Just two weeks later, building on the impetus for self-government, the Catalan President Artur Mas brought forward regional elections by two years, pledging to hold an early referendum on Catalunya‘s political status and possible independence.
Shortly after in October, in the Basque Country, two separatist parties dominated the elections to the Basque Parliament by winning two thirds of the seats.
Facing the constitutional crisis of a possible breakaway of two of its Regional Autonomies, Spain waited with apprehension. The sabre-rattling ripostes and political condemnation were not long in coming:
- Ex-Army officer, Colonel Alaman publicly calls for military intervention in Catalunya;
- In a counter demonstration against independence for Barcelona, right arms are seen raised in the classic Fascist salute;
- In late November in the editorial of the official Army Magazine ‘Ejercito’, General Pontifas Deus denounces President Mas for his ‘more than outrageous plans for self-government’;
- In Brussels, Spain’s Partido Popular Minister of Defence denies any knowledge of any ‘Movement’ in the Military, or any use of the Military as a mouthpiece for others;
- There are calls for the arrest of President Mas, possibly for treason.
With hindsight perhaps there was an over-reaction to the crisis. But for the Right and many traditionalists in the country, the unity of Spain is sacrosanct. Even today.
This concept of a united Spain has long been a challenge for Catalans, especially those whose language and family roots are Catalan. They have an intense sense of pride in their Catalanism, which combines within it an almost spiritual love of their language and culture and historical identity, within Spain but not necessarily of it. Catalans feel different, and in their history there is much to confirm this.
Having been settled firstly by the Greeks, Catalunya became the most completely romanized region of Iberia and had the least contact – at most 80 years – with the Moors during the seven centuries of Moorish occupation of the majority of the peninsula. From the 12th to the 14th centuries, Catalans, in a sophisticated confederacy with the Aragonese, dominated large parts of the Mediterranean, ruling Sardinia, Corsica and most of present-day Greece, and controlling the gold trade with Sudan.
But one of the most surprising aspects of this empire was the political and administrative structure that supported it. From the early 13th century Catalunya had a three-chamber form of parliament, the Corts, which passed all legislation and the Generalitat, which organised tax raising and expenditure. It was a very good time to be Catalan. When Queen Isabella in the beginning of the 16th century banned the Catalans from trading with the New World of the Americas, domination by Spain or the Central Government was to become their destiny for the next five centuries.
Every country has an event or events in its past which by repetition over the years form an emotive part of their historical identity and the date is familiar to all. For the English, 1066, the Battle of Hastings and the start of the Norman Conquest is the one we remember. For the Catalans it is 11 September 1741, during the War of Spanish Succession. After a year’s siege Barcelona was finally captured by the French and Spanish armies who raised a third of the city to the ground. The 11 September is now the National Day of Catalunya and was also the date of Barcelona’s latest demonstration for Independence from Spain.
But is it possible that what might most colour Catalunya’s view of their relationship with Madrid are events in the 20th century, still within living memory of older citizens? In 1939, the final defeat of the Republican Government by Franco’s Nationalist troops took place in Barcelona. It was effectively the end of the Civil War. The campaign against the Catalan language culture and people unleashed on Franco’s victory was devastating. Any public use of the language was banned and any books in Catalan including priceless and irreplaceable private collections were destroyed. Street and town names were given Spanish names. Catalan went underground.
This discrimination damaged the language but what caused far more linguistic damage longterm were the ‘tidal waves’ of Spanish-speaking immigrants, mainly from Andalucia and mostly semi-literate: a quarter of a million in the forties, half a million in the fifties, and almost a million in the sixties. Absorption into the local population as had happened with previous immigrants was almost impossible as the new immigrants often lived in their own ‘barrios’ speaking Spanish which was also the language used in education. Spanish increasingly became the language of preference for domestic use, even in Catalan homes. Figures for 1975 show that Catalan was spoken in only 39% of homes in Barcelona.
So do these figures have any relevance in 2012? To some extent certainly. Girona’s mayor, Carles Puigdemont identifies the original source of the desire for separatism: “We have our own language, our own culture, it’s in our DNA.” he might have been heartened to see flags of Andalucia among the Catalan pro-separatist flags fluttering from the balconies. Other pro-separatist politicians, seeing the huge increase in the movement of workers following the EU open border policy, must be asking themselves how this is affecting voting patterns. Without the DNA will those recent citizens be ready to take the risk of supporting Independence?
Carme Chacon, a Catalan, a dynamic politician and former Defence Minister in Zapatero’s Socialist Government, sees it from a broader perspective. She favours the concept of smaller states within a Federal Europe, “different but united.” She sees herself as one of the many Catalans who have roots in other regions of Spain. Her father came to the north from Andalucia and her grandfather was an anarchist from Aragon. She declares “I am a Catalan, a Spaniard and a European. And I do not want anyone to oblige me to choose.”
If her views are shared by many in Catalunya, could it be that Catalanism or cultural identity is not what has provoked this present independista crisis? It is certainly underpinning it, but as Bill Clinton said, in another place and at another time, “It’s the Economy, stupid.”
It is difficult to believe, on the face of it, that this could be the case with Catalunya. Its reputation as the powerhouse of Spain for its industrial and commercial success, are supported by the statistics. It provides 20% of Spain’s GDP, 25% of Spain’s tax revenue, 35% of Spain’s exports including 45% of high-tech exports, and 25% of Spain’s tax revenue (2009 figures). In spite of this, Catalunya is €42 billion in debt. And the root cause of this situation lies in Catalunya’s political State of Autonomy and its fiscal relationship with Madrid.
For Spain, though composed politically of regions with autonomy, has a centralised tax collection system. It was formulated in 1978 in the difficult days of Spain’s fledgling democracy which followed 40 years of repressive dictatorship under General Franco, after the Civil War in the late 1930s. Only the Basque Country and Navarre were allowed to raise their own taxes, a traditional right with its roots in the fueros of medieval times.
Put rather simplistically, Madrid levies the taxes and returns to each autonomy a percentage in services and investment. The difference between these two sums is the fiscal deficit. In the case of Catalunya, Madrid raises 95% of the taxes, and Catalunya raises 5% to cover its Social Services, including Healthcare and Education. Figures from the Generalitat show that between 1986 and 2009 the fiscal deficit ran on average at 8% of GDP per annum and in that last year Catalunya contributed €16.4 billion (8.4% of GDP) more in taxes than it received from Madrid in state services and investment. Alternatively one could say that amongst the autonomies, Catalunya was the third highest contributor of taxes to central government, but was eleventh highest in what it received back from Madrid.
To put into perspective the damage this causes to the Catalan economy, the Cercle Catala de Negocis has cited a telling analogy: Japan’s Tsunami Disaster caused an estimated loss of 3.6% – 5.7% of its GDP.
The strain that the increase in the fiscal deficit has placed on relations between Madrid and Catalunya was exacerbated by the sense of anger and betrayal felt by the Catalans over the fate of their new Statute of Autonomy of 2006. After four years of negotiations, this had been approved by the Catalan Parliament in September 2005, by the Spanish Congress in March 2006 and ratified in Catalunya by a majority vote in a referendum. It gave Catalunya extensions of rights in the Judicial system, Catalan language status, immigration controls, taxes and access to loans, and the right for Catalunya to be referred to as a nation.
The frustration felt then when an appeal to the Spanish Constitutional Court was filed by the conservative Partido Popular party was as nothing compared to the severe shock delivered by the Court’s ruling in 2010 when the appeal was upheld. Fourteen articles of the Statute had been abolished and twenty-six were to be seriously amended: these changes struck at the very structure of civil, political and judicial administration in Catalunya. And as for the Autonomy’s right to Nation status? It was deemed unconstitutional. For Catalans, this was insult added to injury.
Of course many in Central Government and in the rest of Spain have a different perspective on the Catalan position. Barcelona is seen as an avant-garde, vibrant city rich in Art and Culture with a thriving port. As an autonomy, it is able to take advantage, as a gateway to Europe, of its geographical location on Spain’s north-east Mediterranean coast, sharing a border with France. It is famous for its tourism, but respected and somewhat envied for its highly successful commercial and industrial sectors especially textiles, biotechnology – and wine production.
Whereas other Spanish autonomies with much lower GDPs, perhaps traditionally more rural and sometimes disastrously less well developed, have not only seen their budgets shredded, social programmes slashed, mounting redundancies in local government and private sectors, and rocketing unemployment especially among the young, all causing real poverty. Many therefore are tempted to see Catalans as ‘spoilt children’ trying to hold onto their ‘goodies’, exploiting their role as perennial victims of the wicked Central Government. Madrid seems to see its present fiscal policy towards Catalunya, however contentious, as trying to maintain the 1978 concept of regional autonomies, offering them ‘cafe para todos’. This tends to be seen then (amongst other less altruistic motives) as an opportunity for radical wealth redistribution in favour of poorer regions of Spain, especially in the light of the euro crisis and diminishing EU funding.
But the Catalans are also suffering. With their lack of fiscal control, faltering GDP and high tax rates, including the highest income tax rate of 56%, they share increasingly with other autonomies and European countries many of the problems referred to above.
So was the constitutional crisis all media hype?
The regional elections on 25 November took place with no military coup, but also without the President Artur Mas winning the outright majority he needed for his party, the CiU, to call for a referendum. Even worse, voters’ support for the CiU dropped 8%, and their representation in the 135-seat parliament dropped from 62 seats to 50. They are still the largest party, but only in coalition can they function.
An anti-climax perhaps? Not necessarily if one examines the voting pattern. Naturally enough the Partido Popular leader Mariano Rajoy with schadenfreude was predictably scathing in his judgement of the Catalan President – perhaps he wished to divert attention from two very unpalatable facts. Firstly that just under two thirds (87) of parliamentary seats are now held between four parties who either support at least a referendum on independence or those who openly campaigned on a more radical independista policy, such as Oriol Junqueras. He is leader of the party Esquerra Republicana Catalunya (ERC) which doubled their seats at the elections to become the second largest party. The high turnout of voters, 68%, more than two thirds of eligible voters, confirms the strength of the wish for constitutional change, which many political commentators feel Madrid should not ignore.
However, instead of compromise, Madrid appears to favour the policy of attack being the best form of defence. The Minister for Education, José Ignacio Wert, is advocating much of Michael Gove’s proposals for English education: league tables, privatisation, etc. But what has caused enormous offence to Catalunya is his attack on bilingual education policy, downgrading the status and use of Catalan to a specialist subject, and conversely defining Spanish as the main language of education.
Opposition is widespread and strong: 71% against in a December poll, but the most scathing appraisal is the article by internationally renowned Fernando Vallespin (Professor of Political Science and Administration and Director of Political Theory at Madrid’s Universidad Autonoma) in El Pais on 7 December 2012. He says:
“Faced with the state of the current situation in Catalunya, what could be more rash than to aggravate them on the question they are most sensitive about, the defence of their language…What it shows is that (Madrid) has not bothered to find out absolutely anything about what is happening there, nor has it understood the basic message coming from the ballot box.”
[Spanish original: “Ante la situación que estamos viviendo en Cataluña, ¿cabe algo más imprudente que tocarles en el punto más sensible, la defensa de su lengua?…Significa no haberse enterado de nada de cuanto está ocurriendo allí, ni haber entendido el mensaje fundamental emanado de las urnas.”]
He also urges that party politics should be put aside…this circumstance demands a renewal of the constitutional agreement, seeking those outside politics who are capable of generating the maximum possible consensus. He concludes with these words:
“The Government is far too arrogant and doctrinaire and it lacks the will and ability to encourage efforts to be made towards a grand State plan. It has chosen the opposite option and we shall all pay the price.”
[Spanish original: “Al Gobierno le sobra soberbia y doctrinarismo y le faltan la voluntad y la capacidad para adicionar fuerzas en torno a un gran proyecto de Estado. Ha elegido la opción contraria y lo pagaremos todos.”]
He is the expert, but will they listen to him.
So will Catalunya pull back from the brink? Perhaps if Malta and Estonia can pull off being small independent countries in the EU, this ancient Catalan region will be encouraged to take that leap to escape their present near-impossible relationship with Madrid and Spain.
But Brussels has just confirmed that Scotland’s exit from the United Kingdom would mean also giving up its EU membership. To renegotiate entry could be long and costly. Catalans have a reputation for being financially canny and having great common sense – an honourable compromise may yet be reached. For the whole is often worth more than the sum of its parts. Good Luck, Spain.