Separatism in the eurocrisis era

In addition to Spain's spiraling debt crisis, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy faces a threat from within in the form of a renewed wave of Catalan nationalism. Thousands of nationalists rallied in Barcelona last week and more than half of the province's residents now say they want a state.  On Thursday, Rajoy failed to reach an agreement with Catalonian leader Artur Mas on controversial revenue-sharing reforms: 

Catalonia’s leader, Artur Mas, accused Mr. Rajoy of losing a “historic opportunity” to safeguard the relationship between his region and the rest of Spain, after they could not reach agreement on a new tax revenue redistribution plan. Mr. Mas warned that Mr. Rajoy’s refusal to negotiate any tax changes was likely to increase resentment toward the Madrid government among Catalans, especially after hundreds of thousands of them gathered for a pro-independence rally in Barcelona on Sept. 11, the anniversary of a Catalan defeat at the hands of Spanish troops in 1714.

“The people and society of Catalonia are on the move, as we have seen on Sept. 11, and not willing to accept that our future will be gray when it could be more brilliant,” Mr. Mas said at a news conference here.

Reuters explains the dispute: 

The central government collects most taxation payments then redistributes them to Spain's 17 self-governing regions, which run their own schools and hospitals. Each year Catalans say they pay 16 billion euros more in taxes than the regional government spends.

On the other hand, Catalonia is also Spain's most heavily indebeted region, accounting for "$54 billion of the $181 billion of debt owed by the 17 regional governments," according to the New York Times.

Mas's party may call early elections before the end of this year, hoping to capitalize on the nationalist fervor. And while he has stopped short of calling for outright independence, he has come awfully close:

“Whatever path Catalonia follows, it needs to be European and about dialogue and doing things together, either within Spain or with Spain,” he said on Thursday. 

As it happens, European Commission President Jose Barroso addressed the question of separatist movements in the EU context during a speech last week:

In his State of the Union speech in the European Parliament, Jose Barroso told MEPs that break-away countries would have to make new applications to join the EU. "A new state, if it wants to join the EU, has to apply to become a member of the EU, like any state," he said.

The remarks prompted government hearings in Edinburgh, where the Scottish government has consistently argued that its EU membership would not affected by independence from Great Britain. It's also probably something for the protesters in the photo above to keep in mind. 

David Ramos/Getty Images


Romney campaign continues to struggle with Iran question

As my colleague Josh Rogin reports, Mitt Romney changed his tune about what he considers a "red line" for Iran's nuclear program in a conference call with American rabbis on Thursday, arguing that "it is unacceptable for Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon." That echoed foreign-policy advisor Dan Senor's warning on CBS this morning about "Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability." 

Tellingly, however, Romney's campaign website, while not mentioning red lines specifically, still states that "Mitt Romney believes that it is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon" -- the red line the Republican candidate articulated in an interview with ABC just last week (and the red line the Obama administration has staked out, without calling it a red line). There's no mention of nuclear weapons capability.

The campaign, in other words, appears to be in the process of shifting gears, having made a calculation that it needs to do a better job of differentiating Romney's policy on Iran's nuclear program -- which the candidate has cast as the most important foreign-policy issue in the campaign -- from Obama's. This week's move: lowering the bar for a preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities to Iran's capacity to build and deliver a bomb.

If the campaign is interested in a sharp contrast, however, it has a ways to go. In Thursday's conference call, Romney said he didn't want to get into "great detail" about where precisely he would draw red lines when it came to the development of Iran's nuclear program (to Romney's credit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has dodged this question too). In his CBS appearance, Senor sidestepped questions about the first thing a President Romney would do about Iran before finally saying the candidate would grant fewer waivers to financial institutions around the world on sanctions.

"We do not advocate military action against Iran, it should be the option of last resort," Senor said, before adding that "what the administration has done is broadcast to the mullahs in Tehran that the military option is the absolute one thing America doesn't want anybody to do." Given that Obama has said he will also take no options -- including military force -- off the table, it's still unclear how Obama and Romney materially differ on this issue. 

When Romney has been pressed for specifics on Iran in recent interviews with NBC and ABC and in Thursday's conference call, he's repeatedly referenced a speech he gave in Israel in 2007, in which he called for economic sanctions ("at least as severe as the sanctions we imposed on Apartheid South Africa"), diplomatic isolation (including an indictment of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide), more cooperation from Arab states, a threat of military force against Iran, and a NATO-led effort to support moderates in the Muslim world. But as the 2012 election enters its final weeks, Romney will likely be pressured to do more than refer people interested in details to a talk he gave more than five years ago. 

When Charlie Rose asked Senor on CBS this morning what the "single biggest difference" between Obama and Romney was on foreign policy, Senor responded, "The biggest crisis facing the United States from a security standpoint is Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability." Note that he sidestepped the question about differences. The Romney campaign, it seems, is still ironing those out.