Pro-independence protesters in Barcelona on 11 September 2012. Demotix/Mario Roldan. All rights reserved.
Three quarters of a century after George Orwell wrote his “Homage to Catalonia” (1938) - on the eve of the collapse of Republican Spain and of Catalonia's autonomy – Catalans are knocking once again at the door of History. On Tuesday, September 11 – their national “Diada” commemorating the trampling in 1714 of their traditional rights by a Franco-Spanish king – 1.5 million of them (out of a total of 7.5 millions) took to the streets of Barcelona, demanding more autonomy, for some, or outright independence from Madrid for the others. It was one of the largest political demonstrations ever in the Peninsula. And Catalonia deserves this renewed homage for having chosen peaceful protest, unlike the Basque Country, Corsica or, for so many years, Northern Ireland.
The demand for autonomy coming from old nations or regions is nothing new in Europe where records of old glories remain alive, and sometimes kicking. From the independence of the Irish Republic in 1921 to the peaceful partition of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak Republics in 1993 or to the war which tore apart former Yugoslavia into seven states in the 1990's. Not to mention the successes the French speaking Parti Quebecois earlier this month, of Flemish nationalists in Belgium or of the Scottish SNP, now in power in Edinburgh, whose leader and First Minister Alex Salmond seems determined to call for a referendum on independence in 2014 - Scotland which, for Catalan nationalists, is the example to follow. Victory for the nationalists in these two countries would be like an earthquake for traditional British and Spanish parties, especially from the left, which would lose one of their major strongholds and any hope in future elections.
What is really happening in this north-eastern part of Spain, which has its own language – Catalan – prioritised ahead of Spanish at school, also widely spoken in Valencia, the Balearic Island, Andorra and somehow, the French Pyrénées orientales, the northern part of the old Principality. This represents 16% of the country's population and is its wealthiest but also most indebted “autonomy” – or autonomous region? Despised or misunderstood in the rest of Spain, long ignored by the rest of Europe, Catalan nationalism has been getting stronger in the last century, proud of its ancient culture and history as a country liberated from Arab occupation long before the rest of the peninsula, which has remained independent since the sixteenth century – pride now regularly reinvigorated by the prowess of the Barça soccer club. A nation without a state, Catalonia who, at one time, controlled parts of southern France, southern Italy and Greece but also numerous trading posts around the Mediterranean, never was a kingdom of its own. Even if its rulers were, at the same time, kings of Aragon.
All this may seem complicated. And it is! But it is clear that Catalonia's relations with Madrid and the two leading Spanish parties - Socialist PSOE as well as the conservative PP - both centralists, have steadily deteriorated in the last few years. Its 1979 autonomic status, modified in 2006, has been curtailed by Madrid's Constitutional Court and Catalans resent paying far more taxes to the central government than they get in return, thus subsidising lesser developed and less dynamic, Spanish regions. Last year's return to power of a PP government led by Mariano Rajoy has raised even higher prevailing nationalist tensions, despite the fact that the moderate conservative CIU (Convergencia i Unió) is economically and socially closer to the Spanish right. Madrid's recent efforts to recentralise power on the pretence of being better equipped to fight the present economic crisis, now close to disaster, has ruffled more feathers than ever, forcing CiU ever closer to the supporters of independence, dividing Catalan socialists and marginalising the local PP.
If, from Madrid, Catalans are often portrayed as irresponsible, ungrateful, selfish dividers and their pro-independence campaigners as extremists if not terrorists; if, in the rest of the country, people look down on their accents when they speak Spanish and even boycott the local champagne, or cava - most Catalans fear that too much centralisation threatens their identity. Maybe because France once succeeded in uprooting the local language from its part of Catalonia as laid out in the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrénées, or because between the two world wars, posters were pasted on school walls, reading, “Be clean, Speak French!” - this is a feeling the French understand well, with the semi-disappearance of their local languages, Flemish, Breton or Provençal, thanks to compulsory education and, television. The British too, have good reason to understand, with the surge of national feelings in Scotland and Wales; Wales, which is also proud of her old language.
Catalans are not Basques. There is no Catalan ETA-like terrorist organisation; there have never been any bombings, only peaceful protests. Yet nationalism is very deeply rooted in the minds of all Catalans, who clung to their own language and tradition through the dark ages, led by their bourgeoisie and clerics. For a long time, as a Frenchman living in a highly centralised country, I barely had any idea about these feelings, which I found old fashioned in our globalised world. Till I bought a house in northern Catalonia, started learning the language, reading books and newspapers and talking with Catalan friends in Catalan. Catalans share a great pride in an old glory, a specificity of experience trampled after the defeat of the “Reapers War” for independence (1640-52) which was followed by the loss of autonomous rights, traditions and the banning of Catalan as an official language, a ban once again enforced under the Franco regime. They resent any efforts by Madrid to take back some of the rights won after Franco's death.
Yet they don't necessarily want to break up totally with neighbouring Spain, whose language they share, as part of a bilingual country. Immigrants as well as Erasmus students are now taught in Catalan. Catalan academics I know discuss with their Spanish colleagues each one in his own language: they read – and often write – in Spanish. But they live and think in Catalan. Many of the old immigrants' grandchildren from Andalusia now speak Catalan, the language of social inclusion and a number can be found in the pro-independence movement. For them as well as for Scottish nationalists, nationalism has to be inclusive for all who live in the Principality.
They feel deeply European, like many of the banners and flags raised in the last Barcelona demonstration, clearly placed alongside their national banners. Catalonia once was a European nation, with a language as closely linked to southern French Occitan or Italian as to Spanish - a country whose cultural and trading influence spread throughout southern Europe and the Mediterranean.
They believe they can divorce peacefully from Spain and join the EU. A feeling recently displayed in the first ever opinion poll giving a majority - of 51.5% - to pro-independence Catalans. A figure which might well keep increasing if Madrid remains as arrogantly hostile – the latest “Diada” was considered as a “nonsense” by Mr. Rajoy while some in the PP publicly call for the demise of autonomies – pushing a reluctant Barcelona government closer to advocating a “proper State”.
Yet partition is not the only solution. A wider degree of autonomy, first of all fiscal – as in the Basque country – through negotiations respecting both edgy sensitivities as suggested by Spanish daily El País could be another way. A way which would please those Catalans who do not want to break up with Madrid but who also feel the need to be less despised and better taken into account, economically. But are those promoting independence ready for such a compromise and will Mr Rajoy be able to rein in his own party's move towards authoritarianism, religious and social conservatism and economic crony-ism? Time is running out fast.