Catalonia: Between hope and frustration

11 September 2013 – El Mundo (Madrid)

One year after a massive demonstration pushing for independence, this September 11 – celebrated locally as Catalonia Day – will again be focused on lobbying to achieve this goal. Meanwhile, in terms of the political process, little progress has been made.

Catalonia has grown restless, for those outside its borders and those inside them as well. Many Spaniards have grown used to seeing the Catalans, on the whole, as blackmailers and traitors-in-waiting. Catalan society is witnessing the uneasy cohabitation of frustrated independence-seekers, frustrated Spaniards who feel themselves in hostile territory and a frustrated more or less heterogeneous group who desire neither independence nor centralism, taking refuge in silence and sometimes humour, and who have looked on the frenzy of recent years in astonishment.

The voices from that grey zone, from those who find the independence project as outlandish as the allegations of “linguistic genocide” in Catalonia, are being heard less and less.

Catalan nationalism, which presents the secessionist process as feasible, beneficial and even sensible, is the dominant voice. Those who are more alert to the dangers and the large degree of wishfulness of the process, such as entrepreneurs, tend to keep silent or reveal very little of what they think.

All deny that there is a code of silence or that they are afraid to speak, although they do admit that the Generalitat, thanks to the public radio and television broadcasters and subsidies to the press, has exerted an extremely notable influence on local media and on the public debate. “No one wants to confront the powers that be, nobody wants to get into trouble; although Catalan President Artur Mas lacks the necessary standing, there are no alternatives”, confesses one businessman. “Nor can it be said that his partners in Madrid are showing that they’re up to the task,” he adds.

’Spain is robbing us’

Catalan society has become permeated with the conviction that the Spanish state is unfair in its dealings

Catalan society has become permeated with the conviction that the Spanish state is unfair in its dealings, both in taxation (between 2005 and 2010, the shortfall between taxes paid and received by Catalonia exceeded €10bn a year, although the figures vary depending on who does the calculation and how they are done) and in public investments. Aside from those who cry out against an alleged “plundering” that does not exist and allege that “Spain is robbing us”, the existence of imbalances is accepted in business and academic circles.

Whatever the opinions, they can be argued rationally. The hard part is discussing emotions. And more than half of Catalan society, according to surveys, “feels” that Catalonia is a nation.

One striking aspect of this emotional inflammation is the rewriting of history, and even its invention. When tangible realities are not enough – such as the existence of a language commonly used alongside Spanish and a series of internal traditions and solidarity that meet the criteria of the so-called cultural nation – recourse is made to an imaginary past in which Catalonia was independent and then suppressed by Spanish “imperialism”. The fall of Barcelona after the siege of the Bourbon troops on September 11, 1714, the end of the European War of Succession to the Spanish throne, is already commemorated not just as the National Day of Catalonia: the date, and its fast-approaching third centenary, are now being brandished as a taunt for a fresh confrontation.

The anxiety over the crisis and the dearth of political and economic alternatives has made a sector of Catalan society see the choice as risky (and institutionally unfeasible) just as independence is seen as a reasonable one. At a time when politics, understood as a choice between distinct models, has dissipated and become confused with the corruption of those who rule and the impoverishment of all the rest, independence turns into the only vigorous political project – or, at least, into the loudest cry of protest.

Huge tactical error

There is broad consensus on the date when things got definitely complicated: June 28, 2010, the day on which Spain’s Constitutional Court issued a ruling that mutilated the (Catalan) Statute of Autonomy of 2006.

Since then, events have moved ahead at whiplash speed. The great accelerator was the mass demonstration of September 11 last year. Artur Mas had just journeyed to Madrid with a proposal for a fiscal pact that Mariano Rajoy, with Spain technically bankrupt and on the brink of intervention, refused. On September 10, 2012, Mas had demanded better financing for Catalonia, and on September 12 he was already calling for independence, although he was careful about his use of the word. His subsequent decision to call elections, as a formal plebiscite, in which a large absolute majority demanded that the secessionist process be started, was a huge tactical error and Mas lost some deputies.

The question of the referendum on independence, supported by nearly two-thirds of the population, has reached an incomprehensible point

The question of the referendum on independence, supported by nearly two-thirds of the population, has reached an incomprehensible point. While he is trying to rebuild bridges with the government of Madrid, through confidential meetings that discuss funding and how to carry out some sort of inquiry, when Mas speaks with [his pro-independence allies from] Esquerra [the Republican Left of Catalonia] he promises a 'yes or yes' referendum by 2015; but when he addresses his own electorate, torn between independence-seekers, sovereigntists (those who imagine something similar to independence but within Spain) and autonomists, he qualifies that promise by declaring that he will do so only if there are “legal formulas”.

The human chain that will cross Catalonia today, September 11, will mark a new climax for the independence movement. The effect of these peaceful and colourful acts, [however], cannot be overstated.

Come what may, the so-called “Catalan way” will give a fresh uplift to supporters of secession. Mas has distanced himself, to avoid rushing into an error as he did in 2012. He will probably use the stick of September 11 to demand new concessions from the central government.

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