You don't frighten her.

Photograph: Jorge Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

Scotland Proved You Can't Scare Catalonia Away From Independence

Mark Gilbert is a Bloomberg View columnist and writes editorials on economics, finance and politics. He was London bureau chief for Bloomberg News and is the author of “Complicit: How Greed and Collusion Made the Credit Crisis Unstoppable.”
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You might expect that the Spanish government would have learned some important lessons from the U.K. executive's near disaster in last year's Scottish referendum. Apparently not, judging from the scaremongering attempts to dissuade Catalans from backing the region's secessionists in Sunday's election.

Spain's Separatist Tinderbox

Pro-independence parties may win more than half of the 135 seats in the regional assembly, if the opinion polls are to be trusted this time. Artur Mas, Catalonia's regional president, is treating the vote as a referendum on independence; Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insists secession is illegal under the country's constitution. But the tactics employed by the authorities risk inflaming separatist sentiment rather than persuading the electorate that they'd be better off staying with Spain.  

Rajoy said this week that the pro-independence politicians have no concrete plans as to how they'd run a government, and that "Catalans aren’t being told the real consequences of independence." Rajoy even suggested that Catalans would lose their EU citizenship. The Spanish central bank, meanwhile, insisted that cut loose from the mothership, the region would be kicked out of the European Union, barred from using the euro and would leave its banks without the support of the European Central Bank. And Miguel Cardenal, the Spanish minister for sports, has threatened to kick Catalonian soccer team Barcelona out of the national league.

Catalonia produces about 18 percent of Spain's gross domestic product, so the region wouldn't exactly be a pauper. Nevertheless, investors have reacted to the prospect of an escalating fight over independence by driving up the yield premium they demand for lending to the region by buying its bonds rather than those of the central government; they now charge Catalonia 3.25 percent for five-year money, which is about 2.3 percentage points more than the government pays. That's almost double what the surcharge was six months ago

The U.K.'s eventual change of tactics in persuading Scotland to remain part of the union should provide Spain with a better guide as to how to hang on to Catalonia. Devolution -- the transfer of tax and spending powers to the regions -- has softened (though not silenced) Scottish calls for independence, and seems to have averted a Welsh move down the secessionist path. Andreu Mas-Colell, a former Harvard University economics professor who is the Spanish region's finance chief, said a year ago that he was open to the idea. "The more attractive is the offer on the table, the more likely that the vote will end up developing as in Britain," he said in October.

Mas has accused Bank of Spain Governor Luis Maria Linde of distributing "pure poison with the aim of instilling fear in people." He's right; trying to scare voters away from independence is reminiscent of how the U.K. government tried to bully Scots with predictions of economic poverty and expulsion from the EU. As a tactic to keep the country together, it won't work any better in Spain than it did in the U.K. 

(Corrects number of seats in Catalan parliament to 135.)

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