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The Catalan gridlock

Catalans are losing their identity as well as their hopes for sovereignty

Artillery Row

Pedro Sanchez’s newly formed left-wing government has found itself in a difficult position. The Socialists would not have been able to form a government without the support of Catalan nationalists. However, these compromises will mean constant attacks from the right, which has taken to the streets of Madrid en masse to protest against them.

Sánchez has promised amnesty for those who took part in the organisation of the 2017 independence referendum and pro-independence events since 2014, alongside the cancellation of some portion of the debt (which will include other regions as well). Above all, Catalan nationalists want to get back on the track to independence. However, from behind the scenes we hear that for Socialists this is a non-negotiable issue.

Many Catalans have no confidence in these negotiations. When I asked Frederic J. Porta, a young lecturer in Catalan and European history at the University of Barcelona and founder of the nationalist magazine Esperit, he replied that it will only involve celebrities. When I pointed out to him that the people in charge of negotiations on the Catalan side had promised it would also apply to ordinary people on the street, he smiled ironically. Frederic is amongst the thousands who have become disillusioned with the nationalist parties and do not vote.

Catalan nationalism was not always hostile to Spain. At its beginning, it was organised around two questions: autonomy and a Catalan vision for Spain. After all, one of the fathers of modern Catalan nationalism, Enric Prat de la Riba, claimed that “Catalans are Spaniards who wish to construct a different Spain”. Throughout the 19th century, separatism was nonexistent. Instead, there was an ongoing rivalry over the future of the Spanish national project between Castile and Catalonia. “It resembles,” Porta explained to me, “the competition for hegemony in the German world between Prussia and Austria.”

The Catalan project was conceived amongst the elites of the most developed part of Spain, in reaction to the backwardness and failures of the Madrid elites. Ultimately, however, the dictatorship of Primo de la Rivera in 1923, followed by Franco’s victory in the civil war and the subsequent crackdown on the culture, economy and autonomy of Catalonia, put an end to this rivalry.

Despite this, until the second decade of the 21st century, independence did not find clear political support amongst Catalans. It seemed that the 1978 Constitution could accommodate autonomist aspirations within its framework, but its lack of coherence — emphasis put on both Spanish unity and regional autonomy — remains the source of the conflict that is still unfolding before our eyes.

The limits of the Constitution became apparent in 2010 when the Spanish Constitutional Court rejected parts of Catalonia’s new Statute of Autonomy, which gave it greater powers of self-government. Any illusions that Madrid was prepared to engage in constructive dialogue with Catalonia were lost. The prime minister in office since 2011, Mariano Rajoy — who started his career in Alianza Popular, a party with a Francoist heritage — was committed to centralist vision. He had no intention of conceding any ground.

The independence of the Baltic countries provided a jolt of optimism to many Catalans

Meanwhile, the Court’s ruling has led to an unprecedented surge in support for independence. According to a Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió poll, support for it rose from 28.2 per cent in October 2011 to 44.3 per cent a year later. Remarkably, it was a grassroots movement driven by Catalans and their civic organisations. It all took off in 2009 with the beginning of local independence consultations in the region. “It all started not far from Barcelona, in Arenys de Munt,” Abel Riu, political scientist and president of the Catalonia Global Institute, said to me. I can sense the historical significance he attaches to the first town that sparked the momentum leading up to the referendum. Abel is an expert on Eastern Europe, with a particular interest in post-communist countries. The independence of the Baltic countries in the 90s provided a jolt of optimism to many Catalans.

Abel explains that the establishment parties did not want independence at all. It was pressure from ordinary Catalans, who viewed sovereignty as a last resort to defend their interests, that forced politicians to change direction. Carles Puigdemont, who headed the Catalan autonomous authorities since 2016, announced that Catalonia would gain it “peacefully” and “armed only with democracy”. And so the referendum was announced for October 2017.

The conservative government instructed the police to prevent citizens from entering polling stations. Images of people beaten for attempting to vote circulated around the world. Still, the referendum took place, and independence won. The participation rate was 42.4 per cent — according to critics, not enough (note that the police closed some 300 polling stations) to legitimise a “yes” victory, which was supported by 90 per cent of voters.

Abel claims that the success of the referendum took the Catalan political class by surprise. “They completely failed to understand that politics is mainly about power relations. They believed that Brussels would intercede on their behalf and protect them from Madrid’s violence,” he argues with a hint of contempt in his voice.

Puigdemont did not want to declare independence after the vote. He stalled, hoping for a meeting with the Prime Minister. Rajoy, however, coldly refused any negotiations. Thus began Puigdemont’s tragicomedy. He declared independence without celebration, personally forbidding the removal of Spanish flags. He did not come out to meet the thousands of Catalans who were waiting for the historical announcement. Just as he quietly declared independence, he quietly went, with close associates, into voluntary exile in Brussels, whilst leaders of social organisations were sent to prison. Madrid declared the referendum illegal and dismissed its outcome.


However, the radicalization of Catalan nationalism has deeper causes. Does it represent a reaction to the stagnation brought about by the Madrid elite? Just like the reemergence at the end of the 19th century of a distinct Catalan political consciousness, opposed to Castilian complacency?

The diagnosis of Spanish stagnation has not come solely from pro-independence quarters. As Jésus Fernández-Villaverde, professor of economics at Penn University, writes, Spain has virtually seen no growth in productivity since 1986; it has little to offer to the young, whose best chance is to get a government job. According to Villaverde, all that remains for Spaniards is the success of their athletes. The Ametic reflection group, established by experts from the industrial sector, arrives at similar conclusions: GDP per capita measured in constant prices has not increased since 2007. Over the same period, France grew by seven per cent, the Netherlands by 10.7 per cent and Germany by 13.7 per cent. An excessive focus on tourism is leading to high early school dropout rates. In this respect, Spain is surpassed in the EU only by Romania.

Catalonia is now governed by two groups responsible for its loss of vitality

In the late 19th century, Catalan elites were acutely aware of their dynamism, which contrasted sharply with Spanish complacency. After the democratic transition, similar sentiments resurfaced. Decision-makers from capital were seen as versed in finance and speculation, not in the productive economy. One of the most important demands has involved fiscal autonomy, in order to put an end to espoli fiscal, the central government’s “fiscal spoliation” of Catalan affluence. The fact remains that Catalonia has suffered fiscal discrimination for years — the resources Madrid allocates to infrastructure development in the region are the lowest in all of Spain. According to some estimates, the espoli fiscal has cost the region eight per cent of GDP every year since 1986. For others, however, the biggest problem is not “fiscal plunder” but, as Andreu Mas-Collel — an economist who taught formerly at Oxford — stateds, a corset of regulations that stifles Catalan growth. “This is the path to decadence,” he claims. “We cannot be competitive in the global economy with one hand tied behind our back.”

At the beginning of the 21st century, Madrid replaced Catalonia as Spain’s economic engine. When I asked Miquel Vila about this issue, the New York-based executive director of Catalonia Global remarked that in many ways Barcelona is becoming more like Madrid: rent seeking has intensified, and the economy has focused on real estate speculation. According to Xavier Melero, a Catalan lawyer and columnist, Catalonia is governed by two groups responsible for its loss of vitality: the Tourism Party and the Real Estate Party.

Catalan politicians believed that the EU and global public opinion would support them because they represented progress: “Europeanism”, environmentalism and feminism. Almost all cultural and educational institutions in Catalonia, as Porta tells me, are dedicated to promoting woke ideology and consider themselves to be the most progressive in all of Spain. When I asked if it was a coincidence that as soon as Catalonia ceased to be an engine of economic progress, it threw itself into the culture wars, Frederic replied that it definitely can be viewed as a form of compensation.

For the young generation of Catalan intelligentsia, this compensation is not enough. On their part, Catalonia Global analysts are working on a conception of Catalan geopolitics, highlighting that the loss of independence was closely linked to changes in the international environment. In their vision, Barcelona should aspire to be a key player in the Mediterranean. They are convinced that neither Berlin, Paris nor Brussels will be able to ignore this potential for long.

However, their ambitions are underpinned by anxiety. After all, language is the bedrock of Catalan identity. According to Riu, immigration and other phenomena stemming from globalisation diluted the pool of people who speak Catalan, and new arrivals mostly learn Spanish. “The language survey carried out every five years shows that in 2003, 50 per cent of the population had spoken Catalan on a daily basis. By 2018, this figure had decreased to 36 per cent. We fear that the next survey to be published in 2024 will show less than 30 per cent.” Whilst sovereignty may seem futile without identity, the latter remains precarious without the former.

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