02.05.2012 - 00:00
Following the grassroots campaign #novullpagar (the Twitter hashtag which means ‘I don’t want to pay’ in Catalan) thousands of drivers refused to pay at highway toll booths on Labour Day, May 1. Drivers were asked to identify themselves by highway company workers but in most cases they were allowed to pass through after a few minutes. In several areas pre-organized lines of cars headed together to the toll plazas, collapsing them. Police did not intervene.
The movement started some weeks ago after the Spanish government announced they planned to eliminate the tolls from the very few remaining toll highways around Madrid by allowing the highway companies to extend their rights over Catalan toll highways. Almost all the highways around Barcelona and Valencia are toll roads while almost every highway around Madrid is free. Catalans have claimed discrimination and protested the situation for years.
The Catalan nationalist government (CiU party is a member of the European Liberal-Democrats) issued a statement late Saturday which expressed ‘sympathy’ towards the movement at the same time as it warned drivers not to follow the campaign or risk being fined 100 euros. On Sunday and Monday some high-level ministers argued that the Catalan police are obligated to fine drivers if highway owners ask them to do so. While highways are owned by the state, their management is in the hands of private companies, the most important of which is linked to the giant Catalan bank, La Caixa. The Catalan government came under pressure from the highway owners last week. But even these companies expressed some ‘understanding’ about the campaign given the obvious discrimination Catalan and Valencian drivers face.
The campaign is one more expression of the surge of the pro-independence movement in Catalonia. The fiscal discrimination against Catalonia has been one of the major issues highlighted not only by pro-independence campaigners but also by universities and the Catalan government. In the last 24 years, out of every euro collected by Spanish authorities in Catalonia, just 40 cents were spent there. This situation is unmatched anywhere in the world and has been labeled by Catalan writers as fiscal plunder.
Social networks played a major role in the events last week leading up to May 1. Several drivers who refused to pay filmed the scenes at the tollbooth with their phone cameras and then uploaded them to websites such as YouTube. They also used Twitter to share their discussions with highway employees and in some cases with Catalan police. In Valencia and the Balearic Islands, the Spanish police are in charge of the roads so the Guardia Civil was identifying the drivers. In Majorca the only toll road is at the Tunel of Sóller and a group called Albaïna was also protesting there.
Teams of lawyers are ready to fight against any possible lawsuit by the highway management companies. It will be difficult for the companies to win in court as the arguments they are using have already been put in question. A legal loophole might allow drivers to avoid penalties altogether: there is no piece of legislation that contemplates a refusal to pay tolls as an offence.
The Catalan Minister for Territorial and Sustainability Policies, Lluís Recorder, has said he will ask Parliament to debate the situation and is asking the political parties to find a way to stop the toll discrimination. But the Spanish government, which is facing major pressure about the budget from European authorities, is not expected to make the case a priority.
The #novullpagar movement is asking drivers to keep refusing to pay, even after May 1.