Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Such is life

Politicians claim money is given without conditions, an unlikely prospect

Josep Ramoneda

Amid the heavy financial weather, we now have a particular squall in the regional government system. "Such is life," say both Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro and the Catalan finance commissioner, Andreu Mas-Colell, with an air of dramatic fatalism and resignation.

The ship is adrift, pilotless, in heavy seas, and it seems there is no resource but prayer. And we are in the 21st century. The politicians mimic one another. Rajoy demands a bank bailout from the EU, then wastes energy trying to convince us that there were no strings attached. Now it is the Catalan government begging money from Spain, and saying it is a credit with no strings attached, when everyone knows that Catalan regional finances will remain under tutelage. Experience does not lie: the supplier of money sets the conditions.

Yet the haggling process of euphemisms, although useless - the expression "Catalan bailout" is now in all the media - has its reason for being. A bailout (words have an aura) has an inevitable dimension of submission and humiliation. And when a country (Catalonia) whose aspirations to independence have burgeoned in recent years has to ask for a bailout, the thing is not neutral, nor can it be dismissed as something merely technical. It is a wound, that requires political balm.

It has come at the same time as the Catalan Parliament's demand for a tax-sharing "fiscal pact" with Madrid, which further stresses the situation. This is the balm cherished by CiU. Amid the crisis, we are being told, it is frivolous to introduce a further factor of discord. But many Catalans believe that the regional financing system, as it stands, is unfair to Catalonia. So the bailout announcement only reinforces, in Catalan public opinion, the idea that a fiscal pact is absolutely necessary.

In other words, although a bailout always has an appearance of failure, it is quite possible that CiU may capitalize on it by means of readily obtainable majority support for a fiscal pact. In any case the Catalan bailout may prove an interesting experiment from the viewpoint of collective psychology. What will weigh more heavily: the depression resulting from the general fatalism, or the will to rebel against a regional government system that limits the potentialities of Catalonia?

However much the crisis may hog all the priorities, the wave of regional bailouts shows up the systemic weakness of the system. There is no doubt that this is a highly inflammable political question. But it is one of the problems that have to be faced, within a strategy aimed at climbing out of the crisis.

In proof of this, there are now indications that a new demand from the EU will soon fall on the table: a constitutional reform of the regional government system. Why not address this problem from within, before it is imposed from without? Probably there are two reasons: the understandable reluctance to enter into such a tense, complicated debate at this time; and the well-founded suspicion that a reform imposed as a condition attached to a bailout would tend in a direction contrary to what Catalonia wants.

So it is reasonable enough that the national and Catalan governments are sticking to the idea of a fiscal pact. It offers the Catalan public a symbol of hope, amid the mire of the economic situation. Bailout and Catalan sovereignty seem a contradiction in terms. However, the bailout may fuel pro-independence feelings when Madrid says "no" to a fiscal pact. The Catalan government of Artur Mas has to give its voters something to hope for. A fiscal pact is an alternative, a way out from the "such is life" fatalism of the ministers. And from the humiliation of being at the head of the class in cutbacks, which have served for nothing. "The austerity medicine is killing the patient," says Mas-Colell.

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