Catalan myths must now confront reality

The claims of the pro-independence campaigners are historically dubious 

Gerald Frost

Jordi Turull (centre), during a break in his hearing at the Supreme Court, Madrid, where he and other Catalan leaders face charges of sedition (©Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)

The bid to create an independent Catalonia, characterised by elements of farce as well as by high drama, has failed, just as all similar attempts have failed in the past. But in the Catalan village of St Feliu de Codines (population 5,000), where I live for part of each year, few seem to grasp this. A poster in the Plaza Mayor (main square) reads “Carles Puigdemont is our President.” In a road off the plaza someone has scrawled “Defend the Republic.” Pinned on every tree visible from the plaza are yellow ribbons indicating sympathy for the deposed Catalan ministers, several of whom remain in jail, and everywhere there are demands for the release of what are described as political prisoners.

Our neighbours are agreeable people with whom my wife and I enjoy good relations. It seems somehow churlish to point out to them that Puigdemont, presently on bail in Germany awaiting an extradition hearing following self-imposed exile in Brussels, ceased to be President of Catalonia in October when the Spanish government took direct control of the province under article 155 of the Spanish constitution. Or that it is not possible to defend the “republic”, since Catalonia remains part of a constitutional monarchy and there is consequently no republic to defend. Or that while the former Catalan ministers may have been inspired by the age-old dream of independence, they are not in trouble because of their political beliefs, but because they are accused of having broken the law by holding a referendum deemed to be illegal by the Madrid government and the Spanish courts, and by following this with a unilateral declaration of independence.

The posters are not even up to date: Puigdemont, who fled to Brussels to avoid arrest on charges of rebellion, sedition and the misuse of public funds, was re-elected as an MP in the Catalan regional election in December, but forced to drop his plan to run Catalonia via a video link when it became clear that both Catalan and Spanish law required that he should be physically present in the Catalan parliament in order to be invested as president. Despite bitter infighting the separatists then backed instead Jordi Sànchez, a long-time secessionist, but the far-left CUP, the smallest of the three separatist parties seeking to build a coalition government, found him lacking in secessionist zeal and changed its mind. It seemed that Sànchez had offered an assurance that he would not in future act outside Spanish law and this apparent sign of compromise was sufficient for the CUP to condemn what it described as “subservience to Madrid”.

But there was a more practical reason for thinking that he was not destined for high office: he was in jail and expected to face a charge of rebellion and sedition. Only those engaging in wish-fulfilment could suppose that a Spanish court would grant him a day’s freedom to be sworn in before returning to his prison cell to run Catalonia from behind bars.

 But it was lack of separatist zeal rather than practicalities that did for him. The secessionists finally agreed that the best man for the job would be Jordi Turull, Puigdemont’s former chief of staff, only for the CUP to decide that Turull’s breast did not burn with sufficient secessionist fervour either, and that it would withdraw its support. Unless agreement is reached on a new leader capable of forming a majority in the Catalan parliament, direct rule will continue until fresh elections are held. 

At the time of writing, charges have been brought against 30 Catalan politicians and officials in connection with the illegal referendum and subsequent declaration of independence. If, as seems likely, Puigdemont is finally extradited to face trial, and is promptly remanded in jail, the huge demonstrations that have characterised Spain’s biggest political crisis since the botched military coup of 1981 are likely to be repeated, perhaps on an ever-bigger scale. Those opposed to Catalonia’s secession, both within the autonomous region and elsewhere in Spain, are likely to stage counter-demonstrations; if the past is any guide it would be optimistic to suppose that this now-established pattern of protest and counter-protest will pass off peacefully.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is that when fresh elections come a coalition of pro-unionist parties led by Ciudadanos (Citizens Party), which won the greatest number of seats in the December elections, will provide the basis of stable government, while the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, clumsy, stubborn and inept in dealing with the crisis since its beginnings, finds a way to defuse a potentially explosive situation by proposing constitutional changes that would enable discussion to take place over greater powers for all of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions. Ciudadanos spokesmen have described the bid for Catalan independence as an insane act of self-harm. However, Rajoy, who is not noted for his readiness to put national interest before party self-interest, is unlikely to do anything that would assist Ciudadanos, whose national poll ratings have shot ahead of his own Partido Popular (Popular Party). Unlike older parties — it was formed in Catalonia in 2005 — Ciudadanos enjoys the advantage of being untainted by allegations of corruption.

Catalans are generally regarded by other Spaniards as hard-working, thrifty, calculating, level-headed and down-to-earth, if somewhat prone to moan about their lot and quick to sense a grievance. How did they get into this mess? How to explain the periodic bursts of intemperance and extremism which have led the region’s political leaders to promise the impossible, to deny obvious aspects of reality, to delight in conspiracy theory and to embark on courses of conduct which were bound to result in failure — except by reference to a series of myths which are far removed from reality? These include the claim that Catalonia was once an independent country and could therefore become so again: it wasn’t.

That Catalonia, the richest of Spain’s autonomous regions, is propping up the rest of Spain economically: it isn’t. That Catalonia is oppressed by the national government in Madrid led by Rajoy, who is just like Franco: it isn’t and he isn’t. That the Madrid government is more corrupt than the Catalan Generalitat. That, to quote a slogan used in the October referendum, Catalonia is not Spain; well, here the facts of economics and geography as well as those of history would also seem to strongly suggest otherwise. To these a new myth has been added, namely that the Madrid government’s decision to assume direct control of the region following Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence represented a violent assault on democracy: it doesn’t.

All societies need myths to sustain them, to affirm values and to inspire civic virtue; few correspond very exactly to the historic record, but when they become inflated to the point where they clash with obvious economic and political realities, trouble is bound to ensue. This is largely what has happened in Catalonia, where the secessionists running the Generalitat have used the education system and publicly-supported media to rewrite history and to fan the already strong sense of Catalan victimhood as well as taking the promotion of the Catalan language to extreme lengths (the imposition of fines on restaurants using Castilian rather than Catalan in menus is merely one example).

The historical basis for secession rests on a romantic interpretation of the period before the War of Succession of 1714 and the causes of that conflict. It is true that for two centuries prior to the war Catalans had enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy as part of the kingdom of Aragon, in which Catalonia enjoyed something resembling county status. It would be a great exaggeration to suggest that this amounted to independent statehood, and absurd to suggest that the conflict was a war of secession fought over patriotic ideals. The comparisons recently made by Catalan writers with the American colonies and their struggle for independence from Britain are therefore far wide of the mark: the 12-year war which followed the death of Charles II, the last Habsburg King of Spain, was a battle between Philip of Bourbon and the Archduke Charles of Austria to determine Charles’s successor. The Catalans backed the losing side, a mistake for which they paid a high price: the siege of Barcelona lasted more than a year and ended with the destruction of many of the symbols of Catalan identity. It was not to be the last time that Barcelona and Madrid found themselves on opposing sides and these events came to occupy a central position in Catalan mythology. It is telling that Catalonia’s national day — the Diada — should be September 11, the day on which Barcelona fell to the Bourbons, and should celebrate a crushing defeat, not a victory.

Catalonia’s sense of economic grievance is far from new. In The Spanish Labyrinth, Gerald Brenan’s outstanding analysis of the causes of the Spanish Civil War, the author describes the attitude of many Catalans towards what they have long regarded as unfair economic relations with the rest of Spain, and particular with Madrid: “We in Catalonia must sweat and toil so that tens of thousands of drones in Madrid government offices may live.” According to Brenan, such attitudes go back as far as the 17th century.

Today, even those Catalans critical of the separatist agenda tend to take for granted that Catalonia, in their view Spain’s most enterprising and successful region, keeps the rest of Spain afloat economically, and that the present arrangements act as a brake on the region’s development. Spain’s system of fiscal transfers is complex but it is true that Catalonia puts more into the national coffers than it takes out in services. It is also true that while its population accounts for 16 per cent of the population it is responsible for 25 per cent of the country’s exports and 19 per cent of its GDP. But while its contribution to the tax pot may be disproportionate, Madrid has recently been a bigger net contributor.

Moreover, the difference between tax receipts and those of most other regions is the consequence of progressive taxation rather than a regional bias in the Spanish tax system; as is the case elsewhere it is a system which ensures that the rich pay most. It is consequently difficult to accept uncritically the separatists’ contention that Catalonia is being held back by the rest of Spain, and would prosper if the dream of independence were realised. The likely economic impact of secession is hotly disputed; predictably, those in favour claim that it would boost employment and growth significantly, while a report from the Spanish Foreign Ministry, which lays stress on the possible loss of exports to Spanish markets, suggests separation would reduce Catalonia’s GDP by 19 per cent. A less obviously partisan report from the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce in 2014 suggests secession would result in a drop in GDP of up to 5.7 per cent. The fact that more than 1,000 companies have moved their headquarters out of Catalonia since last year’s independence referendum suggests that, at the very least, secession would result in a period of severe economic dislocation.

Do the economic and political facts really support the oft-repeated claim that Catalans are an oppressed people? Catalonia has its own government and parliament which exercise full control over education and healthcare and it possesses its own police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. Coverage of the ongoing crisis in the international media has tended to overlook that it receives 50 per cent of personal income tax and of VAT returns and 100 per cent of inheritance tax, and can spend this money as it chooses. The separatist-minded administrations that have run the region in recent times, however, have had little incentive to govern prudently or to make a success of the present constitutional arrangements, which they say have failed and would like replaced. When direct rule was imposed at the end of last year the Generalitat was in debt to the tune of 77 billion euros, representing 35 per cent of GDP, 20 billion of which is owed to Madrid, despite having the highest tax rate in Spain.

Cultural oppression is indeed a different matter, but if it is happening at all it is those immigrants from Andalusia and Extremadura who have not yet mastered the Catalan language who appear to be the ones who are suffering. After the Franco years, during which teaching of Catalan was forbidden by law, the Catalans are understandably keen to preserve their native tongue and have been hugely successful in doing so. It is not only the language of the school and lecture room — where Spanish is offered as a subject on a par with English or French — but also of the restaurant, bar and plaza. Fluency is a requirement for jobs in some private firms as well as the public sector. Ninety per cent of the population speak the language while seven TV stations and four public radio stations broadcast in Catalan, and receive 300 million euros a year in public funds for doing so. Most, if not all, seem highly sympathetic to the goal of independence and are regarded as propaganda tools for the separatist parties by many of those opposed to secession, who, it should be pointed out, account for around half the Catalan population.

If Catalonia cannot be said to be oppressed in any recognisable sense of the term, can its people at least be confident that independence would bring an end to corruption? Rajoy’s party has been dogged by allegations that its funding has been illegal, and has admitted wrongdoing. But the crimes committed by the now defunct Convergencia Democrática de Cataluña (CDC), which dominated Catalan politics for more than a decade, are at least as serious. Following an investigation lasting more than eight years a Catalan court found that the party had taken kickbacks on public sector contracts from 1999 to 2009. The party has responded by reinventing itself, changing its name to the Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCat) and choosing Carlos Puigdemont as its new leader. If the Spanish Supreme Court upholds the decision of the Catalan court it will be required to pay a fine of 6.6 million euros. Most Spaniards seem to take for granted that politicians are corrupt; the response of most Catalans to the case has been that it is better to be robbed by local rascals than by those in Madrid.

Carles Puigdemont declares independence on October 10 last year. He is now in German exile fighting extradition to Spain (Generalitat de Catalunya)

Even if it is not supported by the facts of history and geography, the assertion that “Catalonia is not Spain” — the most frequently used separatist slogan during the referendum campaign — is deeply felt by a substantial minority. It has led to the replacement of Spanish symbols, emblems and street names with Catalan ones. It may also explain the Catalan decision to ban bullfighting. Since many Catalans continue to watch the corrida on television and since the ban did not extend to a form of bull-running in which lighted flares are attached to the bull’s horns, the suspicion has grown that the ban had as much to do with the promotion of Catalan independence as with the welfare of the bull.

The feeling of many Catalans towards Spain and their fellow Spaniards was aptly described by the poet Salvador Espriu (1913-85), who achieved international fame despite writing only in Catalan:

Oh, how tired I am of my cowardly
old so savage land!
how I would like to get away
to the north
where they say the people are clean,
and decent, refined, rich, free
aware and happy . . .

Characteristically, the poem concludes on a pessimistic note: Espriu believes that such an escape is impossible.

In 1932, four years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, the philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset declared that the “Catalan problem” was impossible to solve. He is reported as having said: “It is a perpetual problem, which has always been, and will remain as long as Spain exists . . . It is something that no one is responsible for; it [lies in] the very character of that people; it is its terrible destiny, which drags distress throughout its entire history.” In his view, the best that could be hoped for was that the Catalans, and their fellow Spaniards, would recognise the intractable nature of the problem and consequently avoid rash or unrealistic measures that were bound to bring on disaster. It is a great pity that his insight has not informed the conduct of those who ran the Barcelona government until last October as well those in Madrid who responded to its botched bid for independence.

If the degree of autonomy already enjoyed by Catalans make nonsense of the claim that they are oppressed by a fascist government in Madrid, there are unfortunate echoes of the pre-Civil War years. The utter failure of the two sides to engage, the ingrained habit of treating compromise as a sign of moral weakness, the rise of anarchist groups, the circulation of bizarre conspiracy theories, the attribution of the worst possible motives to opponents and the refusal to seek common ground recall the relations between the nationalists and republicans in the run-up to that terrible conflict. For this the separatists must take the greatest share of the responsibility: sensing that their support was slipping as a result of immigration from other parts of Spain, they set out on a step-by-step approach designed to confront the Madrid government with a demand they rightly surmised would not be accepted in the hope that this would bolster their flagging fortunes. The decision to press ahead with the referendum was not merely illegal, it failed to achieve its objective: only 38 per cent of those eligible to vote backed independence. This scarcely provides a basis for the separatists’ claim to have won  democratic approval for the subsequent declaration of independence. But Rajoy’s hardline stance and, in particular, the use of masked policemen to prevent the plebiscite, badly damaged Spain’s international reputation as well as his party’s standing, while making a resolution of the crisis infinitely more difficult.

Rajoy’s motives were not hard to discern: anti-Catalan rhetoric plays well in many parts of Spain and has long been part of the Partido Popular’s armoury. Rajoy presides over a fragile coalition government. The promise to teach the Catalan separatists a lesson produced support in the form of marches, not just in Madrid and other major cities, but also in Barcelona. Yet judging by the party’s dismal ratings hardly anyone believes that Rajoy handled the crisis well. Indeed, he is rightly criticised for not taking advantage of the simple but central truth that even while sharing many of their fellow Catalans’ gripes, half the population don’t want independence and no reputable survey of opinion has shown otherwise. There would therefore have been little risk in responding to the repeated and increasingly strident demand for a referendum by promising changes to the constitution that would permit a plebiscite, while stipulating that in his own view a leave vote would require the support of 60 per cent of voters and a 60 per cent turnout.

The Spanish legal system is notoriously slow-moving. As matters stand, it seems likely that almost all of the most prominent Catalan separatist politicians, including those who have run the region for the last decade, will be charged with crimes in trials that will take many months, possibly years, for the courts to deal with. If found guilty they face the prospect of years in jail. Rajoy quite evidently did not want to go down as the man who lost Catalonia, but he has pursued his goal in a way that has diminished his government’s authority and international standing, responding to the separatists’ recklessness and extremism with obduracy and clumsiness. Unless he can find a way of reducing the severity of the punishments likely to be meted out by the courts, at the same time showing a willingness to contemplate constitutional changes that recognise the province’s distinctive features — perhaps through support for a federal Spain — the future of Catalonia looks very likely to be characterised by violence and disintegration.

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