Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Oh Barca!

Remember this iconic photo of FC Barcelona playing a La Liga match without audience?
It was their way of condemning the crackdown on Catalans seeking freedom.

Last night when I received the news alert that the Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont was likely to announce the independence declaration shortly, the first thing that came to my mind was Jawaharlal Nehru’s Tryst with Destiny speech. 

Quoting India’s first prime minister,

At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

I wondered whether Catalonia was on the cusp of such a historic moment. However, instead of abruptly severing all ties with Spain, Puigdemont chose the route of mediation. Perhaps he knows that diplomacy with Spain is in the best interest of the country he aims to create, its people and his political ambitions.

Even though geographically distant, Spain is not a country totally unrelatable to Indians. The well-travelled are most likely to identify it as a tourists’ paradise and the others might definitely recall the names of premium Spanish football clubs such as Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. 

With so many reports doing rounds in the media about Catalonia, referendum, Spanish crackdown and march for unity, I thought of writing a quick overview of the political crisis in Spain for those who are just curious to know what the fuss is all about. It is no expert opinion, just a few facts put together from sources online. 

To begin with, the Catalan independence struggle is one of the biggest crises Spain had to face since the death of its dictator Francisco Franco in 1975.

Where is Catalonia and why do the Catalans seek freedom?

Catalonia is a wealthy region to the north-east of Spain with a high-degree of autonomy. It is home to just 16% of the population of the country but contribute around a quarter of the State’s exports and GDP. It is also the preferred destination for a large number of tourists visiting Spain.

The key force behind the independence struggle is the perception that Madrid is robbing Catalonia, the feeling that the region is giving more than what it takes. ‘Madrid nos roba’(Madrid is robbing us) is one of the popular slogans of the Catalans seeking freedom. Another driving force behind the uprisal is Spain’s decision to revoke a fair share of autonomous privileges enjoyed by the region doubled up by the global economic slowdown.

Why the present crisis?

On October 1, Catalan leader Puigdemont decided to organize a referendum to seek public mandate to secede from Spain. The powers in Madrid tried every possible means to prevent the Catalans from holding the referendum. They seized ballots, forced closure of polling booths and even fired rubber bullets at those who turned up to vote. None of these prevented the Catalans from casting their votes and the chain of events even turned the tide in their favour. The international community condemned Spain for using force on ordinary citizens who did not resort to any kind of violence. The turnout for referendum was noted as 43% and Puigdemont claimed that 90% of the Catalans chose independence. The Spanish courts were quick to rule that participation in any kind of ballot against the country was illegal.

The road ahead for Catalonia

With the Catalan leader stating that he would choose the means of peaceful talks with Spain in the formation of a new country, the most debated topic is whether the whole idea of Catalonia as a separate nation is feasible or not.
One should not forget the fact that there have been rallies across Spain urging the Catalans to not secede and remain a unified country instead.
Neither Spain nor Catalonia would want a traumatic split as it could make things difficult for both the parties. The advantages that Catalonia has while seceding from Spain is that it already has a flag, a parliament, public services such as education and healthcare and broadcast regulator among others. However, in the event of a declaration of independence, it would be out of the euro zone and would have to seek membership again. It would also have to seek membership to other international regulatory bodies, for which it would need support from other countries including Spain and its allies. Here, Spain could make things really difficult for the newly formed country, if the latter decides to split in hostile conditions. Also, it doesn’t have any defence mechanism, air traffic control and most of the banks and industries have chosen to shift their bases in the wake of the upheaval. Spain would also find itself in a tight spot to a certain extent given the fact that Catalonia is one of the wealthiest regions and its people paying more taxes than what they actually spend. The mounting debt is also a big worry for Catalonia given the fact that it owes €77bn (£68bn) at the last count, or 35.4% of its GDP. Of this, it owes €52bn to the Spanish government. Given the fact that the new country would hardly have immediate access to banking or trading systems, the onus would entirely be on the newly formed government to steer the country ahead during one of its most difficult phases.

Will Madrid be successful in thwarting the independence bid through peaceful talks or sops in the form of additional autonomy? Or will Catalans secede from Spain and create history despite its limited means? The answer remains to be seen. 

(Text sources: BBC, Reuters, The Guardian, Photo: Sourced from internet, not for commercial use)

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