One of the most widely repeated myths in the debate about Catalan independence is that ‘Catalonia already enjoys more devolved powers than almost any other region in the world’. We’re frequently told that US states, German landers and other autonomous regions have nowhere near the autonomous powers that Catalonia enjoys. This is less accurate than it immediately seems.
While it’s true that Catalonia and the other autonomous communities in Spain have broad powers and areas of responsibility under the constitution and the statutes of autonomy, they really cannot be compared with, for example, German landers or American states. Vitally, Catalonia has strictly-limited powers over what taxes it collects and when it can levy new taxes. Most attempts to create new taxes have been challenged by the Spanish government, or have been subsequently ‘trumped’ by the government establishing an identical tax at state level, thus making the Catalan tax obsolete.
But it’s the Spanish government’s latest announcement threatening suspension of payments under the Autonomous Liquidity Fund (FLA) which really gives the lie to this claim. The fund itself was already problematic, because rather than helping Spain’s autonomous communities operate in financial markets, it establishes the Spanish state as the source of liquidity loans, which must be repaid with interest. The FLA system establishes almost total state control over autonomous finances and spending, even governing payment priorities, expenditure controls and the final decision over which bills are paid and when. If that sounds like ‘autonomy’ to you, we have a very different understanding of the word.
Now, the Spanish government is taking things a step further by forcing the Generalitat to provide detailed accounting on a weekly basis to ensure that ‘not 1€ is spent on an illegal referendum’. The Spanish government has clearly decided that to use the normal tactic of taking the Generalitat to court post factum in the event of any spending with which it disagrees, won’t work with a referendum that will likely lead to a unilateral declaration of independence. So the decision has been taken to directly intervene (even more than previously), and establish even stricter controls on Generalitat spending with the threat of suspending FLA payments. If that sounds like ‘autonomy’ to you, we have a very different understanding of the word.
It looks like the Spanish government feels that it has played its best hand with this move: not using force or even the courts to defeat the Catalan ‘challenge’, but something that hurts even more: cash. But once again, the bigger picture is being ignored. By removing even the pretence of fiscal autonomy from the Catalan government, the Spanish state is admitting that the whole thing is a façade whose supposed constitutional protections are meaningless in the face of a state hellbent on recentralization. Autonomy for Catalonia is not protected: it’s “by the grace of Madrid, and don’t you forget it”. To win the point, Spain has to lose the moral argument.