25 de gener de 2014

Catalan Academics Press Separatist Drive

Professors Form 'Wilson Initiative' to Promote Independence from Spain

Jan. 24, 2014 - BARCELONA — In the sulfurous debate over the future of Spain's wealthy Catalonia region, Xavier Sala-i-Martin is the most notable and quotable member of a self-styled truth squad of pro-independence Catalan economists.

When the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Spain warned in October that talk of a breakup was making foreign investors skittish, Mr. Sala-i-Martin retorted on Catalan radio that Spain was a "midget market" and globalized Catalonia would thrive on its own.

Amid rumors that elderly Catalans would lose their public pensions in a split, the economist went on his blog to assail the talk as a lie, adding that an independent Catalonia might be able to raise pensions by 10%.

"Since 1800, 22 former Spanish colonies have become independent," said Mr. Sala-i-Martin, a Columbia University professor who co-wrote an economics textbook and helped develop the Global Competitiveness Report for this past week's World Economic Forum in Davos. "None of them regrets it." Mr. Sala-i-Martin is one of six respected Catalan academics who have stepped from the ivory tower into a political battle with high stakes for Spain and the rest of the European Union—including its common currency. 

They are high-profile protagonists in a long-running public debate over what Catalonia, the so-called factory of Spain, could gain or lose from breaking away.

Buoyed by polls showing majority support for secession, the Catalan parliament in Barcelona this month voted to hold a referendum on Nov. 9. The central government in Madrid has vowed to block a vote, which it says would be unconstitutional, but that hasn't quieted the debate.

On blogs, in interviews and in meetings with business and citizen groups, the six academics argue that Spain's system of sharing tax revenues among the 17 regions shortchanges Catalonia by about €16 billion ($22 billion) annually. That amounts to more than €2,000 per inhabitant, or around 8% of Catalonia's output, based on public tax and investment data, the academics say. 

They argue that the northeastern region of 7.5 million people could become not only a viable country, but quite possibly an economic juggernaut.

Catalonia, which has a distinctive culture and language, has long had a strained relationship with Madrid, but the collapse of Spain's economy in 2008 has left regions scrambling for resources and brought tensions to a boil. 

The scholars—five economists and a political scientist from Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, the London School of Economics and prominent institutions—call themselves the Wilson Initiative, after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, a champion of national self-determination.

While acknowledging their influence, some other economists say the big-name professors overstate the potential benefits of independence while understating the transition costs and the risk that Spain could splinter further.

The critics note that while sales of goods from Catalan companies to the rest of the world—€58 billion in 2012—surpassed their €49 billion in sales to the rest of Spain that year, Spain still accounts for a massive chunk.
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