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Artur Mas: independence hero, or cynical politico clinging to power?

The Catalan leader has upset the apple cart by calling early regional elections he says will be a referendum on self-rule. This will also avoid a messy poll in two years that might have seen his CiU coalition lose its majority.


Artur Mas has called early elections in Catalonia.

Artur Mas at work: does the Catalan leader really believe he can secure independence? Photo: Generalitat.

Does Artur Mas, the man who likes to be called the president of Catalonia, really think that this northeastern region of Spain is going to become an independent nation any time soon? Does anybody? Surely not. In which case, why is he pushing the self-rule agenda?

In recent weeks, Mas has gone from being Mariano Rajoy’s partner in crime in supporting unprecedented austerity measures to rabble-rousing independence leader, suddenly pulling the rug from under a bemused and increasingly befuddled-looking prime minister.

Mas met with Rajoy in September, pushing for a deal that would give Catalonia a bigger share of the tax revenue it generates for the central government. When Rajoy turned the deal down, Mas moved into brinkmanship mode and called snap elections for November 25, two years ahead of schedule. On September 27, the Catalan parliament backed holding a referendum on independence, and now Mas is saying that the upcoming poll will be seen as a referendum on self-rule.

“Our ideal is to be part of the United States of Europe,” said Mas last week. The newspapers at home and abroad have been full of stories that suggest Spain is on the brink of breaking up, so I won’t go into the ins and outs of changing the Spanish Constitution, winning approval from Congress, along with a promise Spain would not veto Catalonia’s membership, or that the last thing the European Commission needs or wants is a new mini-state any time soon.

Instead, let’s cut to the chase. Like Rajoy, Mas has used the ongoing crisis as an excuse to begin radically restructuring Catalonia’s public sector by cutting spending on health and education. Over the last two years, he has imposed 12-percent cuts in education, 11-percent in health care, along with a 15-percent cut in public sector wages, among others. In Congress in Madrid, Mas’s CiU coalition has repeatedly voted for the Partido Popular’s cuts, labour reform and tax increases.

This is proving unpopular, as in the rest of Spain. Mas knows that if he waits until elections are due in two years’ time, the impact of the cuts and austerity measures may well cost him re-election. So now it’s time to play the nationalist card. Catalonia’s bankruptcy, which has forced it to seek €5 billion in aid from the central government, is due to the fiscal setup. In pressing for independence, however, Mas is not seeking to roll back social cuts, but to dump the region’s fiscal crisis on other, poorer regions by limiting the amount of money it sends to Madrid.

Mas’s approach is in many ways not dissimilar to the tactics that Rajoy has tried to use when negotiating with Brussels: if Catalonia doesn’t get more money from the central government, it will fall, and drag the rest of Spain down with it.

There is widespread support for independence in Catalonia, as shown by non-binding referendums in 2009 and 2011. But Mas may find that he has a tiger by the tail, and that having raised hopes and expectations that he can lead his people out of Spain, he will be unable to deliver: hence the need to consolidate his power. Mas knows that many of the million or so people who marched through Barcelona to celebrate the region’s national day are just as likely to take to the streets again, perhaps in greater numbers, demanding his head as their living standards continue to decline.

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Published: Oct 8 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Featured
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11 Comments for “Artur Mas: independence hero, or cynical politico clinging to power?”

  1. He is a cynical politician who likes power instead of doing a good administration for Catalonia, Those politicians who claim only for independence are very irresponsible because they are transmitting hate to the people and they are expending a lot of money for this kind of propaganda to brain wash everybody’s mind. Catalonia’s independence is the most stupid idea and also impossible in the Europe of these days.

  2. OK, that’s one way of seeing it. Another way of seeing it is that the proposed central policy of Mas’s government, the Fiscal Pact to guarantee some more equitable share of the revenue income, was shot down by the befuddled Rajoy without so much as a mini-consultation about its workability. While at the same time popular pressure for self-determination had grown to such a point that any political force that ignored it would be sidelined permanently – as the PSC is about to find out in next month’s elections. Between June and September this year the popular clamour for independence-sovereignty-devolution had grown into the “elephant in the room” – an issue much too large to ignore within Catalonia. From Sept 11 onwards, others in Spain and around the world began to understand that too.

    No doubt the more cynical interpretation has some truth in it. But when we’ve finished dismissing Mas and CiU as corrupt maladministrators who are clinging desperately to a policy of brinksmanship, the elephant is still there.

    If Mas doesn’t achieve something like devolution for Catalonia in the medium term, the Catalan public won’t just shrug their shoulders and get on with it – many thousands of young firebrands are coming up and those who remember voting for the 1978 referendum are, alas, a dying breed. The feeling will only get stronger and potentially more dangerous.

    BTW Mas doesn’t just like to call himself “The President of Catalonia”. He *is* the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, that’s his official title. No doubt Barack Obama likes calling himself President of the USA, but he has a perfect right to do so too.

    • I can very well see Mas as a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice. He and his party have been active in bringing about the laws they now rebel against, and they have also played an important role in creating the popular movement that calls for the separation from Spain.

      Mas is still trying to control the spirits he has conjured, and one way of doing so is, obviously, to summon as much power as he can.

  3. The situation in Catalonia has progressively changed in the last ten years. Nowadays independentism is the prevalent feeling across all segments of society. Simply put: no politician is going to survive ignoring that fact. Mas knows it very well. Next election will be a landslide, with the inevitable victory for the secessionist parties. A new catalan state is not a dream.

  4. A secession by Catalonia would be a disaster for Spain but also for Catalonia.
    Independentistas are convinced they will remain a part of the EU/euro zone as an independent nation but that’s quite unlikely: There is no EU mechanism that governs a secession from a member state and certainly not a unilateral, unconstitutional secession. Catalonia would have to apply for membership as an outside nation and would require unanimous consent from all existing states: a very unlikely scenario indeed: no-one wants a known rule breaker in the club and countries with their own secessionist areas would certainly balk at setting a precedent their own regions could benefit from.
    There is empirical evidence that Catalonia would lose almost all of its export business with the rest of Spain and Italy and France (65% of its total exports). Catalonia would save money by eliminating payments to Madrid but would lose 20% of current GDP and be faced with all the costs of financing the diplomatic corps, the armed services and social security programs now paid for by all 45m Spaniards. It would be faced with export tariffs and much higher import costs due to a much weaker bargaining position and a strongly devaluated new currency.
    This would be a very raw deal for Catalans and they should be aware and beware!

    • And what if the proposal was not for a sovereign independent state but a “free associated state” like Puerto Rico is in relation to the US? That would basically be like “devomax” as it’s called in the UK, or “independence lite”.
      If the compromise deal reached was for a state which accepted that Spain was in charge of foreign relations, defence and that the Spanish King was head of state, there would be no official rupture of the Spanish state and the EU could maintain that it was status quo ante. No boats would be rocked, no treaties called in question. Ripples but no big waves.

      In fact this is exactly what will happen, I believe. Mas has repeatedly avoided the term “independence” and instead now officially calls his Estat Propi proposal a “Catalan State”, not a sovereign state. This could be fudged to everyone’s satisfaction. What we’re actually talking about, therefore, is devomax and not independence.

      • The actual problem is that Spain sees Catalonia as the cow to milk, so “devomax” would be acceptable for Catalonia but not accepted by Spain although two regions of Spain already enjoy this kind of relationship.

      • This debate has seen many euphemisms for “independence”. In fact, when pressed in the Catalan parliament to be more concrete, Artur Mas said: “You can call it as you like, independence, own state, fulfilment of national aspirations. It all points to the same end.”

        Later he spelled it out “in-de-pen-dence” and compared Catalonia to Slovenia, Holland and Norway: “We have the right to be a normal nation of Europe.”

        These are the spirits Mas is conjuring. Maybe the outcome will be different, but I guess someone has to come and break the spell first. I think you were correct when in your first comment you pointed at “thousands of young firebrands”, to conclude: “The feeling will only get stronger and potentially more dangerous.”

      • Murphy: You mean they want to have their cake and eat it, too?
        I guess one can dream…
        My guess is that the independentistas won’t come close to 50% of the vote, anyway, so the point will be moot. The Catalan media are in the hands of the independentistas and have been playing up the level of sentiment in favour for years, hoping to make it happen. But the reality is that there isn’t nearly enough support. Just watch.
        But Artur Mas is playing with fire. He is going to get burnt.

  5. One inch to the ground

    This lady, Candide, just forgets to mention, that Catalans are easy to be identified by luminiscent horns when lights are off and Mas hides his tail within the trousers.

    Jesus Christ, her comments are more fiction than Batman running for US presidency!

  6. Anth in the north

    Do the Catalans REALLY think that with massive debt, the same unemployment as the rest of Spain and junk status that the EU would let them if they became independent? They’d have to start from scratch with a new currency, the whole lot. Greece would look like a dream in comparison.

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