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Spain is losing Catalonia, as Unamuno once said

(, 13 Septiembre 2012)

The Catalan National Day of 2012 marks the end of 140 years of Catalan “pactismo” that sought to modernize the Spanish State and find a fit for the multicultural diversity of Spain. That is just how emphatic the message of the massive independence demonstration in Barcelona was. A popular outcry, ignored and minimized by a good part of the Madrid press, yet highlighted by the international press. There have also been voices from the cultured Spanish left that have displayed incomprehension, amusement and possessive paternalism towards this show of force of Catalan sovereignty. 

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you and when they fight you, you win. With these three phases, Gandhi’s non-violent sovereignty summed up the reactions of the British Empire. Those were other times and other latitudes, but the mental framework of those who feel superior seem to be the same everywhere and at any time. 

The Catalanism that advocated for the federal solution to Spain, with Pi i Maragall leading the charge, can be traced back to the much forgotten First Republic (1873), which was 140 years ago. The federal dream of Pi i Maragall, inspired by Proudhon and his cooperative ideology, marked the beginning of the continuous Catalan influence on the institutional machinery of contemporary Spain. A modernizing influence that was always poorly assumed or outright ignored by the elite in Madrid and the provinces, who suffered from a complex towards anything Catalan, this otherness and nemesis of the 19th century minded Spain of throne, sabers and altar.

Recognizing, in the long term, the incompatible duality between the Castilian and Catalan souls, Miguel de Unamuno acknowledged in a letter to Manuel Azaña (1918): “So it is, thus, that Spain now loses Catalonia. And they will lose Catalonia, I do not doubt in the least that they will lose her. The federation is nothing more than a fig leaf.” Almost a century later, Unamuno is prophetic. Of course, it has been a winding and turbulent century that has not resolved the Ortega y Gasset relationship between Catalonia and Spain, nor the problems of Spanish identity and historical memory, tolerating a map of Civil War graves that today gives us the chills. But, as we all know, here the crimes of Franco’s dictatorship are “not to be touched” and the archives of Salamanca were a right of conquest up until only a few days ago. 

The current State of the Autonomies, designed to dissolve the national aspirations of Catalonia and the Basque Country (as PP leader Esperanza Aguirre herself said quite candidly), is another outdated fig leaf, impractical and delegitimized, which cannot hide its true failure. In the eyes of the world and the international markets, the Spanish autonomous model is far from being functional, efficient and federal. It is something that very much belongs to an elite that continues to veto any sort of constitutional change or reform to differentiate nationalities from regions, attributing and delimiting models of self-government and mutual cooperation, an effective territorial Senate and an efficient and solidary fiscal model. None of this. 

The untouchable and sacred Magna Carta (voted for by only a third of Spaniards alive today) is only reformed through the back door, without debate or referendum, to constitutionalize the deficit ceiling (2011) assuming, by dictate of Berlin, a neoliberal totem that previously had been difficult for the Social Democracy groups to digest. There are reforms and reforms. Faced with the secular intolerance and ineptness of the right to assume the true pluri-nationality of Spain, the Spanish left has not offered an alternative, modernizing and cohesive historic project. Nor did it adopt measures to deflate the artificial paradise of the “Spain is doing fine with low salaries and with hardly any taxes,” nor did it put together a consistent account of territorial justice and the recognition of diversity beyond the artifice of the “plural Spain,” a flimsy marketing gimmick that no longer works. 

Already in 1999 Felipe González apparently confessed to [Catalan President] Pasqual Maragall that the Spanish people had a hard time internalizing new concepts. Asymmetrical federalism did not mean one but two concepts that were elusive and complex for the low political culture of citizens, according to him. From that protective paternalism and the ruling out of asymmetrical federalism, we have the mess we are in today. In the year 2000, the PP’s ideological factory updated the Gramscian slogan of the continuous struggle for discursive and media hegemony, and pulled constitutional patriotism out of a hat. Two in one. The Magna Carta and the integrity of the only nation-homeland of Spaniards are not to be touched. Two concepts that, it seems, have permeated and connected with the Spanish soul better than expected. Even their intellectual father, Jürgen Habermas, was stunned by the “vampire-like” capacity of the Spanish right who, to finish the job, stigmatized the heterodox impurity of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy (2006), encouraging a Catalanophobia that brought in votes. 

In no other federal system do the richest regions contribute to the solidarity fund until they become poor and have fewer public and welfare services than the rest of the regions they are helping. In Germany and the United States the rich regions don’t go above 4% of their GDP in solidarity transfers. Catalonia, each year, transfers 8% of its GDP (some 16 billion euros) consequently accumulating a debt of 44 billion euros due to a dysfunctional and irrational financing system that, on top of this, leaves it with fewer investments in social and education policies than the rest. 

The accumulated fiscal deficit ends up becoming a social deficit and it unfairly penalizes working-class Catalan citizens. By way of example, only 27% of children younger than 16 from poor Catalan families receive some form of scholarship. The chapter on scholarships has been nominally transferred, yet it is blocked from Madrid. Why do the governments of Madrid, whether they are socialist or conservative, block this? How can the Spanish socialists perpetuate this injustice that is detrimental to equal opportunities? For poor Catalans, but not for the poor in other parts of Spain. 

At the same time, the citizens observe, indignant, how other poorer regions are financing in a universal manner, and not because of their income levels, computers in schools and other benefits and services that are and have been unimaginable in Catalonia. Between 1986-2006, Catalonia transferred 213,963 million euros to the least developed regions of Spain whose regional leaders now laugh at and ridicule the current suffocation of resources and the treasury of the Generalitat. This is why the financing model is not federal, it is predatory, it despoils and is regressive. 

Fed up with the ingratitude, the ignorance and the anti-Catalan stereotypes that hark back to the times of Quevedo, the Diada of 2012 marked a before and after. No democracy permits its Constitutional Court to revoke a legal and statutory norm approved by referendum. No modern economy and administration hides and makes the fiscal balances opaque to its citizens. No State fails to comply with what the courts dictate and holds onto the self-government of scholarships, discriminating against the poor children of the richest regions. No one except Spain. 

The list of grievances is proportional to the silence and indifference that we receive from the dialogue-inclined, open and cosmopolitan Spain that in the past had vaunted Catalonia as a powerhouse for the economy, innovation and creativity. There are no bridges, nor interest or will to get to know the other. All that was missing was Peces-Barba (former president of Spanish Parliament) seeking to intimidate with a bombing of Barcelona, just as Azaña (1934) or Fraga (1968) once threatened. It’s an old obsolete resource of authority and powerlessness in full globalization and political rearticulation of Europe. Spain is stuck in another wavelength, in another phase and in another time. 

We’ll now be seeing a lot of federalists come out of the closet. Just as Catalonia inaugurates a new cycle and shuts the door on 140 years of efforts to construct a Spanish State that has stopped feeling it belongs to. The right to decide is making headway and the ground beneath an autonomous Spain facing a full crisis of its institutions is shaking. All of this heralds storms of change, empowerment and liberty.