path to independence would not be an easy one. As for financial independence, Mas explained that it is part of the process of autonomy.
Prime Minister Rajoy and Catalan President Mas are scheduled to meet on 20 September. Although this meeting will likely not bring the people of Catalonia the independence they desire, Mas’ message to Rajoy and Spain is this: “Listen carefully to Catalunya and [offer] solutions.”
For further information, please see:
BBC News – Huge Turnout for Catalan Independence Rally – 11 September 2012
Global Post – Spain: Catalonia Independence Rally Draws More than a Million (PHOTOS) – September 2012
The Guardian – Catalan Independence Rally Brings Barcelona to a Standstill – 11 September 2012
International Herald Tribune – Protest Rally in Catalonia Adds a Worry for Spain – 11 September 2012
La Vanguardia – Mas: “Todo es Posible si hay Voluntad, Grandes Mayorías y Capacidad de Resistir” – 12 September 2012