Cheering for independence, and Lionel Messi.

Spain's Corruption May Set Catalonia Free

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Catalonia's determination to go ahead with a symbolic vote on independence from Spain on Sunday -- despite being banned by the nation's constitutional court -- now has an additional layer of legitimacy. Spain's ruling People's Party, which scuppered the Catalan version of "devo-max" four years ago, has turned out to be so sickeningly corrupt that it has no right to tell anyone what to do.

The legal arguments for and against Catalan independence can be kicked around endlessly. They are part of the dead-end debate about two mutually contradictory principles embedded in the United Nations Charter: territorial integrity and self-determination. Legal opinions on cases of unilateral secession -- Kosovo, Transnistria, Somaliland, the "assisted secession" of Crimea -- stress that international law calls for self-determination within the framework of existing states, except in cases when a "people" (whatever that may be) suffers from major rights violations inflicted by the state.

QuickTake Catalonia

Catalonia is no Somaliland, and nothing is extreme about its treatment by Spain. Yet Catalans could argue that their rights were first recognized and then trampled by Madrid. In 2006, both houses of the Spanish parliament -- and the people of Catalonia in a referendum -- voted for the region's new Statute of Autonomy, and King Juan Carlos signed it. The document granted the wealthy region -- which accounts for 16 percent of Spain's population, 19 percent of its gross domestic product and 21 percent of research and development spending -- broad self-government and fiscal powers not unlike those Scotland is about to get after its failed independence referendum.

Had those powers remained in place, there would probably be no question of secession now. Yet the People's Party, in opposition at the time, challenged the document in the Constitutional Court. Four years later, the court struck down 14 articles of the statute and reinterpreted another 27. The ruling, in effect, said that Catalonia had no right to call itself a nation, just a "nationality" under the Spanish constitution. It declared Catalonia's extended tax powers unconstitutional and told the region it had to stick with the Spanish scheme of administrative division.

Throughout the appeal process, it was the current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, who led the People's Party. After it returned to power in 2011, Rajoy went back to the Constitutional Court again and again, seeking and receiving rulings against continued Catalan attempts to get more independence from Madrid. And we now know that throughout all this, he presided over some of the most rampant corruption ever revealed in Spain.

The People's Party's former treasurer, Luis Barcenas, says Rajoy and a former economics minister, Rodrigo Rato, received illegal cash from a slush fund. Rato has also been accused of running up an enormous bill on a corporate credit card issued by Bankia, the bailed-out financial group he chaired between 2010 and 2012. Local party officials seem to have been caught taking kickbacks to award government contracts. Last week, 51 former and current officials, including some top People's Party figures, were arrested.

Rajoy has apologized on behalf of his party "to all Spaniards for having appointed to positions for which they were not worthy those who would seem to have abused them.” The apology, however, will not be enough to explain to Spaniards why the leader of a party whose banners have "austerity" written all over them has not been able to impose it on his close co-workers and perhaps even on himself.

Podemos, the leftist, anti-establishment party, now leads in Spanish polls. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias has indicated that his political force favors Catalans' right to decide their own destiny. The next election is not until late 2015, but Rajoy is not popular enough, and certainly does not have enough moral authority, for the nation to unite around him on issues of principle.

The nationalists in Catalonia lived through a financial scandal of their own last summer when the region's former president Jordi Pujol, the independence movement's patriarch, admitted hiding undeclared funds outside Spain. This was considered a setback in the campaign for an independence vote. The scale of Pujol's wrongdoing, however, pales in comparison with the shenanigans for which Rajoy has apologized.

The tables have turned on the man who did his best to deny Catalans more autonomy within Spain. It is even harder for him to keep the country together than it was for Prime Minister David Cameron in the U.K.: He is explicitly not trusted. And the Catalans now have a great story to tell about a thoroughly corrupt political machine denying them their rights as a nation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net