By Marc Champion
On Sunday, watch El Clasico, as the Spanish call the twice yearly games between rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona, not for the soccer so much as the spectacle of a nation tearing at the seams.
Spain is straining under the weight of a vicious economic crisis and a history of regional tensions that were forcibly suppressed under the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, and left unresolved since.
Talk to people in Barcelona, the main city of Catalonia this week, and pretty much all you get is history, with a dash of soccer and a side order of economic crisis. Yes, unemployment is terrible, but what fills the newspapers and discussion at the city's tapas bars is the question of Catalonia bidding for independence from Spain.
The people who organized a massive pro-independence demonstration on Sept. 11 have asked Barcelona fans to wave pro independence flags at Sunday's game against Madrid -- They'll also be holding up a giant mosaic of Catalonia's red-and-yellow-striped flag. Fans are being encouraged to chant pro-independence slogans at the 14th and 17th minutes. They shouldn't be hard to persuade. "Barca" has been a symbol of Catalan nationalism ever since the Franco years. It doesn't seem to matter at all that so many of the players aren't even from Spain.
Sept. 11, 1714 is the date on which Catalans celebrate their military defeat and absorption into Spain at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. It's a maudlin way to mark a national day, but passionately felt and hardly unique. Serbs celebrate their 1389 defeat and submission to the Ottomans at the battle of Kosovo Fields with just as much fervor.
The scale of this year's Diada, as the annual Catalan demonstration is called, shocked everyone -- including the organizers and the region's President Artur Mas. On the strength of the turnout, estimated at around 1 million, Mas called early Catalonian elections for Nov. 25. In part, the goal is to secure a mandate for a referendum on declaring independence from Spain.
That sounds simple, but the politics are sticky. Only the Spanish parliament can legally call a referendum, and Mas is unlikely to provoke a constitutional crisis on Nov. 26 by flat out calling one. The European Union as a whole is unenthusiastic, and for Catalonia to join the bloc as an independent state, Spain would have to vote in favor. That's an unlikely proposition. And yes, Catalonia gets up to 8 percent of the region's gross domestic product less back from Madrid than it sends in taxes, but it is also one of Spain's most indebted regions and looking to the center for a bailout.
Most likely Catalonia will ask and ask for a referendum, using the threat as negotiating leverage to get a better deal on the distribution of tax revenues and debt. After all, Catalan nationalists have until 2014 before they'd really want to hold the referendum, no doubt on Sept. 11.
That could make 2014 a big year for European disunion. Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond has said he wants to hold a referendum on whether to separate from the United Kingdom in the fall of 2014 -- that's 700 years after the 1314 Battle of Bannockburn, when a Scottish army crushed the English. Unlike Catalonia, Scotland does have a legal right to hold a referendum and secede.
It's hard to say how Madrid fans will respond to the Catalan fervor on Sunday. Spanish nationalism is a powerful beast, too, but it's highly unlikely there will be the kind of hand-to-hand combat between fans at the 1990 Zagreb-Belgrade match that presaged the war in Yugoslavia.
Still, politicians in Madrid fume at what they see as rank opportunism on the part of Mas. They believe he's taking advantage of unhappiness at the financial crisis to boost his own political support and push independence. More history intervenes here. After Francisco Franco's rule, Spain was divided into 17 constitutionally defined regions, primarily in order to accommodate and neutralize the national aspirations of the Basques and Catalans. But the arrangement was always a sketch waiting to be filled in. The right wing Popular Party, now in power under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has consistently resisted any move towards a greater devolution of power. Lately, they've taken some steps to re-centralize it.
Madrid Socialists were more flexible. In 2006, they backed a new constitutional settlement for Catalonia that, among other things, acknowledged Catalan status as a distinct nationality within Spain, with its own language dominant in the region. The Popular Party failed to block the law from passage in Spain's parliament, but challenged it in the constitutional court.
When the court watered down the settlement in a 2010 decision, four years later, the ruling seemed to turn many Catalans who had opposed independence into supporters. A pro-independence minority has now become a narrow majority in opinion polls. Meanwhile, in negotiations with Madrid, it doesn't help that the Popular Party is back in power.
El Mundo, the Madrid-based daily newspaper, summed up the mood on the right of Spain's political spectrum in an editorial this week. Commenting on the effort to get Barcelona fans to wave pro-independence flags at El Clasico on Sunday, the editorial said: "The only thing they can achieve is that the atmosphere at Camp Nou will look similar to that of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in '36." That is, Adolf Hitler's fascist Olympic Games in Berlin. Independence may prove a disastrous dream for Catalans to follow, but given all the history, that's an odd and nastily hyperbolic claim to make.
(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View columnists and editors at the Ticker.-0- Oct/05/2012 16:46 GMT