international analysis and commentary

The Catalan malaise

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When the average foreigner thinks of Spain today he might consider its beaches, perhaps its food, its history and culture. He knows that the country doesn’t have too many global brands and, outside of Central and South America, appears to have little influence in the world. But Spain is much more complicated than this. Observers tend not to appreciate its political and democratic infancy, the deep and long-standing divisions that pepper its map and the continued pain from the Franco era, which still casts a long shadow over people today.

Indeed, the word “Spain” is itself politically-loaded and contested and must be used with care, especially in regions like Catalonia. “Catalonia is not Spain”, people will tell you. And when someone there mentions “Madrid”, it is seen as the tarnished seat of oppressive power, presided over by a royal family and a political party that are mired in allegations of corruption that emerge on an almost daily basis to a populace that is becoming increasingly weary of the revelations.

In September 2012, 1.5 million people took to the streets of Barcelona to ask for a referendum on independence – exactly what has been granted to the people of Scotland through the Edinburgh Agreement, signed by the leaders of the Scottish and UK parliaments in October 2012. In September 2013, 1.6 million joined in a human chain all along the border of the region. Even if the actual figures were somewhat lower than those officially declared, the Catalan people have without a doubt become one of the protagonists of political life in the country – although having a minimal international impact in comparison, for instance, to the indignados movement.

So far, the Madrid government has chosen to say “no” to all requests. Catalonia is the cash cow of Spain, after all, with a GDP share of almost 20%. Many of its residents, however, believe that it contributes much more than it receives in return. Without Catalonia it is hard to see how Spain, in its current shape at least, could function economically. To use a statistic from the President of the local government, Artur Mas, if Catalonia were to be an independent nation, it would be the 8th largest economy in the EU. Madrid clearly doesn’t want to lose the jewel in its financial crown.

In the meantime, the current Popular Party (PP) government in Madrid, especially its radical right wing, continues to score spectacular own goals in Catalonia with policies that are resonant with those of the Franco era. Not to be outdone, voices from the Spanish military have spoken out clear warnings to Catalans who have the temerity to consider they could go it alone. One such figure said that any secession would be “over his dead body” and talked about tanks returning to the streets of Barcelona, a chilling reminder of the recent past.

The problem is partly that the other regions are mostly unsupportive of the Catalan political fight, or jealous about the eventual privileges that Barcelona could get, but more broadly an eventual independence of one of the Spanish “Autonomies” is pervasively considered as a betrayal of the historical idea of Spain. Madrid, and the rest of Spain, can’t afford to lose Catalonia and want them to stay in Spain, but there is no love lost. If Spain is the parent, then it clearly has issues with its errant Catalan child, clutching it to its bosom, but trying to suffocate it at the same time.

One also cannot help but doubt the intellectual prowess of the current senior political class in Madrid. If it seriously wants to keep Catalonia in the family then it is going about it the wrong way. In a region where the language is seen as a point of national pride and a major symbol of cultural identity (it was suppressed on and off for 300 years and most recently during the brutal dictatorship) any new attack on the language is bound to push buttons – and yet that is exactly what the Madrid government is seeking to do now with new laws on education. The result is that people who would have had a more moderate stance before are now accepting the idea that full independence is the goal. A recent poll suggested that 52% of Catalans were in favor of independence while only 24% were against. An overwhelming 80% of those polled agreed that they should have the right to a referendum. The PP seems to have deeply underestimated the Catalan malaise, while focusing on the short term goal of gaining support in the rest of Spain with a view on the next European and then regional general elections.

Having said that, there are also questions in Catalonia about the exact motivations of Artur Mas. When he called the snap election last year, he was clearly hoping his party (Convergència i Unió, nationalist moderate right wing) would win an outright majority so as to consolidate his bargaining position with Madrid, but the voters denied him his wish. The electorate gave their mandate to a spread of independence-minded parties, pushing Mas into a coalition that may be forcing his hand in the direction of a claim of sovereignty, when he might have settled for something less.

Against this background, neither the domestic nor the international environment are favorable to the Catalan cause: the Catalan mass movement and its demonstrations have remained largely ignored abroad, at least officially, partly reflecting the effort by the domestic media to downplay their importance – even at the height of the demonstration days in September 2012, a million people in the streets of Barcelona was item six on the national Spanish news. It should be pointed out that the majority of prosperous Catalan business community members fears a drop in the access to Spanish markets in case of secession, which in turn affects the scarce level of support to the Catalan cause amongst private owned media.

Many across Europe are certainly concerned that such nationalistic aspirations might fan the flames of separatists or ethnic conflicts in other hot spots of the continent. At a time of crisis in the eurozone can we cope with any more uncertainty? And if your economy is currently the 8th largest in the EU, would you really be happy for the Catalans to knock you into 9th place? The EU seems reluctant to foster the demands coming from Barcelona, and in fact Brussels has been quick to issue warnings to Catalonia (and Scotland) that independence threatens their EU membership. In sum, they are being told that they would have to serve time in an almost stateless wilderness before being readmitted to the fold.

There is a rooted desire for “regime change” in Catalonia. An interesting parallel may be drawn with the Basque Country, which since the end of the dictatorship has been enjoying a very generous fiscal deal with Spain. Now the Basque economy is booming and so there is a sense that its people are not so concerned about breaking free from Spain when they have already effectively won independence in all but name. Catalonia, however, has asked for a similar arrangement and has been rebuffed by Madrid: thus, there now there appears to be a classic standoff with very few acceptable political escape routes for either side of the debate.

Whatever the outcome of the process that is now underway, it is clear that something will have to change. It will be for the people of Catalonia to decide if they will accept just something rather than nothing or if they will press on and demand outright independence – next year will be the 300th anniversary of Catalonia losing its historical autonomy to the new centralized Spanish state. In the meantime, there is a genuine admiration for the political process in the UK that has brought forward the independence referendum for Scotland and the recognition that if the Scots vote to be a country in their own right, the will of the people shall prevail.