Can Europe Make It?

Catalonia vs Spain: a clash of two debates


Patrice de Beer's article on Catalan independence went viral. With just days to go until the vote, we look at some of the interesting questions raised by the author and you also in the comments.

Alex Sakalis
5 November 2014

A human chain for the independence of Catalonia from Spain, September 2013. Karl Burkhof/Demotix. All rights reserved.

It’s been a long strange road for the Catalans. An agreement between Catalan President Artur Mas and an alliance of pro-independence Catalan parties back in 2012 paved the way for the regional parliament approving a referendum on independence on September 17, 2014. The date for this momentous occasion, November 9, three days from now.

The reaction of the government in Madrid was to be expected, taking Catalonia to court arguing that the referendum would be unconstitutional. Though the Constitutional Courts have provisionally suspended the referendum while they weigh the evidence, Artur Mas has decided to go take it to a vote, albeit one no longer called 'an independence referendum', but rather a “non-referendum popular consultation on the political future of Catalonia.”

The success of this September's Scottish referendum experiment has thrown open the rafters to a host of other independence movements in Europe. The huge public debate that Scotland engendered, as well as the civil and organised way it was carried out, has inspired many others who believe that independence can be won at the ballot box rather than with the sword.

Can Europe Make it? has been running debates on Catalonia and Spain for as long as we have been a section of openDemocracy, but Patrice de Beer’s Catalonia: a clash of two nationalisms has become one of our most read articles. Since being published less than two weeks ago, it has been read over 120,000 times, shared nearly 7,000 times on facebook and twitter, with both numbers continuing to augment.

De Beer's central argument is that this is two opposing nationalisms – Spanish vs Catalan. It is a similar to a Scottish Nationalism vs British nationalism debate or the theory of two extremes in austerity ridden countries. Are nationalisms equally bad, or is there a false equivalence? Furthermore, is there anything wrong with being radical? Or, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, is radicalism in the defence of liberty more virtuous than moderation in the pursuit of justice?

Pablo Fuentes-Prior took exception to de Beer's article, writing that:

Of course, there is nothing wrong about calling ERC or any other party “radical” – in principle.


My problem with Mr. De Beer’s article is that he is not objective at all; in the conflict between Spain and Catalonia he clearly takes sides in favor of the “moderates” (in his view, those who support the sacred unity of the Spanish kingdom – as we know it), while throwing a negative light on the… well, “radicals”.

 While Mark wrote:

ERC is not "radical". Maybe it was "radical" before the civil war, when EVERY party was radical, but man, we're talking about the last century. In modern times ERC is a normal party like the others. In fact, it is a very respectful party, who governed side by side with PSC, a pro spanish party, giving the presidency of Catalonia to a non born catalan. After this, the radical wing of this party formed a group named Reagrupament, and abandoned ERC.

However some see "radical" as a positive to be stoutly defended, such as Altairzq, who wrote

Very good article. I'm catalan. I see there is some discussion about ERC being considered radicals in the article. Being radical is not a bad thing as the spanish media makes us believe. Yes I think that ERC can be considered radical.

While some, such as Pere Vilanova, think de Beer's use of the term "radical" has been misintepreted:

Some of the comments here seem to prove that the authors are not familiar with (or did not understand well) the way in which Patrice de Beer is using the word "radical". Nothing to do with extremism or violence, it is a political position which focuses strongly on a very deep principle or set of principles, with little or no margin for negotiation or compromise. One can be radically separatist, or the oposite, or radically democrat, or radically pacifist for that matter. In a way, radical here could be seen as the opposite concept of "dubious" or "ambiguous" or "uncertain".

De Beer's mild admonishment of Catalan radicalism and Castillian intransigence was founded on the idea that further compromise could be made on both sides. However MargaBB suggested that this was not a desirable option for many Catalans:

The Catalans do not want to agree yet another pact with the Spanish government because every single pact they have made (and under Pujol alone they made literally hundreds, that was his line, the "peix al cove" (pactism) - Spain olympically breaks every one over time, on the line that "powers devolved are powers retained", treating their "global city" second capital Barcelona like a provincial town hall instead of a co-actor leading Spain.

The inevitable Scotland-Catalonia comparisons were drawn by commenters, however Shurvivalist cautioned against them:

Scotland is a country that was independent for many centuries and voluntarily joined the United Kingdom, now they have asked for a referendum to be independent again and the british parliament could allow it because they have the power to do it and there is not a british constitution that forbids it. However Catalonia was never an independent and sovereign country, right now it's just a region of Spain, and as I've explained before, the spanish constitution does not allow to any spanish region to do an unilateral referendum questioning Spain's sovereignty.

Much like how the Scottish debate captured the vivid imaginations of even the most apolitical people, so too the Catalonia debate has inspired much debate and discussion on democracy, the people, the state and civil society. Whatever happens on Sunday, just the existence of such a debate will be a victory for anyone who worried about the increasing apathy of our societies, pushing us towards stagnation and irreverence. We are glad that openDemocracy can provide a platform, no matter how small, for these contesting views. Good luck for November 9.

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