Often it is claimed that the trigger for the recent independentist wave was the 2010 Constitutional Court rejection of some of the key articles in the new Catalan Statute of 2006, which was then approved by the Catalan Parliament with two-thirds support, by the Spanish Parliament with an absolute majority (although crucially without the support of the conservative People’s Party, PP) and was ratified by the King of Spain, the head of state. However, as Victor Saura explains, the demonstrations of the 11 September — the Diada, the national day of Catalonia and showcase of the mobilisation capacity of the independentist movement — in 2010 and 2011 were very small. They became massive, of around 1 million people, only from to 2012 onward.
This shows two things. The rejection of the Constitutional Court of some of the key aspects of the 2006 Catalan Statute, especially those centred on acquiring further autonomy in the judicial system, were not that disproportionate. Yes, it upset and radicalised the most die-hard secessionists, but not the general public (as my colleague Ignacio Molina and I have explained somewhere else, it is important to note that in Catalonia there have always been three thirds of voters. One third pro-independence, one third Spanish unionist and one-third neutral, who spoke both Spanish and Catalan and was not committed either way. These are those that have moved to the extremes now).
Legally, and even politically, the approval of the 2006 new Catalan statute was controversial. The Spanish constitution incorporates a lot of flexibility when it comes to negotiate the distribution of competences between the central government and the autonomous regions, but it has its limits. And some of these limits were crossed by the Catalan statute according to the Spanish Constitutional Court. That’s on the legal side. On the political side, asCésar Colino and Jose A. Olmeda explain, it attempted to change the Spanish Constitution by the backdoor in order to avoid the blockage of the PP party.However — for it to last — it seems logical that any change in the Spanish Constitution would need to count with the support of the two main parties of Spain: the socialist party, PSOE, and the conservative, PP.
So if the 2010 rejection of the Catalan statute by the Constitutional Court did not really spark mass support for independence, what did? There is a dossier by Elcano explaining several reasons (the matter is complex) but according to Saura, and the thesis seems plausible, the most important one was the economic crisis and the discontent against the austerity policies adopted to fight it (remember that the 15M occupy movement started in Spring 2011) which convinced the then president of Catalonia Artur Mas to embrace the independence cause to stay in power. Yes, faced with recession and a proliferation of corruption scandals in his party CiU, Mas used an old trick: when there is discontent at home you pull out the card of nationalism and the anger and frustration is diverted toward an external enemy. In this case, the PP government of Rajoy, which came into power at the end of 2011 and from 2012 introduced austerity measures all over Spain.
The PP is a relatively easy target for the independentist propaganda in Catalonia. It is seen as an external political force for most Catalans. It is like the Tories in Scotland. It draws little support and therefore it can be presented as an external agent that oppresses and extracts. This leads to generalisations like “Spain robs us”, we are the Catalans, the hard-working ones, and the Andalusians from the south are “lazy and waste our money”. For many, the PP has also failed to modernise. So far there are no internal primaries (something unusual for a political party in Western Europe), so it is easy to present it as an old-guard, old-fashioned, hierarchical party, and thus consider the current Rajoy cabinet as an authoritarian, Francoist government (an insult to the victims of Franco, by the way; Rajoy is far from authoritarian) that does not respect basic human rights, like the right of self-determination, or its Catalan equivalent, the right to decide your future.
I guess if you are from Castilla, Madrid or Andalucía speaking another language of Spain other than Spanish sounds weird. You think everyone speaks Spanish at home. This difference is seen with surprise and sometimes suspicion, and this should not be the case.
Certainly, many people in the PP party and a lot of the elites in Madrid and other parts of Spain (especially south of the Ebro and the Duero rivers) do not understand the cultural and even national diversity that exists in Spain. When I tell them, I speak Galician at home I often get strange looks. It appears as if they were doubting my allegiance to Spain. I guess if you are from Castilla, Madrid or Andalucía speaking another language of Spain other than Spanish sounds weird. You think everyone speaks Spanish at home. This difference is seen with surprise and sometimes suspicion, and this should not be the case. As many foreign observer and visitors point out, all Spaniards should embrace the cultural diversity of their country. They should accept that Spain has four official languages: Spanish, Catalan, Basque and Galician.
In Switzerland that is certainly the case. Every single canton has its own dialect. People from Basel speak baseldütsch, people from Zürich züridütsch, people from Geneva Swissfrench and people from Lugano Swissitalian (which are all different languages). What is the problem? Are they less Swiss because of that? NO! Are they less cosmopolitan because they speak a language that only a few hundreds of thousands of people speak? NO!
Some people in Spain think that teaching in Catalan in the schools of Catalonia has created too many independentists. There is scarce evidence to support this. As María José Hierro argues, most of the indoctrination happens at home. If your parents are nationalists, they are more likely to send you to a catalanist school and hence it is more likely that you become a nationalist. The more diverse the neighbourhood and the school the less likely it is that your children become nationalists. This is why Barcelona, with many more immigrants from Spain and abroad, is much less nationalist than the rural areas of Catalonia. See again the Elcano dossier on this.
The basic principle should be that the teacher should teach in her or his own language. I was taught math, geography and history in baseldütsch, not in High German. This was not a problem. Speaking and being taught in different languages is actually advantageous. It helps your brain to move from one language to another — fast. The problem is when you discriminate against one of the official languages (when you only hire teachers that speak Catalan, for instance), or when you start telling the children that “Spain robs us” or that “we are better than them”. Then the issue starts to become worrisome. Catalonia is an amazing region. It has always been the most international and modern region of Spain. In fact, it has helped to modernise Spain. Today roughly 25% of all Spanish exports have Catalonia as their origins, and of all Spanish export firms, one third are Catalan. That says it all. [This has of course changed now that 2000 of the biggest Catalan firms have changed their HQs to the rest of Spain. In certain ways it mirrors what happened in Canada in the 1990s when due to the legal uncertainty produced by the referendum in Quebec, business moved from Montreal to Toronto.]
However, like Britain with the EU, a lot of this success is due to be part of a larger single market, the Spanish market and this is not acknowledged sufficiently. To the contrary, many English and Catalans suffer from the same ill. Due to their relatively glorious past (which is a fact), many believe that they are better than their neighbours. The English in regards to their European neighbours (and also in regards to the Scots, Welsh and Irish one should say), and the Catalans when compared to their Spanish peers. This sense of superiority makes them sit uncomfortably in a wider political community. They don’t like to be just another member of the club. They would like to run the club and if they can’t, they get frustrated and want to leave. There is one word that describes this: nationalism. Nationalism based on a supremacism that leads to exclusion.
A foreign journalist asked me [recently] whether the Catalan issue was all about money, that if Catalonia were poor, they would never want to be independent. In certain sense he was right. The Catalan independentists are not the Zapatistas of Europe, that’s for sure. As a matter of fact, as Kiko Llaneras has discovered, it is the well-off with Catalan surnames that support independence, not the working class with Spanish names. That is why it is strange that so many leftwing people support Catalan independence. They are supporting a movement that is to a large extent egoistic and supremacist and shows very little solidarity with the broader community. This is very different from Scottish independentism (see again the Elcano dossier). I remember one day some years ago in Brussels, in one of the dinners organised by CEPS (the think tank) sitting next to a German executive from a big German company, and how he was telling me that they were thinking of changing their headquarters from Barcelona to Madrid. “With all this nationalist craziness, Barcelona was getting parochial, inward-looking”, he told me.
I have been feeling the same, and some academics that have lived in Catalonia for years like Rafael Jimenez Asensio too. Until roughly ten years ago Barcelona looked and felt much more international and cosmopolitan than Madrid. Now the gap has narrowed. Madrid is as vibrant, multicultural and wealthy as Barcelona. As a matter of fact, the average per capita income in Madrid is 36.400 euros, while in Barcelona it is 34.600 euros. Upon a lax tax regime and the centrality of the capital, Madrid has attracted a lot of business over the past decade. This has increased the feeling of grieve in Barcelona. There is a sense that the central Government is especially keen to support Madrid and not that interested in improving the infrastructures of Barcelona. If we look at the period from 1980 to 2016, as Daniel Fuentes has done, from the four more prosperous regions in Spain (Madrid, Basque Country, Navarra and Catalonia), Catalonia was the only one whose per capita income increased less vis-a-vis the Spanish average. One wonders why. I don’t think it is Madrid’s fault.
For many in Catalonia this situation is unfair. Madrid has become with over 6 million people the third largest metropolitan area of Europe (after London and Paris) thanks to the support of the Spanish state. As Jacint Jordanarightly highlights, this has helped the Spanish capital to accumulate and absorb a lot of resources, wealth, talent and, of course, power. All this has made many Catalans realise that if you want to have influence and power in Europe you need to be a nation-state. This gives you a place at the high tables in Brussels. It gives you a European commissioner. Catalonia, Barcelona does not have that, and therefore it is falling behind. The obsession with achieving independence comes partly from this desire, an aspiration that brings together people with very different agendas and backgrounds.