Barcelona is a city where I spent nine years of my life and where I have many good friends. So I’ve been following with special interest – and not without some anxiety – the upsurge in separatist sentiment in Catalonia, which reached its apotheosis in the huge pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona on 11 September.
The freefall of the Spanish economy is clearly the decisive factor in the largest demonstration in Barcelona’s history, and the recent opinion polls suggesting that 51 percent of Catalans would vote ‘yes’ to independence.
With most of Spain’s autonomous regions, including Catalonia, on the verge of bankruptcy and unable to pay for the provision of basic public services, many Catalans have become even more resentful than usual at a financial relationship with central government that they argue benefits Spain more than it does Catalonia itself.
But the economic crisis is really the straw that broke the camel’s back. Even before the crisis really began to bite, secessionist sentiment was already on the rise, in the form of the local referendums or consultes populars that were held in various Catalan municipalities in 2009 .
These developments were partly influenced by a series of Spanish Court rulings limiting the use of Catalan as the main language of instruction in the region’s schools – one of the great achievements of Catalan nationalists in the post-Franco era.
Catalonia certainly has a strong historical case for independence, with a powerful sense of national and cultural identity that can be traced back to the medieval Catalan empire. As the wealthiest region in Spain, it has the economic potential to fulfil the dreams of Catalan nationalists and create a ‘Switzerland on the Pyrenees.’
So why am I less than thrilled by these developments? Well, history is one reason. It’s often forgotten that the hostility of the Spanish army to Catalan and Basque secessionism was a decisive factor in the military coup that ignited the Spanish Civil War.
The Spanish army has always seen itself as the backbone of a Spanish state whose component parts have not willingly accepted Spanish rule, and it has intervened various times in history to suppress the rebellious Catalans.
In a recent interview with the online magazine Alerta Digital, Colonel Francisco Alamán Castro, a serving officer in the Spanish army, declared that ‘Spain is not Yugoslavia nor Belgium’ and that ‘Catalonia will become independent over my dead body and many others.’
Alamán warned the ‘carrion-eating vultures’ circling over the ‘comatose body of the fatherland’ and that ‘ Although the lion appears to be sleeping, do not provoke the lion, because he has given abundant proof of his ferocity over the centuries.’
Indeed he has, and these are not words to be taken lightly. A Catalan friend of mine believes that the Spanish army would not be able to enforce such threats because of Spain’s membership of the EU.
But it is not melodramatic to imagine a future scenario in which the Spanish armed forces intervened in Catalonia, presenting themselves as the protectors of the region’s Spanish-speaking population and the upholders of constitutional legality. If that did happen, it is difficult to believe that the armed forces would feel constrained by Spain’s membership of the EU, or that the EU would be willing or able to stop them.
Of course there are other less dramatic scenarios. Catalonia and the Spanish government might agree to a political ‘divorce’ of the type that resulted in the division of Czechoslovakia into two states during the 1990s.
But in Czechoslovakia, there were only two states in question, both of which wanted the same thing. I can’t imagine that any Spanish government would agree to a process that would encourage the country’s other autonomous regions to go down the same route.
Catalonia often presents itself as a victim of Spanish chauvinism, and there have certainly periods in which it has been, such as the ruthless suppression of Catalan culture and political institutions under Franco.
But a recent declaration by a leading Catalan politician that Catalonia should not have to provide money to Spain, to enable its population to ‘go to the village bar’ contains more than a little petit-bourgeois condescension – not to mention an all-too-common tendency amongst richer regions in many countries to resent having to finance their poorer counterparts.
Such resentment was one of the driving forces behind the break-up of Yugoslavia, especially following the catastrophic IMF-enforced restructuring of the Yugoslav economy.
The severity of the Spanish economic crisis – coupled with the monumental levels of corruption and financial incompetence that allowed it to happen has clearly encouraged a similar salvese quien pueda (everyone for himself) mentality in Spain, and I can’t help feeling that the revolt of the Catalans is partly an expression of this tendency.
The EU should not be surprised by these developments. Brussels may not be especially favourable to the idea of an independent Catalan state, but draconian economic ‘reforms’ that bail out banks, cut social services to the bone and produce mass unemployment tend to unleash political forces that are not easily contained by ‘shock doctrine’ economics.
It is difficult to predict where all this will lead. The right-of-centre Catalan politicians who have dominated Catalonia during Spain’s democratic transition are adept at using popular pressure for independence to force concessions from the Spanish government, and Artur Mas, the current president of the Catalan Generalitat appears to be playing the same game.
One minute he was saying that he wouldn’t go to the Barcelona demonstration, then he announced that he would only go in a ‘personal capacity.’ Now he is calling for ‘more Catalonia and more Europe’ while simultaneously evading the question of whether that means ‘less Spain.’
Mas may well limit his aspirations to a renegotiation of Catalonia’s fiscal pact. Or he may find himself propelled by the secessionist wave to seek a more radical redefinition of Catalonia’s relationship with Spain, in line with the slogan of the Barcelona demonstration slogan ‘Catalonia: a new state in Europe.’
Should things reach that stage, there is no telling what might happen. And that is why I can’t help regarding the surge of patriotic fervour in the city where I once spent nine years of my life, with more trepidation than enthusiasm.