“Spaniards are those who cannot be anything else.”
— Antonio Cánovas del Castillo
(Spanish president for most of the XIX century)
In the aftermath of a failed separatist referendum in October, regional elections were held in Catalonia on the last week of December. After the ballots were fully counted, it is hard to say whether a majority of citizens favour independence or not. Recent polls suggest that most Catalans -including separatists- now disagree with a unilateral struggle for independence. Although the winning party in the aforementioned elections is against independence, in the coming weeks, a coalition of old and newly founded separatist parties, right and left, may be able to form another separatist Government, thanks, partly, to a regional electoral system which tends to favour the less populated — but more separatist — Catalan provinces over the big and cosmopolitan province of Barcelona.
Popular analysis of Catalan separatism gives too much weight to “ethnic” differences, the economic prospects of an independent Catalonia, and the (false) perception that the vast majority of Catalans want independence. These easy but short-sighted tropes obscure other, more important factors, such as the surprising absence of a healthy “unifying” nationalism in Spanish history, as the eminent historian of Spain, Stanley Payne, has observed.¹ Until very recently there has been a widespread view among Spaniards that there is very little in Spanish history to be proud of and not very much to look forward to in the future. Another important contributing factor is that the peculiarities of the democratization process which led to the 1978 Spanish Constitution provided those few nationalist parties which have had at least minimal success in regional and national elections in the last forty years, with broad powers to educate the younger generations in an ideology which was never more popular and radical than it is today. Thus, it is not so much that Catalan separatists are proud of being Catalan as it is that most people in Spain are in some way ashamed of being Spanish.
Justifications of Catalan separatism solely as a matter of economic interest for Catalonia, though relevant, are misleading and unfair in themselves, because economic interest is usually not the only reason why human beings form communities or stick together. The ethnic angle, too, is overblown. Catalan separatism is not racist. It has tried to win all citizens to its side, regardless of how ‘Catalan’ their pedigree may be. Having Catalan as your mother tongue or having Catalan ancestors is not so relevant anymore: in the eyes of the movement, you are a ‘good Catalan’ if you are willing to vote for an independent Catalonia. In today’s context, ethnic and cultural differences have given way to a much more powerful argument: money. “Spain is stealing from us” is the new mantra, just as “Europe is stealing from us” was the burden of Great Britain’s nationalist “Brexit” movement.
Yet Catalans would be wise to observe the lessons of Brexit. Soon after the Brexit ticket won the referendum, many Britons realised how distorted its argument was, and how uncertain is the future that lies ahead of them. Supporters of Brexit may have thought that leaving the EU was a really good move because, being geographically and historically a part of Europe, it should still be reasonably easy for Britain to go on trading with other European countries. They would have their cake and eat it too: being Europeans and not Europeans at the same time. They now realise that free trade has a price, which they are trying to calculate in Downing Street and negotiate in Brussels.
For Catalonia the question is therefore not how economically feasible it is to go without the economic support of the Spanish state. Rather, the real difficulty may be whether, after an extremely passionate separation in which Spaniards and the Spanish state have been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong in Catalonia, the rest of Spain may or may not continue to be a friendly trading partner and the primary market for Catalan products and services, as it is now.
This is just one of the disasters that may come out of such an independence. Another negative side effect would be, for instance, the large amount of external public debt that Catalonia would have to assume as part of any independence deal with Spain — whose repayment is now only an obligation of the Spanish State. That debt, by the way, along with the public external debt of the Autonomous Region of Catalonia itself, would mostly have to be repaid in euros, yet without Catalonia having from then on the ability to borrow from EU banks, because after independence it would immediately have ceased to be a member of the EU.
As far as cultural differences are concerned, Catalans — or rather, the citizens of Catalonia, because this region has always been a magnet for immigrants from other parts of Spain — are indeed different, but they are as different from Andalusians as Andalusians are different from the Asturians in the North or from the Aragonese in the East. Spain is a very diverse nation. So are most other countries in Europe, not because Europe is no longer a “white” or “Christian” continent, but because of its long and complicated history.
The cultural and ethnic argument has other limits, too. Denying that Catalonia is part of Spain because of the specific cultural identity of many of its inhabitants would mean that practically every region or territory in Europe could have similar aspirations. Even certain districts in Paris or Berlin, where “non-French” or “non-Germans” are an overwhelming majority, could sue for independence. The idea that Catalonia should become independent on the vote of a 51% separatist majority is actually anti-democratic, because democracy is the right to vote on those issues which concern you directly — and dividing Spain deeply concerns all Spaniards: Andalusians, Castilians, Basques … and Catalans, too.
Modern European nation-states were not necessarily formed from hundreds of small medieval kingdoms and fiefdoms out of cultural or ethnic similarities. In many cases, the dissimilarities outweighed the similarities — and often still do even at present. Economic, cultural and ethnic differences between northern and southern Italians are as evident today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago, when Massimo d’Azeglio announced that “we have made Italy; now we must make the Italians.” In this famous quip, Italy sounds as artificial as a nation as the Italians seem artificial as a people. Or take Germany. Today it is very common to hear, even from young Germans, that there is Germany and then there is Bavaria: two really different countries — and this on top of the blatant economic and cultural differences that still exist between Ossies and Wessies. Every German I have asked about this has told me that they grew up thinking it to be perfectly normal that there were actually two Germanies — East and West — not just one, forcibly divided by Cold War politics.
In Europe there were also many territories occupied, at the same time, by populations of diverse ethnic backgrounds. In fact, in certain parts of Europe it was the rule, rather than the exception, that members of many nationalities lived together. In the aftermath of WWI and after the Russian, Austrian, and Ottoman empires were dissolved, a new and “fairer” political order was envisaged for Europe by Woodrow Wilson and others, in which the new borders were to be drawn along “ethnic” lines. However, this was obviously impossible, and the rearrangement of borders gave rise to massive displacements of those who had lived for ages in places they were no longer allowed to call home. In Romania there could be no Hungarian speaking population, and in Hungary there could be no Romanians. This was crazy, but it could also happen in the case of Catalonia, where there are millions who not only are not separatists but whose roots lie in some other parts of Spain. By the way, thousands of Catalans live in other parts of Spain, too. Independence would likely not be the end of a process but the beginning of very difficult times. Furthermore, for extreme separatists, “Catalonia” comprises many other provinces, both in Spain and in France, so their struggle will not have ended, even if the succeed in establishing a Catalan state.
If modern European nation-states were not formed on ethnic or cultural lines, what brought them together? Despite Europe’s jumble of many ethnic groups, languages and religions, several kinds of events and unifying movements gave birth, in the course of centuries, to the countries we find today on every any school map. One strong factor was the prestige and power of the central rulers and institutions which were at the forefront of each unifying movement. Unification sometimes happened because these rulers forced the idea of the nation onto others, and sometimes simply because power is tremendously attractive (e.g. Bismarck in Germany or Garibaldi in Italy). Even if the inhabitants of a territory have little in common, they will see themselves as one single people if they admire their apt or powerful leaders and look forward to a shared and prosperous future. On the other hand, even when people those same inhabitants have been cohabiting for centuries, some will definitely want to split up if they are ashamed of their rulers or ashamed of what they are or of what others tell them they are as a nation. German shame after WWII probably made it easier for them to swallow the humiliation of being permanently divided and occupied.
On the eve of 1789, France was incredibly diverse too, from a linguistic point of view. Nevertheless, soon enough, as revolutionaries began to violently impose their new egalitarian ideals, the existing regional languages and manifold patois stood in their way, and they suppressed them to a large extent. As Spain’s empire began to collapse, smothered by bureaucracy and lack of ideas, France commenced its ascent as the new intellectually challenging and militarily defiant centre of contemporary Europe. Everything that was worth saying had to be said in French. Even Russian aristocrats learned French before they learned Russian. Thus the centrally-imposed French language became an instrument of national unification and empire.
Compared to France, Spain may have had less to offer in terms of an exciting and admirable political project for the last few centuries, so it comes as no surprise that those with a credible excuse are trying to jump ship. Spain may have been the modern world’s first global empire, but that mirage faded quickly and is today remembered with horror and disgust. It is commonplace to link genocide and the Spanish conquistadors, even though native peoples were killed with as much dexterity by settlers of any other European empire. Again, it is a liberal dogma that the epitome of religious fanaticism is the Spanish Inquisition, although the Spanish subcontinent itself suffered no wars of religion, and Protestant repression was equally cruel and intense in other parts of Europe.
Yet today our past is loathed and our present is that of a third-rate country, with very little democratic experience, politicians who would sell their own mothers for a seat in parliament, and an international reputation for laziness and sunny beaches. The 2008 economic crisis hit us doubly hard because we had our own additional real estate bubble, and the prevailing sensation is that the Spanish economy, steered in turns by socialists and the conservatives since the eighties, has very weak foundations. For many, there is also the feeling that our relatively peaceful transition to democracy served only to replace authoritarian autocrats with elected ones whose only real job is to get re-elected. The new and radical young left consider that the democratic transition was actually a shameful betrayal of those who had suffered under fascism.
I can truly understand why a young man in Catalonia, repeatedly told at school and on TV that he is not Spanish and that his future is bright in the impending Republic of Catalonia, would enthusiastically embrace the fight for freedom. A beautifully-painted utopian future is much more attractive than our sordid past or squalid present.
Fighting to achieve something new is incredibly more appealing than struggling just to keep something you already have. There is a limit to how much makeup you can put on the past, but the future can be the most beautiful runway model, provided it has a good public relations team.
Separatists are increasingly labelling non-separatists “traitors,” so calling yourself Spanish in Catalonia is today harder than ever. To possess and balance several identities and loyalties may be troublesome but at some point in history it has also been common to consider incompatible being at the same time English and Catholic, Spanish and Protestant, or American and Communist. You are either one of us or you are against us.
In addition to all that, the Spanish central government has for a long time been an absentee father in Catalonia. Because the Spanish constitution is one of the most decentralized in Europe in its distribution of powers, so culture and education policies have been in the hands of moderate or extreme nationalists for the last forty years. Those who wished to watch TV in the Catalan language have daily been shelled with open messages that Catalonia and Spain were as different as chalk and cheese. Many of those who attended public schools in Catalonia have grown up thinking that Spanish was just an indoor language, something to speak in private, with family and friends, a tolerated foreign parlance and nothing more. The Spanish Government hardly ever raised its voice against this state of affairs because protesting for “not being Spanish enough” sounds “francoist,” and because Catalan nationalists have been so successful at the polls over the decades that they have held the key to the Spanish presidency on several occasions for both Socialist and Conservative parties, who were therefore never too hard on their temporary political allies.
Ultimately, any rational discussion on the merits and hazards of independence may be useless because, as long as the future is the future, we can always believe that it will be better than our present, or at least blame others if our expectations turn out to be false.
¹ Stanley Payne, The Franco Regime, 1987, pp. 8–9.
Featured image: “Manifestació 20 Setembre 2017 Ambient davant la seu de conselleria d’economia” by Màrius Montón (Wikimedia Commons)
Recently, the U.S. magazine Campaigns & Elections gave an award to this video on separatism in Catalonia, made by the US Hispanic Council. You may find it helpful in understanding the situation.