Catalonia is on the brink of pushing for separation from Spain. If the coalition of independence-supporting parties, Junts pel Sí (Together For Yes), wins a majority in regional elections held today, they have promised to initiate a secession process. The reason nationalists cannot use a referendum, like the one which took place in Scotland last year, is explained by the limitations imposed by the state. The Spanish Constitution, which was negotiated in the wake of Franco’s death at a time when modernists still feared the prospect of civil war should democratic demands go too far, makes it illegal for a referendum in Catalonia to be held. Instead, whether the region can become independent is supposedly a decision for all Spaniards to make. An attempt to hold a referendum was blocked last year; instead, last November, there was a non-binding one, or (officially) a “citizen participation process on the political future of Catalonia”.
Particularly on the right of Spanish politics, refusing to bow to regional wishes for more autonomy is a key rhetorical aim. The ruling Partido Popular has rushed through legislation which, it claims, gives the Constitutional Court more muscle should Catalan officials defy the government in the coming months. Meanwhile, politicians use extraordinary hyperbole. The former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez compared Catalonia’s bid for independence to the actions of the Germans or Italians during the 30's in a long-winded opinion piece in El País. Current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was mocked on Tuesday after a disastrous radio interview during which he claimed that Catalans would involuntarily lose their Spanish and European nationality should the region separate (working on the presupposition that Catalonia would be unable to rejoin the EU automatically). When the interviewer countered that, under the Spanish Constitution, anyone born in Spain could retain their Spanish and therefore European nationality when living abroad in a new Catalan state, Rajoy could not answer. For Catalan nationalists, this was another example of lies and scaremongering. It was made into a parody of a clip from The Simpsons (here).
Indeed, even if the Spanish state ignores the democratic will of Catalans, the region will not simply kowtow to Spanish nationalism. For example, the extent to which schools should use the Catalan language instead of Spanish has been extremely controversial. A few decades ago, after repression of Catalonia under Franco’s regime, nationalists argued that the school system should be adapted to support children whose mother tongue was the regional language. The idea that children benefit from learning in their native language is recognised by UNESCO and UNICEF. Since then, Catalan has become the main language in schools, and children learn in Spanish for just a few hours a week.
The regional government has consistently favoured the promotion of Catalan in cultural matters as well, in the form of subsidies. Catalan works are favoured over Spanish ones: a notable example was when a group of comic mime-artists called El Tricicle saw their wordless film fail to qualify for the regional government’s National Film Awards, because its title was in Spanish. Santiago Roncagliolo, a Peruvian writer, wrote a blistering critique of Catalan nationalism in El País in July, lambasting it for ostracising the region from the Spanish-speaking world. He claimed that Catalonia has gone from being the New York to the Latvia of the Spanish-speaking world. Roncagliolo also said there has been an exodus of Latin Americans writers, publishers and journalist from Barcelona: “nowadays, if you write in Spanish, your life is elsewhere”. The Catalan language is a major point of differentiation with the rest of Spain, and so nationalists are determined to encourage it. They see Spanish, a global language with 400 million native speakers and a mass cultural appeal, as a dominant force which must be restricted in order for Catalan to survive.
Some politicians have taken things further, turning birthplace into a toxic political issue. Herribert Barrera, the first president of the regional parliament, said Catalonia would “disappear” under the weight of immigration. His political discourse was louder than just a dog whistle; he also once claimed “in America, blacks have a lower IQ than whites” and defended the far-right Austrian politician Jörg Haider, arguing “when he says in Austria there are too many foreigners he is not making a racist statement”. The wife of Jordi Puyol, another former president, speculated that Muslim immigrants wanted to impose their own way of life on the region and are the main beneficiaries of social security payments to large families. She complained about benefits going “to people who do not even know what Catalonia is.”
When Catalan nationalists are so determined to protect the integrity of their culture, immigration – from inside as well as outside Spain – is seen as a threat. It is unsurprising that laws banning the burqa have been enforced in the region: in Barcelona it was made illegal to wear a full-face veil in some public spaces. A more restrictive ban in Lleida, a Catalan town with a Muslim population of just 3%, was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Catalonia is left then between two strident and shrill forces. Nationalism is inherently divisive and illogical; it is based on separation from the ‘other’ and a selective reading of history and the formation of culture. Yet it is evidently wrong to deny the right to self-determination, messy as it can often become. If the Spanish government were to let Catalonia have a referendum over independence, it could defeat Catalan nationalism at the polls instead of in the courts. Whatever the result of today’s elections, this bargain should be made with the Catalonian people.