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Catalonia and the Problems with Separation

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Catalans' regional vote last Sunday delivered a victory for separatist parties. In fact, 87 in the 135 seat assembly went to four parties that hope to push for Catalonian independence in the coming years. The incumbent president Artur Mas secured a second term, however, could not manage to enough votes to hold a majority. Governing a minority government will force Mas to seek a coalition with the Republican Left of Catalonia - a left wing party who doubled their share of their vote from last election to 21.

Recently Mas has been at odds with his fellow pro-independent parties. Following Mas' decision to enforce stringent austerity measures upon the region, there has been a backlash to his efforts to rein in public debt. Many supporters of secession see Mas as someone whose enthusiasm for the idea flourished late, and is taking a radical approach to shift the debate away from the economy. This was reflected by the loss of 12 seats; seats that were swallowed up by the party's that are viewed more genuine in their in their resolve. Because of this difference, forging a strong coalition with these parties will be a cause of concern for Mas.

The austerity cuts have opened up old wounds in a region who has always felt that their identity has been different to those of the rest of Spain. Sharing a different language and culture, attempts of separation are not new to Catalonia.

In 1934, Catalan leader, Lluis Companys, led an independence revolt that was shortly put down by the Spanish army just prior to the civil war. The dictator Francisco Franco had Company's shot in 1940 and continued to suppress all attempts of secession for decades. After his death, Spain adopted a democratic constitution in 1978, and in an effort to satisfy regional aspirations, it granted considerable autonomy to Spain's 17 regions.

But unlike back then, today's counter parting powers are not found in the hands of autocratic rule, but rather at the feet of commerce and the surge of neoliberalism. This is problem with Catalonia and separation.

Catalan debt currently stands at €42 billion out of a total of €140 billion for all of Spain's regions. Parliamentary support for Mas' referendum could only be achieved if his agenda moderates towards the social and economic agenda of fellow separatist parties. In short, this means reducing budget cuts that are inciting much of the radicalisation towards independence.

However, this would further intensify relations between Madrid and Catalonia. If Catalonia - which accounts for roughly one fifth of Spanish economic output - were to separate, Madrid would be left economically adrift. Madrid contends that secession would be constitutionally illegal and are vehemently opposing all notions of the idea. It is likely that as Mas attempts to radicalise the region, Madrid will impose less favourable fiscal concessions causing Catalonia's economic ills to worsen.

Moreover, at a time when Spain is desperately trying to convince the markets that they can borrow money at a low rate, a push for independence is likely to unsettle investor's confidence. Many businesses based in Catalonia are likely to be hesitant towards continuing operations in the region without the safeguards of the euro or the Spanish language.

We see in this instance the tensions that austerity can bring to the fore. In an effort to stabilise markets to bring in investment to pay for outstanding debt, the governing powers of the EU are harbouring radicalisation in the form of regional break-up. Out of this raises the questions of whether cultures and identities can coexist under a homogeneous fiscal umbrella.

For now at least, the problems that face an independent Catalonia seem insurmountable.