Monday, February 18, 2013

Seceding Catalonia

In his masterpiece Homage To Catalonia (1938) (Figure 56.1), el escritor Inglés George Orwell (1903-50) described Andalucíans as being so different from Catalans that it beggared belief that they were the same nationality. Indeed, Spanish unity, be it cultural or political, has for some time been a tenuous concept.


Figure 56.1: Orwell’s first-hand memoir of civil war in Catalonia provides ample evidence, and justification, of its uneasy alliance with the rest of Spain.

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Seventy-five years on from Orwell’s memorable account, the Catalan independence movement has been helped considerably by Spain’s current economic woes. It is a truism that whenever a multiracial/multicultural country experiences severe hardship, people necessarily become more social, and tend to segregate along the most natural ‘faultline’, which is often ethnicity. Catalans, increasingly, are perceiving themselves to be more Catalan and less Spanish (Figure 56.2). This divide is currently being enforced further by Catalonia being the wealthiest of the autonomous communities. There is increasing resentment now borne by its inhabitants towards poorer, less economically productive regions, as the latter demand a disproportionately large share of public expenditure. Andalucíans, for example, are considered to be especially lazy. It is a perfect example of the perennial argument regarding wealth redistribution: who deserves it, and to what degree? Moreover, if the takers outnumber the givers, then the former will be able to secure a permanent mandate at the ballot box.


Figure 56.2: One of many Catalan independence demonstrations from last year

Copyright © 2012 Lluis Gene AFG Getty Images

Other regions, too, have aspired to full secession from postwar Spain. The most notable is the Basque region, in the Northwest. In 1959, a separatist organization was formed in defiance of the Franco dictatorship. Its paramilitary arm, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, instigated violent offensives for more than half a century, before finally declaring a definitive ceasefire in 2011.

The Catalans’ strategy is different. It is – as yet – peaceful, more dignified and shows astute understanding of Spain’s political dynamics. They seem to know that when the State is strong, it can be broken only by armed insurrection, which leads inevitably to a massacre of innocents and is probably more open to failure than to success. During the Franco years (1936-75), Catalan culture was ruthlessly suppressed. Books were destroyed and its language outlawed throughout public institutions.

When the State is weak, however, as is presently the case, there is increased scope for tough and fruitful negotiation. Catalonia’s prime minister Artur Mas has already instigated the secession process. Last November, separatist parties won 49% of votes in the Catalan parliamentary election and a 59% majority demanded a referendum on secession. Naturally, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has opposed these plans and insisted that a referendum cannot be held without central government approval. We shall see (Figure 56.3).


Figure 56.3: For how much longer will mail from Catalonia bear a Spanish stamp?

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

A similar campaign is currently underway in Scotland. Its ruling Scottish National Party aims to withdraw from the United Kingdom. An in-or-out referendum will probably be held within five years. Scotland, however, is different from Catalonia. For a start, its native language is scarcely spoken. More crucially, and to be very blunt, it is an economic basket-case. In Scotland, one in three working adults is employed by the (British) State. It survives only by means of massive (UK) government subsidies, courtesy of mainly English taxpayers who, like Catalans, are beginning to resent it. If the question of Scottish independence is settled by Scots alone, it would seem unlikely to happen, as they might be reluctant to lose such a huge quantity of public (i.e. other people’s) money. Sovereignty, be damned; I suspect that financial expediency would trump every nationalistic principle on the table. If, however, English voters are given a say in it, the Scottish Nationalists’ wish might, ironically, be granted by those from whom they wish to separate.

Then there is the matter of the Evil Empire itself. Separatist politicians from both Catalonia and Scotland have expressed a similar intention to bring about an independent nation within the European Union (my italics). That would be a very strange kind of independence. In reality, they would be exchanging one ‘foreign’ authority for another. Rejoining the EU would by itself be a legitimate aim, I admit, but only a thundering hypocrite would attempt to sell it as self-rule.

Where else in Europe might secession occur? There are several other candidates. The Flemings and Walloons in Belgium have never been easy bedfellows. Italy has been unified only since 1861 and its pretence to political stability is a long-standing joke. Separatist movements exist in twenty-four other European countries, including Germany. As the economic crisis deepens ever further, the fires of separatism could well become stoked with increasing vigour. My guess is that within two or three generations, the political map of Europe will have been redrawn. It will begin in Catalonia.

Copyright © 2013 Paul Spradbery

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