The Case of Catalonia

RedYellowDiscussions about Catalan independence often are presented as a matter of right and wrong.  In fact, however, most motives in favour or against are rather sentimental, i.e., a matter of taste. Let’s look at the most heard arguments in favour of Catalan independence.

History. There are as many interpretations of history as there are historians. One example of this is the Spanish succession war of 1703 – 1714, which according to Catalan nationalists was all about Catalonia fighting for freedom against Spain, whereas for most people outside Catalonia it was about England being afraid of France getting too powerful because of its involvement with the new Spanish king. In any case, all armies involved mainly consisted, as always, of poor buggers who couldn’t make a living some other way. There is nothing wrong with having different interpretations of the same history but if only one version of history is presented as the one and only single truth, it becomes a case of populist propaganda. An example of this is what the Generalitat of Catalonia has done by turning the old market hall of Born (“el Mercat del Born“) into a monument for the nationalist case (http://www.mercatdelborn.org/). Another example of frequent crass historical revisionism (see: https://dinzo.wordpress.com/2010/04/09/debate-about-catalan-nationalism/), is when Franco is presented as an example of how Spain has suppressed Catalunya instead of as the dictator who suppressed all of Spain, not only Catalunya.

On the other hand, people against Catalan independence often claim that “Catalonia never was independent”. Also that, really is a matter of interpretation (it was part of the independent kingdom Aragon, but with a large autonomy and its own parliament with much more privileges than later were allowed when Spain took over).         The truth of the matter is, historical arguments hardly ever are neutral. Just think of Israel/Palestine and who really are “the original inhabitants” and you get my gist. If historical borderlines were an argument for present borders, we might as well go back to the Roman empire.

 Espanya ens roba”. Catalan people often complain about “their tax money” going to other parts of Spain. In short this is translated into “Spain is stealing from us” (“Espanya ens roba“).  This phrase can mean a lot of things, depending on whom you are talking to:

1) Catalonia pays more taxes than other parts of Spain. This is actually not true, Catalonia, Madrid, Valencia and the Balearic Islands are the ones that pay most. Anyway, I think it makes sense for richer parts of a country to pay more than poorer regions. In an independent Catalonia, I would assume richer Girona and Barcelona would pay more taxes than Tarragona. (Or maybe Girona wants independence from Tarragona too?). It’s strange  that even self-proclaimed left-wing Catalanists come up with this argument. Sometimes it seems being left-wing in Catalonia only means: buying clothes at Desigual. (I know an independentist who insists in thinking I am right-wing, just because I am not in favour of Catalan independence.)  Ironically, many people in my country of origin (the Netherlands) currently complain about all their tax money that went to the poor South-European countries (and yes, that includes Catalonia) for years.

2) Spanish politicians steal. This is true but the same goes for Catalan politicians. The recent scandal about Pujol (a former president of the Catalan autonomous government for almost 30 years who hid millions of public money in tax paradise Andorra) is only a tip of the iceberg and the most surprising thing about it was that so many people (both in- and outside Catalonia) pretended they did not knew about it before. All main politicial parties both in Catalonia as in the rest of Spain have been involved in numerous corruption scandals.

Spain is different. Yes, Spain is different, especially because it is not one single nation, but a collection of cultures, languages, with a wide diversity in gastronomy, folklore, musical traditions, and many influences from various European and Arab cultures and languages. It is ironic, however, that most Catalan independentists – just like the Spanish unionists –  insist on seeing Spain as just one single culture instead of the multicultural collection that it really is. So, while Catalan independentists (understandably) want recognition for Catalan culture and language, they don’t recognize the multicultural aspect of Spain. The reason for this “double-thought” is that as soon as you would accept Spain as a multicultural country it would mean that Catalunya could fit in perfectly. But just as the Spanish centralist parties PP and PSOE deny this multicultural reality, so do the Catalan independentist parties, especially CiU and ERC. All for more votes, of course.

          This is then followed up by comments on how Spain is corrupt, not democratic, without a future and hopelessly outdated both socially and politically. And although much of this is true about the political system of Spain the same can be said about Catalunya. And just as in the rest of Spain, it’s not just politicians but an entire society that is inclined to black work, lying about travel expenses, cheating on social security or manipulating success rates on schools and universities, and, in short, everything entire Spain continuously gets accused of. Also in issues as police violence, an impartial justice system and political transparency Catalunya does as bad as the rest of Spain. In the last three years the Catalan police force “Mossos d’Esquadra” were responsible for at least two deaths (and in one case threatening the witnessing bystanders to hand over their mobile phones in case they had been filming it) and at least one girl losing an eye during a peaceful demonstration. The responsible policemen did not lose their job and the secretary of the justice department did not resign which would have happened in any civilised country.

        Additionally, most independentists seem to be unable to believe in Catalan independence without claiming that Spain has an inferior culture (or no culture at all). Sometimes that’s done implicitly (by stating again and again that “Catalans are serious hard-working people”, suggesting that the Spanish are not). Sometimes it’s more explicit, by means of insults or terrible generalisations directed against Spain and everyone one way or the other defending anything from Spain. As an aside, I have worked with many Spanish and travelled all over Spain and the only difference I noticed as far as work ethics are concerned is that the waiters in Barcelona are by far the rudest of entire Spain: https://dinzo.wordpress.com/guidetohell/.) I often heard Catalan people complain about having been insulted all over Spain for being or speaking Catalan. I never noticed this (and my girlfriend is Catalan and we travelled all over Spain) and though I do not claim it does not happen, I do claim it is not at all as common as people say it is. At least not more than the insults I have heard in Catalunya directed against people from Madrid, Galicia, Andalusia and Valencia.  Aforementioned former Catalan president Pujol wrote the following in his memoirs, referring to Andalusian immigrants into Catalunya: “a man from Andalusia is anarchic and poor and since for centuries he has been hungry and deprived has a natural ignorance which leads him to mental and spiritual misery… This kind of man […] will eventually destroy Catalonia”. In my country of origin, the last ten years certain politicians have been saying this stuff about Maroccan immigrants and it’s called racism.       I once was in a taxi in Madrid with a Catalan colleague, who silently gestured me to lower my voice when I mentioned another colleague with a typical Basque name. When we got out she explained: “In Madrid, you better do not mention Basque names”. I’m absolutely sure that the taxi driver didn’t care a hoot about the origin of any names I mentioned. When I later commented on how beautiful Madrid was, she replied: “yes, but it’s paid for by Catalan tax money.” Apart from this not being true, I was shocked by the bitterness.

        Feeling part of a nation. In the end, discussions about Catalan independence  come down to this: a lot of Catalan people believe that having a different culture and language, obviously means they should also have their own country. Of course, a lot of people around the world feel like that too: the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Scots, the Israeli, the Palestinians, etc… It seems a very basic human desire, often connected with words like “identity”. And although there is nothing particularly strange about this sentiment, I don’t feel the same way. Granted that Catalonia has a different language and culture, why would that necessarily imply cultural segregation? Where is the beauty in separating people in countries, each locked up with their own single culture? One of my reasons to be against independence is that I want to feel part of Spain, with all its cultures and languages and not just of Catalonia with the illusion of only one culture and one language (of course, in fact there is no such thing as “one culture”). Some people would point out to me that forcing different cultures to be together is asking for problems (China, Yugoslavia, Israel/Palestine), and I won’t deny that many people believe in the segregation of cultures (there is an infamous Dutch word for that: “apartheid”), but that doesn’t make it any more attractive to me. The fact that people have prejudices about other cultures and judge people they don’t even know (instead of their undoubtely incompetent (or worse) governments) just for speaking/dressing/eating differently, does not mean I should do the same. I still want to believe in a country where different cultures live together without the need to put borders between them. According to some, that is not a realistic viewpoint. According to me, it is at least a very rational viewpoint. The real world does not work in a rational way (racism, destruction of the environment, religion, corruption, all real but irrational), but I prefer to be rational than succumb to a reality that I find ugly.

Also a matter of taste is the issue of flags. The idea of walking in a mass of people all waving the same flags, whatever colour, for me is repellent, like a uniform you are wearing because you live at some place instead of some other place. Still, I can – reluctantly – acknowledge that to identify oneself with a flag can also mean to simply honour a certain cultural heritage which one likes to share with other people to show one’s adherence to a “group of people”. Clearly, all around the world, most people want to feel they belong to a “nation”. But that does not make me like it more.

Time for a change. I am not against consulting the Catalan people on how they feel about this. How can one be against asking people’s opinion about anything? However, it is not an obvious “democratic right” to let long-term decisions depend on referendums. We have parliaments for that, and there is a reason for this parliamentary “bufferzone” which is to avoid populism. In any case, since both in Spain and Catalunya the political system clearly is not fully democratic, it certainly is time for a change. I am strongly in favour of big changes in Spain and Catalonia and, actually, in recent years,  some positive developments have happened, such as a growing public conscience that things have to change and political initiatives like “Guanyem” (in Barcelona) and “Podemos” (in entire Spain), both focussing on democratic transparency and putting an end to corruption. Certainly this whole independence process is very convenient for certain parties both in Spain and Catalonia as a way to make people forget about other issues: the corruption, the ruthless economic cuts on health and education (as always especially affecting the poorest), the banking system, the police violence, …

I just don’t see how Catalan independence will help in providing the necessary changes. I have the feeling that “new independent Catalan state” will not be a pleasant country. If only there would be more room for doubt and ambiguity, less nationalist pride and a misguided sense of superiority, less flags and less call for segregation of culture and language and more respect for other cultures… If only “feeling Catalan” was not presented so much as being member of a club of privileged people, and being in favour or against were not translated in right or wrong, I might have been more sympathetic. Whereas in Spain I feel like I live in a multicultural society with a terrible government, in an independent Catalonia I would live in a segregated cultural environment with a terrible government. In which case, for me, my move from the Netherlands would be a case of “from bad to worse”.

I end with an anecdote of something that happened decades ago. At the Dutch physics institute where I worked, I had a German colleague, also a friend of mine. At that time, there was a football world championship going on and Germany had just lost a game (I forgot against whom). The next day, standing in line at the canteen to get our lunch, a woman working there – who had never spoken to us before – approached us and pointed with a finger to my friend, her face full of venom: “You have lost!”. My friend pretended not to understand her, slapping the pockets of his trousers: “No, thank you, I have not lost anything. I still have my keys, my wallet…” The woman didn’t even listen: “Yes, yes! You lost!”, still pointing to him with her finger like a poking device. Her reaction is rather common in the Netherlands, especially where a combination of football and Germany is concerned. Some would say it was just a healthy expression of national pride, but I am not one of them.

 (En español: http://dinzoes.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/el-caso-de-cataluna/ )

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4 thoughts on “The Case of Catalonia

  1. Felip says:

    I don’t think it’s about history, but by the way, the few catalan nationalists interested in history know perfectly that Spanish Secession War was about England being afraid of France. But in the end it was, for sure, about something else. After Charles’ de facto renouncement, and the cessation of hostilities between England and France, Barcelona, Cardona and Palma resisted against the french and spanish armies for years. What were they fighting for?

  2. Felip says:

    Catalonia pays more taxes than any other spanish region, and this is obvious, because it produces more than any other Spanish region. And taxes are proportional to creation and consumption of goods.
    But this is not the main problem. The problem is what share of public ressources is receiving Catalonia. Calculations are somehow complicated and few professonal economists agree about how to calculate that. Every different method gives different results, and there a tenths of them.
    But the bare figures are those:
    Catalan GDP is almost 20% of Spanish GDP.
    Catalan population is grossly 16% of Spanish population (which obviously means that Catalan population is more productive than average spanish population)
    Spanish national budget devotes only its 9.8% to Catalonia, but in fact, Spanish government NEVER pays the entire amount budgeted to Catalonia, while it pays more than budgeted to other regions (eventually to Galicia, the home region of the President).
    Those are the actual figures. Judge yourself.

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