Catalans vote with independent mind

Passions are running high as the issue of separation from Spain is the key question in elections
Passions are running high as the issue of separation from Spain is the key question in elections
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IT wasn’t hard to grasp the spirit of the desire for independence anywhere in Catalonia last week. Maria Solé, from the village of La Bisbal del Penedès, said it was a simple matter of feeling Catalan and not Spanish, and not because she feels any enmity towards Spain.

“I feel Catalan the same way a French person feels French. That’s all there is to it.

Artur Mas

Artur Mas

“Democracy is very weak in Spain,” she added. “In Spain, things are imposed, not discussed. We’re not interested in frontiers, because we think they are disappearing. We feel Catalan, European and part of the world and we can survive, indeed, live well, within this framework.”

Gemma Soler, from Barcelona, agreed. “It’s not just about independence. It’s about ­defending our identity and our culture.”

Fumi, a chef in Barcelona, said he hoped that with independence he wouldn’t have to go on justifying his existence. “I’m Catalan. It would be nice not to have to explain that to people all the time.”

He may no longer have to. After what seems like an eternity since the elections were called two months ago, Catalonia goes to the polls today to elect a new government, or perhaps simply re-install the old one. Whatever the result, secession from Spain has shifted from the margins to the centre and a referendum on the issue seems inevitable.

From the outside, the shift might appear sudden, but the discontent that led over a million people to take to the streets of Barcelona last September to demand independence has been simmering for years and, in some respects, for centuries. But on that day Catalonia was like someone in an unhappy marriage who wakes up one day with the realisation that things are never going to get better and the only solution is to kiss your other half goodbye.

What has come to a head is something that goes back to the 15th century and the ethnic and linguistic cleansing that went on right up to the ­establishment of Spain as a ­nation-state at the start of the 18th century, says Jordi Urpi, who runs a country hotel in Baix Penedès.

“Historically, there has never been a culture of dialogue or respect for people’s differences within Spain,” he says. “I have always been in favour of independence, I’ve always thought it was the only solution.”

Strictly speaking, Catalonia has never been an independent state. When Spain was still divided between the crowns of Portugal, Castile and Aragón, it formed a highly autonomous region within the latter. Portugal went its own way but at the beginning of the 18th century Felipe V set out to create the nation state of Spain. After a long siege, on 11 September, 1714, Barcelona fell to Spanish troops led by James FitzJames Earl of Berwick, bastard son of James II. That was the end of independence and the beginning of the repression of the Catalan language, which survived in private but not public life. Its resurgence as a literary language at the end of the 19th century was short-lived. After 1939, the victorious Franco regime did all in its power to extirpate Catala from public and private life, an experience that has profoundly shaped the Catalan psyche.

So from the start it was not just a bad marriage, but a forced one, yet tolerable while the money still flowed. Now that the money has run out, the long-standing grievance that Catalonia contributes a good deal more to the Spanish state than it gets back has come to the fore.

It is easy to demonstrate that if Catalonia – which accounts for 19 per cent of Spain’s output – kept all its income to itself it would be better off, although this simple arithmetic doesn’t take into account the synergies between the Catalan and Spanish economies, not to mention the cost of the inevitably messy divorce.

Xavier Cuadras, associate professor of economics at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and co-author of the book Sense Espanya (Without Spain), says the contribution Catalonia makes to Spain seems unfairly high when compared with other European countries such as Germany.

“The contribution we make is perhaps twice as much as German states make to the federal government,” he says. “In Germany there are mechanisms to limit transference but there is no such mechanism here. The way things operate here, it’s almost a disincentive to create wealth.”

Cuadras believes that Catalonia would be viable if it went it alone. It is Spain’s most industrialised region and supports a huge service industry off the back of the 15 million tourists who visit every year. However, despite the stereotype of the tight-fisted Catalan, it is not just about money, it’s about identity, a sense of being different and a need for that difference to be recognised.

Catalans feel put upon and complain that they are disdained by the Spanish, and Castilians in particular. They feel that they and their language and their culture are under attack, that their very identity hangs by a thread and they could be swamped at any moment by their large and hostile neighbour.

To outsiders this can seem a bit over the top but the fact that this has happened within living memory does nothing to dispel this fear of cultural annihilation.

Catalans also have a tendency to speak about “us” as though everyone were of one mind. However, this is far from the truth. At least half the population is either hostile to or neutral on independence. These include the 40 per cent of the population of Spanish descent, most of whom say they feel Spanish and Catalan, and the one million immigrants who have settled in Catalonia over the past decade.

If a crunch issue has emerged during the election campaign, it is Europe.

Repeated utterances from Brussels that an independent Catalonia would have to leave the EU and then ask to be readmitted has cooled many an independentista’s ardour, especially as a resentful Spain would almost certainly exercise its veto and keep Catalonia out.

Spaniards are almost universally pro-European and Catalans see themselves as more typically “European” than Spanish. Besides, even the most diehard secessionist recognises life as a small nation outside the big European club is not an attractive proposition. And that’s without even contemplating the possibility that Barcelona football club might have to leave La Liga Española and be condemned to playing provincial club sides.

This has been a strange election campaign. When Artur Mas, leader of the Convergència i Unió (Convergence and Union or CiU) party called the elections two years into his four-year term of office and two weeks after the massive pro-independence march, he said it was time for the voice of the street to be expressed at the ballot box. Nothing new in that, but what was new was Mas presenting himself as the champion of independence, something he has never done before. Indeed, he never uses the I-word and his party’s manifesto calls for “our own state.” When asked recently about this circumlocution he said: “Our own state, just like, say, Denmark.”

But Denmark is an independent state, so why not call it independence? The answer is that CiU is a broad church that embraces secessionists and convinced federalists. Mas, a master of ambiguity, almost certainly prays with them both. From the start the view has been voiced that Mas is simply an opportunist, riding the independence bandwagon to win the overall majority he craves. Polls suggest he won’t get there and may even end up with fewer seats than before.

As tends to happen when you think outside the box, people have started asking questions about the sort of independent state they would like to live in and the type of people they would like to see running it. The Catalan political class is no different from its Spanish counterpart, that is, corrupt and self-serving. This is not news but it has tended to be overlooked on the basis of “they may be bad apples but at least they’re our bad apples”. There are signs this argument is wearing thin.

“I have very little confidence in existing Catalan politicians,” comments Carme Vidal, a yoga teacher from Valls. “But I think there are people out there who aren’t currently members of any political party who could lead an independent Catalonia.”

Mas’ party has a solid enough base but many people dislike him and, with some 30 per cent of voters still undecided, this may tell.

However, Mas is a politician down to his toenails and we’ll know tonight whether he’s pulled off a brilliant coup or committed political suicide.