Saving Spain From Catalan Split Is Felipe VI’s First Task

Among the new Spanish monarch’s most pressing challenges will be holding his kingdom together.

Crown Prince Felipe, 46, who will become Felipe VI after his father Juan Carlos completes the abdication process set in train yesterday, takes the throne just as 7.6 million of his subjects in the region of Catalonia - the first contributor to Spain’s gross domestic product - prepare for a vote on independence this year. Polls suggest the result hangs in the balance.

“The prince needs to talk of integration,” Jose Antonio Gomez Yanez, a professor at the Carlos III university in Madrid, said in a telephone interview. “He has been trying but so far his message hasn’t had much resonance -- his position has been secondary to the king’s.”

Felipe, whose coronation will take place within the month, according to ABC newspaper, becomes the first Spanish monarch to directly inherit the crown since 1886. He assumes the throne in a moment of respite for a country that’s been battered by financial crises, soaring unemployment and rising levels of poverty since a real estate bubble burst six years ago.

As the monarchy’s prestige declined along with the country’s fortunes, many voters in the northeast region of Catalonia that accounts for about 16 percent of the nation’s population say they want constitutional change to strike out on their own.

Independence Referendum

The three parties pushing for an independence referendum scheduled on Nov. 9 together took 56 percent of the vote in the May 25 European elections. Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, the junior partner in the regional government in Barcelona that is pushing hardest for independence, beat Catalan President Artur Mas’s Convergencia I Unio into second place.

Elsewhere in Spain, opponents of the monarchy increased their support, with two national parties Izquierda Unida and Podemos taking 18 percent between them. Thousands of people demonstrated yesterday in Madrid, Barcelona and other major Spanish cities to demand a referendum on the monarchy and its replacement by a Republic, El Pais reported today.

“In a democracy, the people decide,” Pablo Iglesias, who leads Podemos, said in a Twitter post yesterday. “We are not subjects, we are citizens.”

While Spain’s economy started growing again in the third quarter and the risk premium on the country’s 10-year debt has narrowed to less than 150 basis points from more than 600 basis points in 2012, almost 6 million people remain jobless, fueling a backlash against the rulers who steered Spain into crisis.

Catalan Disaffection

In Catalonia, Mas plans to hold a ballot on independence from Spain less than two months after Scots vote on leaving the 307-year-old United Kingdom. Unlike in the U.K., where the national government has sanctioned the referendum, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the Catalan vote won’t take place because it would be illegal under the Spanish constitution.

“There may be a change of king, but the Catalan democratic process doesn’t change,” Mas said yesterday. “A majority of Catalan society lives with a feeling of disaffection and disconnection from the Spanish state.”

Felipe will have few formal powers that would allow him to change that perception under the Spanish constitution that his father Juan Carlos signed in 1978. Instead, the moral authority of the head of state gives him a central role in the arm-twisting required behind the scenes in the search for a compromise. He’ll also meet the prime minister once a week.

Difficult Task

“The task he has before him isn’t easy,” said Enriqueta Exposito, a professor of constitutional law at Barcelona University. “His role will be as a moderator who can make suggestions and mediate.”

Rajoy chose a speech to economists in Sitges, near Barcelona, on May 31 to open the door to changing the constitution in Catalonia’s favor, without specifying what he might overhaul.

As well as adjusting the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish state to change the formula for regional financing and treatment of the Catalan language, constitutional reform may also alter the rules for future successions, so that princes no longer take priority over princesses, El Mundo newspaper reported the same day.

Felipe, who studied international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington, is helped in any potential mediating role by his ability to speak Catalan.

He still might struggle to be heard above policy makers in Madrid and Barcelona who complain about each others’ lack of communication as they remain on a collision course. Rajoy says he first heard of the referendum plans when he read about them in a newspaper, while Mas says he’s ready to negotiate only if the premier will negotiate.

“There’s only one reason you have a train wreck,” Rajoy said on May 31. “That’s because someone is on the wrong track.”

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