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The Catalan question without the myths
- Languages: es

The European observer who struggles to understand the Catalan question might take comfort in knowing that in Catalonia some of us don't actually understand what's happening either, and grasp still less about the reasons behind it.




  • Some Europeans, as well as some Catalans, do not understand what the "Catalan question" is

  • The cultural rebirth of the Catalan language was one of the ideas driving Catalanism


  • Catalonia was and is a society in which plural identities coexist


Whether or not the grievances Catalan nationalists claim to suffer from Spain are true, the big question remains whether all of this justifies the abysmal act of separating from Spain and no longer being part of the European Union.


Let's look at the facts: the regional elections in September. The separatists wanted them to be perceived as a plebiscite over independence. Tallying up heterogeneous figures, the ‘yes’ camp won in terms of seats, but in terms of votes the result was an also ressounding 'no', demonstrating a society that is divided, disconcerted and at risk of dissension.


And it now seems that in the immediate future, Artur Mas – president of the autonomous government and leader of a party that defined itself as pro-European and ‘business-friendly’ – will depend on the vote of a very leftist organisation that proposes to reverse all privatisation and renounce the euro. This amounts to rejecting the European Union, dissociating from NATO and unilaterally proclaiming a Catalan republic.

Why has it come to this fracture? Catalanism has seen various phases. The pro-independence component has always been present but never to such extremes that we see today.


Historically, when it played a role in the governance of Spain, Catalanism was gradualist, pragmatic and in favour of conceding necessary reforms to the State.


After Franco's dictatorship, Catalanists participated in the drafting of the 1978 Constitution and, in the referendum on the current-day ‘magna carta’, the citizens of Catalonia voted overwhelmingly in favour of endorsing it.


How is it that the Constitution they voted for is now repudiated by a separatist nationalism? I should point out that the Constitution defines a territorial redistribution of the State which transfers vast powers to regional authorities and, in the case of Catalonia, provides significant protection of its own language and culture, for example, in the educational system.


The founding fathers of Catalanism would have never imagined their ideal Catalonia having so much ability to self-govern.


Now adding to the identity crises generated by pro-independence populism is the growth of a new left-wing radical populism, which, for example, won control of Barcelona's city hall.


It is all part of the ‘anti-system effect’ triggered by the 2008 crisis, the discontent over serious cases of political corruption and the almost decisive force of an emotionalism that by definition voices dissatisfactions but does not offer reasonable remedies.


In the case of separatist nationalism, the traditional feelings of belonging to an idea of Catalonia tend to have a component of victimisation.


And when experiencing the difficulties of the crisis, victimisation has surpassed its limits by affirming that Spain steals from Catalonia and acts like a coloniser, when in reality the Catalan territory is well represented by all the parties in the Spanish parliament.


It is not a nationalist tactic specific to Catalonia: when seeing an economically weak Spain, and expecting a risk premium for himself, Artur Mas saw there was room for repositioning himself in power. His is a calculation of survival that always avoids specifying the costs of rejecting Spain, to the point of claiming against all evidence that a Catalonia freed from Spain would still be part of the European Union.


But in the end, as one can deduce from the recent regional elections, more than half of voters consider that placing themselves outside Europe is a risk that a society such as the Catalan one cannot allow itself.


As in other parts of Europe, the Romantic period generated an interest for heroic pasts, often imaginary. In the case of Catalonia, the prevailing Spanish crisis arising from the loss of its last colonies in 1898 made this worse. At the same time, Catalan industrialisation shone as an element of modernisation which, at the hands of Catalanism, could have a politically regenerating effect.


The cultural rebirth of the Catalan language was one of the ideas driving Catalanism. An additional factor was that the powerful Catalan textile industry demanded protectionist policies which managed to legislatively impose themselves over the principles of free trade.


This is how a phase of disagreements began, which, with more or less intensity, set the course of Spanish political life from the end of the 19th century. Upon the death of Franco, the 1978 Constitution inclusively integrated the aspirations of classical Catalanism.


We are now in another stage, in which unilateral rupture has been a way to demand concessions from the State that go far beyond the constitutional norm.

At the present time, it is still a mystery whether Artur Mas can obtain the parliamentary support in order to continue in his role as president of Catalonia's government, ‘la Generalitat’, but it does seem that there will be no important movements until the results of the Spanish-wide general elections are clear in December.


And in the case of a unilateral declaration of independence without an electoral mandate and with half of Catalonia not in favour, the Catalan institutions would remain outside of the law and constitutional mechanisms would be applied. The friction could cause a deep conflict.


If this were to happen, the Spanish government would have to act with the utmost prudence, be wise in applying the law, take into account the various grades of sentimentality for Catalonia, and once and for all, generate more empathy with the social groups of Catalonia who are alarmed at what might happen in case of secession. The law is the law, but special doses of equanimity are needed.


It is the responsibility of politicians to know how to distinguish, prevent and delimit conflicts and reason out solutions that – given the nature of the questions at stake in Catalonia – might never be definitive.


What are the possible solutions? Contrary to appearances, they depend more on a gradual quieting of separatism than on the concessions demanded from the powers of the State. The option of constitutional reform is being considered but before taking that path it is necessary to know what exactly is to be reformed and how.


Furthermore, polls suggest that the result of the December general elections will be very fragmented, making it difficult to reach a minimum level of consensus, establish any governing majority and above all reach the two-thirds majority necessary for constitutional reform.


The most plausible solution is an effective re-adaptation of the regional system of financing, especially if the economy strengthens significantly. This is what we call a fiscal pact, meaning it would necessarily have to apply to all regions, logically wary of special treatment for Catalonia.


In the past, agreements have been made at the economic level and with budgetary focus on large infrastructure projects. This route continues to be possible despite the apocalyptic language constantly used by the separatists to deny it.


Nonetheless, it is important to resist implausible proposals and instead ensure that complexities are acknowledged and managed rationally.


To conclude, it is evident that various types of discontent exist in Catalonia, and also that independence does not have the essential social backing for a decision of such scope.


Despite the biased public media sponsored by the Generalitat and the partiality of individual contributors being bought, Catalonia continues to be a plural society that grows increasingly complex, economically tied to the interior Spanish market and with interwoven identities – Catalan, Spanish, European –, a society which more than half of Catalans see no need to renounce.


If an element of fiction exists in all History, nationalisms tend to give it wings far beyond all critical examination. In the modern sense of the terms, Catalonia has not been a State or a nation, and similarly, whilst Catalan is the primary language of Catalonia, it has never been the only one.


That is: linguistic plurality has been a historical fact right up until the bilingual society of today. Catalonia was and is a society in which plural identities coexist.


A univocal homogenous Catalonia is already an unsustainable fiction, even if it were to be configured as an independent State waiting for recognition by the United Nations and in the queue of aspiring members of the European Union.


Until now, the problems of synchronisation, adjustment and fiscal proportion have been the priorities in the relationship between Catalonia and the whole of Spain. With the separatist challenge, are we in a different stage of the Catalan question?


There has existed and there still exists an intellectual and political tension between Madrid and Barcelona that can always burst but never in an irreversible way, because the commonalities are still greater than the differences.


After all, they are joined by the high-speed train line, the large internal market, an economy open to globalisation, the digitalised community and the shared vicissitudes in the European Union. On the negative side, the cases of corruption have erupted in both Catalonia and in all of Spain.


On the positive side, the miscommunication between territories is not a physical fact, but one of interconnection. We have cycles and setbacks. At this moment, the most likely is a cycle of fragmentation and instability. It will take some time before a new sedimentation of electoral preferences comes into being, and this is a situation that generally benefits the extremes.


To the European observer, the most eye-catching news is the proposal to separate from Spain as an inevitable solution to the Catalan question.


Artur Mas’ initiative has polarised the citizens of Catalonia, as seen in the last regional elections. This is another crisis of loyalties, because for most Catalans, the sense of belonging to Catalonia, Spain or the European Union are not exclusive.


There are reasons to think that the debate inherent in a plural society was not widespread prior to the pressure for independence, and that it is now being revived with spontaneity and increasing clarity. If we understand that a plural society consists in conversation, to deny that the civil conversation in Catalonia has deteriorated would be hypocritical.


These things occur in the corruption of public language. What are we talking about when we do not even reach an agreement? Basic facts such as the one that democracy exists thanks to the rule of law have been denied by separatism, to the point of converting this denial into a persuasive ‘mantra’.

What lies ahead is unknown. In the best case scenario, the Catalan question will continue to exist and at the same time will turn into a problem for Catalan society itself, with social groups radicalised by the frustration in one way or another.


 We can also expect the quality of ties between Catalonia and the whole of Spain to be harmed. Meanwhile, if we consider the failure of determinisms in the 20th century, it seems quite strange to enter the 21st century embracing the assumption that Catalonia is a nation and therefore it must have its own State. 



Translated by Sandra Pareja


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