Rajoy Refuses to Negotiate, Ridicules Catalan Independence

Spain’s obstinate prime minister probably only makes Catalans more determined to break away.

Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy ridiculed Catalonia’s plans for independence on Saturday, dismissing regional president Artur Mas’ suggestion that the region could secede within a year and half after the next election as “eighteen months on the road to nowhere.”

Speaking in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, Rajoy insisted he would “never negotiate the unity of Spain” and called the informal independence vote that took place earlier this month “a farce.”

More than 80 percent of Catalans voted for statehood in what was dubbed a “citizens’ consultation” after Spain’s highest court had struck down a planned referendum as unconstitutional. Roughly half of the region’s 5.4 million eligible voters participated.

Polls put support for independence around 45 percent — up from 13 percent in 2005.

The central government’s unwillingness to negotiate increased autonomy for Catalonia is at least partially responsible for the rising separatist sentiment there. When, in 2006, the region finally got some powers of its own — which it had been promised in the 1978 constitution — Rajoy’s conservative People’s Party was at the forefront of fighting to reverse the changes.

It succeeded. The Constitutional Court in Madrid — the same tribunal that tried to block this month’s referendum — overruled the majority of the articles in Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010. Perhaps most painfully, it said the definition of Catalonia as a “nation” had no legal standing.

The ruling led to an outpour of Catalan nationalism with various elections and rallies showing mass support for self-determination, culminating in Mas’ suggestion this week that a majority vote for independence parties in the next regional elections could trigger secession.

Rajoy, who came to power in late 2011, has refused to give ground. On Saturday, he attacked Mas personally, saying Catalonia suffers from “a deficit of governance” as a result of the regional president’s obsession with independence. He contrasted Mas’ policy with his own which he said had managed to stave off economic collapse and returned Spain to growth.

The country emerged from a protracted recession late last year but unemployment remains close to 25 percent. Youth unemployment stands at over 50 percent.

Employment statistics are slightly better for Catalonia and the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce says the region is growing faster than Spain and above the eurozone average this year.

Catalonia is also richer and a net contributor to Spain’s public finances. It has 16 percent of the country’s population but produces more than a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. An estimated $21 billion in Catalan taxes, equivalent to 8 percent of the region’s gross domestic product, is invested in other regions.