Whenever I speak to someone from abroad about Catalonia's fiscal relationship with Spain as a whole, I always get the same initial response. "It may be true that Catalonia's a net contributor to the overall Spanish budget, but that's all to be expected, given it's a wealthy region".
In Spain (though despite official data - the latest refer to 2005 - clearly confound such a claim) many hold that Catalonia does very well at the expense of Spain.
The truth is that Catalonia (or more accurately, its citizens and companies) pays as a rich region, but receives public services as a poor one. Nowhere is this more clearly visualised than in tables of interregional fiscal balances, which show Catalonia being overtaken, year after year, by less wealthy regions in terms of per capita disposable income. Central government consistently under-invests in Catalonia and this has substantially lowered the standard of living here: more motorways are privatised here (tolls), while many opt for private medical insurance schemes and private schools for their children, in order ro get quality services.
As a result, the fiscal deficit is double the upper limit allowed by law in, for instance, the Länder of Germany, and many economists agree it is unsustainable and is leading to a rapid decapitalisation of the Catalan economy, which is hard hit by the financial and economic crisis in any case.
Moreover, massive investment in Madrid airport has meant Catalans frequently have to stopover there on their flights to the rest of the world. Iberia, I read only the other day, flies its planes to 200 international destinations from Madrid, and only two from Barcelona. Can this be true? A quick visit to either airport will I think confirm this.
People abroad seem to underestimate the level of resentment and sense of injustice that many Catalans feel. That the Spanish government seriously pushed a harebrained project to bore a lengthy train tunnel right through the central Pyrenees, at the expense of improvements to its existing connections through Irun and Portbou make many suspect that it is planning life after the Basque country and Catalonia go their separate ways. It seems not to realise that is is thus fuelling a self-fulfilling prophecy. And this time I don't think Europe would take kindly to Spanish tanks taking to the streets again, as they last did in 1981.
All this may help non-Spaniards understand how true that advertising slogan developed by the recently deceased former Franco minister manuel Fraga-Iribarne, is: "Spain is different". And why two young Catalan business owners have issued their anguished cry: "Let's say enough!". In protest, they've announced that as from April they will pay VAT dues to the Catalan government, instead of the Spanish Exchequer. Many foresee that the latter will descend on them with a vengeance. Let's us hope they don't get repeatedly slapped in the face, and hit to the ground, the way a young lawyer claims - with a forensic medical report to boot - to have been treated by a Spanish policeman at Barcelona airport just last week, for speaking Catalan to him.
Spain is different.