On the Kingdoms of Spain

90,000 people attended a pro-independence concert at the Nou Camp football stadium in Barcelona. The full mosaic spelled out the words 'Freedom 2014 Catalunya'. Image Copyright Demotix. June 29, 2013.

90,000 people attended a pro-independence concert at the Nou Camp football stadium in Barcelona. The full mosaic spelled out the words ‘Freedom 2014 Catalunya’. Image Copyright Demotix. June 29, 2013.

Last week in Madrid, Catalan politician Alfred Bosch stood before Spain's Congress and asked for a moment of silence [es] for a man some in the Chamber don't want to remember – Lluís Companys.

In 1940, four years after he tried to secure Catalonia's independence from Spain, Companys was publicly executed by Spanish dictator Franciso Franco's firing squad. He is the only incumbent president in Europe to have been executed.

Bosch's request was met with contemptuous chatter from handful of right-wing congressmen. Someone even yelled, “Viva España!” (Long Live Spain!]).

“Some of you don't take this seriously. Fine. What can I do?” Bosch lamented. After a frustrated pause, he added, “And by the way: Viva España, I agree. And Viva Cataluña, Viva la France. Through positivity, all the world's nations can get along.”

As is often the case when Catalonia's politicians speak before government institutions in Madrid, the tension in the room was raw and palpable like that of an international chamber. But on paper, the Spanish Congress is only a national chamber, of “one nation-state.”

To large segments of Spain's population, though, their Kingdom may be more accurately described as a state of many nations. The problem is the country's constitutionalists, are doing their best to deny that. 

Catalonia, the next State in Europe

This year, on September 11, hundreds of thousands of Catalans joined hands to form a human chain that extended 460 kilometers across their region, from the French Pyrenean border to Valencia. Complete with matching t-shirts and slogans, this robust act of protest was astonishingly well-organised, which came as no surprise: it was in fact the echo of a mass demonstration that took place one year prior, when a million people took to the streets of Barcelona under the banner: “Catalonia: The Next State in Europe.”

The day after that first demonstration, Catalan President Artur Mas publicly endorsed the protest and called for a referendum on independence. Shortly after, he convoked early elections which produced a sweeping pro-referendum majority in Barcelona.

Overnight, Catalan politics changed. The Independentists were now in control. Unionists softened their rhetoric. Nearly two hundred towns in the Catalan countryside preemptively declared independence [ca]. Parliament passed a declaration of sovereignty.

Instead of taking this clamor seriously and engaging the Catalan public, most in the Spanish government, including Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, positioned themselves firmly as antagonists. They insisted that referendum was illegal, framing [ca] Catalan nationalists as enemies of democracy and, in some extreme cases, comparing the sovereignty movement to Nazism [es].

They have also tried to promote the idea of Catalan nationalist ambitions as parochial and irrelevant. After a meeting with Catalan business leaders in Barcelona this month, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister claimed not to have noticed any strong markers of regional identity. In a recent English-language interview with The Wall Street Journal, Prime Minister Rajoy described the hypothetical advent of Catalan independence as contrary to the world's “natural evolution.” When addressing the Spanish public [ca] at the UN General Assembly, he went out of his way assure those in the chamber that none of his fellow world leaders had asked him about Catalonia.

Behind closed doors, however, it seems that Spanish officials are more concerned than their dismissive behavior implies: recently, Spain's UN delegation drafted a report [es] on how best to respond if Catalan leaders take their case to the international community in the wake of a successful referendum on independence. It asserted that Madrid could possibly draft security council allies into blocking Catalonia's full statehood, but would be relatively powerless to stop the region's admission as a General Assembly observer.

“Catalonia: The Next Partially-Recognized State” may not be as elegant a turn of phrase as those coined by activists, but it  nonetheless haunts politicians in Madrid.

More than money

Since the 2012 protests, the international media has taken a keen interest in Catalonia after decades of neglect. Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN and even Buzzfeed have all published articles about the recent separatist surge, but very few have seriously treated or even acknowledged the sovereignty movement's cultural roots, which extend deep into the soil of Mediterranean history (Buzzfeed, however reductively, being the exception here).

Instead, mainstream media outlets have framed the growing appeal of independence as a visceral response to the recession that continues to heavily burden Spain's economy. Raphael Minder's argument in the New York Times that references to national identity are “high-minded ideals” that soften a debate that is primarily about the distribution of Spain's national budget, is an excellent example of their reductive treatment of Catalonia's sovereignty movement. It is certainly a mistake to downplay competing notions of nationality as the cause of friction between Barcelona and Madrid.

The heat of that friction, however, derives not from disagreement over the value of nationhood itself—self-identifying Spaniards and Catalans alike experience this quite viscerally—but rather from a battle over competing notions of the ideal relationship between nation and the state in Spain.

Last year, President Mas wrote that Catalonia is a nation which only now needs the tool of statehood. His argument, which hinged on the assumption that nations are unique phenomena and therefore don't need sovereignty to be legitimate, is actually a standard of Catalan politics—of the 129 presidents who have presided over the region's parliament since 1359, only two before Mas have ever sought full independence: Pau Claris in 1641 and Lluís Companys in 1934. Each revolution occurred after overzealous officials in Madrid encroached too far upon regional liberties, as a result of Spanish nationalism's rise as a homogenizing force.

It is important to remember, amid such striking tension, that Spain's era of absolute centralism is thankfully a thing of the past. As a recent OECD analysis [es] concluded, Spain is among Europe's most politically decentralized states. Nonetheless, a battle is being waged over the spirit of the country: is it multinational or a singular, cohesive society?

The worry in Catalonia is that the political establishment in Madrid continues to insist on the latter, embodied in a recent statement [ca] by Spain's Minister of Education that the government's interest is in “hispanicizing” Catalan children, an argument indicative of a pervasive colonial mentality. The strong tendency towards this kind of rhetoric suggests that a majority of politicians (and probably, a great deal of the public, too) rejects a pluralistic definition of Spanish nationhood, and consider their country as it was defined by royal decree [es] in 1707: united according to the culture and traditions of Castile.
If this is how a majority of Spain identifies, then it is so, and this is reasonable. It is unreasonable, however, to then force those communities marginalized by this national definition to accept their marginalization. If Spain should continue to be a unitary nation-state, the Catalan people have every right to establish their own, providing a significant majority wants one, and a referendum on independence is the only way to determine this.

Those who must insist on the Spanish nation’s singularity should also be comfortable with the idea of bidding seven million Spaniards adéu.

Daniel Bogre Udell co-edits the Catalan-language edition of Global Voices Online and founded Wikitongues, a project dedicated to raising awareness about global linguistic diversity. He is currently writing a master’s thesis on the history of national identity in Catalonia.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Companys was executed in 1936.


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