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Catalonia vs Spain, a clash of two nationalisms

By targeting the Mas government, widely portrayed as extremist and irresponsible, and by refusing to negotiate on key constitutional, economic, social, cultural issues, Mr. Rajoy has – willingly or not – been playing into the hands of radicals.

A human chain for the independence of Catalonia from Spain, September 2013. Karl Burkhof/Demotix. All rights reserved.Will 2014 be the year of Catalonia as it might be that of Scotland, whose voters will decide by referendum on September 18 if they want to regain their independence after three centuries within the United Kingdom ?

Five days earlier, Catalans will have taken to the streets en masse to commemorate the 300th anniversary of their own battle of Culloden, i.e. the fall of Barcelona into the hands of Spanish and French armies on September 11, 1714, and the end of their traditional self-rule and national identity. In 2012 and 2013 between one and two million people marched for independence from Spain, out of a population of 7.5 millions, slightly larger than Denmark.

And, on November 9, the autonomous government has vowed to organise a referendum on Catalan residents' “Right to decide” whether they want to become a State and, if they do, whether they would choose independence or remain in the fold of the Spanish monarchy. A vote which is bitterly opposed – as unconstitutional – by the right wing PP's (Popular Party) government in Madrid as much as by PSOE (Socialist) opposition in the name of Spanish unity. For the moment, according to recent opinion polls, over two thirds of voters would vote “yes” at the first question and a small majority would opt for independence.

But this “yes” could well turn into a “no” if the Spanish head of government Mariano Rajoy agreed to stop tampering with their linguistic and cultural rights – education is conducted in the Catalan language in the Autonomous Region – and grant a “Fiscal Pact” to Barcelona, like the one already in place in the Basque Country, allowing them the right to collect taxes.

As a rule, Catalans distrust the behaviour of Madrid politicians who, they feel, want to curtail their linguistic rights while milking the richest economy of the peninsula. Even if they are opposed to independence or in favour of a federal Spain ( the “Third Way” advocated by the Socialists – who remain short of details on their new proposal – but firmly rejected by Rajoy). They stress that the “Estatut” (status) approved by referendum and validated by the Spanish Cortes in 2006 has been stripped of its fundamental rights by the Constitutional Court, at the request of the PP, then in opposition, and of some PSOE leaders. And that, since it was returned to power in 2011, the PP has been eating away what Catalans consider to be their prerogatives.

In a democratic country there is nothing which could not be solved through negotiations. Provided there is a common will to negotiate, i.e., to give and take. The Catalan government, led by Artur Mas, head of Convergencia I Unio (CiU), the moderate nationalist party which spearheaded the fight for autonomy after Franco's death and who has long kept alive the hope of negotiating a better status with Madrid, is now advocating the “Right to decide”. He has announced for November 9 a referendum considered as illegal by the PP and PSOE, both of whom have vowed to oppose it by all legal means. Mas is also keeping up his sleeve the option of holding “plebiscitary” elections to the Barcelona Parliament, which would bring in a wider nationalist majority.

While Madrid politicians, and media are staunchly opposed to a referendum which, for them, would mean secession – some having gone so far as to compare Catalan nationalists to Nazi national-socialists, portraying Mas with a Hitler-like moustache and advocating sending the army in to restore rule of law in Barcelona – the two main Spanish parties, PP and PSOE, have all but vanished from the Catalan political scene. At the same time, moderate nationalists, who have failed to bring negotiations forward, are now threatened by the rise of the old radical anti-monarchy nationalists of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), which has overtaken CiU in latest polls.

Thus both sides are being radicalised. The moderate Catalan bourgeoisie, traditionally ready for compromise which would protect their business interests – and who remain, on economic and social issues as conservative as the PP – could soon be replaced by a less pliable ERC. Thus making a compromise less easy to reach, or even more unlikely. So Spain is now facing a confrontation between two conflicting nationalisms, Spanish/Castilian and Catalan.

This is precisely what the Catalan business community, as committed to their cultural values as to their economic interest in remaining part of a larger Spanish market, desperately want to avoid and are trying to act as a go-between between Madrid and Barcelona. They have, according to the daily El País (17 July 2014), pleaded with Mr. Rajoy to do away with his strategy of “immobility”, of sweeping the Catalan question under the carpet in the vain hope that it will eventually fade away, and to open negotiations on three fundamental issues which would rebuild confidence, cut the grass from under the pro-independents’ feet and make irrelevant the “Right to decide”: recognizing Catalonia as a nation, full control on linguistic and cultural issues, and fiscal autonomy. So far to no avail. As the head of Barcelona's Economists Circle, Antón Costas said, “the temptation of doing nothing is only leading us towards the extremes”.

By targeting the Mas government, widely portrayed as extremist and irresponsible, and by refusing to negotiate on key constitutional, economic, social, cultural issues, Mr. Rajoy has – willingly or not – been playing into the hands of radicals like the ERC or social organisations like Omnium Català and ANC (Catalan National Assembly), who are behind the latest massive demonstrations. New local elections would probably bring to power a coalition led by ERC. Specially as a significant number of neo-Catalans – immigrants from the rest of Spain and abroad – have recently joined the traditional independence camp. While, at the same time, neither the PP nor the PSOE want to be seen by their traditional Spanish voters as giving away to “separatists”. Rajoy knows that his party's radical wing, influenced by his predecessor Jose Maria Aznar, could threaten his leadership. While PSOE leaders are well aware that no Socialist government could be returned to the Cortes without the Catalan votes.

The contrast with the more realistic position of the British government is glaring, which has accepted the Scottish referendum, while campaigning – like the Labour Party – for a “no” vote on independence. And moreover letting it be  understood that this “no” vote could be followed by devolution of more federal powers to the Scots.

Of course, both London and Madrid have been trying to frighten away voters by threatening them with expulsion from the European Union, exclusion from their present currency – the Pound or the Euro – and dire economic and social consequences if they make the wrong choice. This is fair game. But, as well as independence – especially on unfriendly terms – meaning serious economic difficulties for sure, and long negotiations with Brussels on access to the EU, it could also be costly to Spain. And perhaps more. The Kingdom would, in effect lose its richest region, its second city and its main port, but also one of its only road and rail connections to the rest of Europe, (the other being through the Basque Country, also tempted by greater autonomy, or more). The EU, meanwhile, has rejected Rajoy’s plan to open up a new route to France through the central Pyrenees. All this could strip Spain of its place among EU major powers and reduce it to the humiliating status of a “middling” country. Hard for a nation which has, for centuries, considered herself a world power.

For their part, a spectacular scandal has just marred the image of Catalan nationalism when it was made public that the charismatic father of Catalan's autonomy and long-time head of the Barcelona government, Jordi Pujol, had squirrelled away millions of family money into foreign banks. This scandal, front-paged in all the media, is seen by many, in Spain as in Catalonia, as a nail in the coffin of the pro-independence crusade.

It is true that the very image of Catalanism has been tarnished, this time by the moral failure of its major icon. Yet, Sr. Pujol is far from being the most corrupt of Catalan, or Spanish (left or right) politicians, who took advantage of the last economic bubble to enrich themselves or to illegally finance their parties. Some have been sentenced to jail while judiciary enquiries are dragging on for others. Who could realistically believe now that independence would necessarily mean a cleaner or more efficient government? But maybe Catalans prefer being ruled – for better or worse – by their own kith and kin!

Read Patrice de Beer's followup article, Catalonia revisited: farewell to great expectations, here.

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