“I hate Catalonia and I don’t like the Catalans.” These blunt words rolled off the sharp tongue of an ordinarily sweet-tempered 15-year old girl from a neighbouring province of Catalonia. She is one of a number of Spanish teenagers I´ve had the chance to speak with in recent weeks.
What stood out for me about these conversations was the depth and intensity of the adolesents’ feelings on a whole gamut of subjects — especially the issue of Catalan separatism. Take the example of a 16-year old Catalan girl from Lleida, who said:
“So many things have happened over the last year to make the situation between Spain and Catalonia almost untenable,” she said. “Worst by far has been the impact of the Wert Law.” [The Wert Law is the Rajoy administration’s latest attempt at education reform, which seeks, among other things, to restrict the use of Catalan in the classroom. The legislation also carves out a new role for the Catholic Church in education and further centralises the national curriculum]
A War of Cultures
The debate over Catalan independence is not new. Strained tensions between Madrid and Catalonia have been around for centuries. But according to Salvador Giner, a sociologist and president of the Intitut d’Estudis Catalans, the vehemence of the debate fluctuates depending on the political and economic zeitgeist of the times. And right now the zeitgeist could not be more auspicious.
Since last year’s unprecedented protests to mark the Diada — Catalonia’s national day of independence, on September 11th — relations between Rajoy’s administration and Catalonia’s coalition government, led by the conservative opportunist Artur Mas, have soured to the point of curdling. Just a few weeks ago, Mas spoke ominously of a “war of cultures” between the two “countries”. Spain, he said, has traditionally sought to impose its culture on others while Catalonia seeks to reach agreements with others through consensus building.
Mas also announced the busy schedule of events to commemorate the tricentenary, in 2014, of Catalonia’s loss of independence to Spain following its defeat in the Wars of Succession. On the agenda will be congresses, workshops, seminars, symposia, conferences, exhibitions, tributes, inaugurations, shows and diverse publications, all dedicated to the events of 1714 and the evolution of Catalonia over the intervening 300 years.
Commemorative acts will also be held far beyond Catalonia’s borders, as the show is taken on the road to “strategic” global cities such as London, New York, Berlin and Brussels.
Unsurprisingly, the news went down like a lead balloon in Madrid, where opposition to Catalan separatism is reaching fever pitch. In late 2012 Esperanza Aguirre, the former hardline president of the Madrid Community and the person whom many are tipping to replace Rajoy as leader of the Popular Party, warned that “a Spain without a Catalonia or a Catalonia without Spain are inconceivable… Pro-indepenedence demands are like a branch that is breaking off a tree. The tree suffers and the branch dries up.”
But it’s not just in the hallowed halls of government that nationalist sentiment and rhetoric are on the rise. In households across both Spain and Catalonia feelings are intensifying.
On social media the tone of the debate grows shriller by the day, with more and more comments descending into what can only be described as hate speech. For example, in the wake of the recent train accident in Spain’s north-western province of Galicia, some posters lamented the fact that the accident hadn’t happened in Catalonia or the Basque Country. Others complain about the disgust they feel whenever they hear Catalan spoken on TV or the radio.
Opinions on the other side are no less extreme.
While granted, social media can be an irresistible magnet for any two-bit nut job with an opinion, any country with youth unemployment of over 60 percent ignores the threat posed by widespread youth disaffection at its own peril.
If history has taught us anything, it is that chronic unemployment, deprivation and desperation among the youth are a recipe for extremism. In many ways it was these very conditions that set the stage for Hitler’s rise to dominance in the 1930’s. They are also currently wreaking havoc in Greece, a country which, according to recent IMF revelations, the Troika knowingly sacrificed on the altar of the euro. The result has been a collapse in the nation´s traditional social and economic support systems, leaving a huge vaccuum that is fast being filled by far-right and anti-immigrant groups.
In Spain, meanwhile, the debate on Catalonia descends deeper and deeper into acrimony.
“It seems, at times, that almost everybody despises us,” said one Catalan girl. “Yet they still expect us to stick around and pick up the tab for many of Spain’s poorer regions. They can’t stand us but they need our money.”
She concedes, nevertheless that it’s both “wrong” and “dangerous” to tar everyone with the same brush, as the media so often does. The reality, she admits, is far more complicated than that.
For example, there are countless Spaniards who are largely unfazed by the prospect of Catalonia’s separation from Spain. Likewise, there are many Catalans who feel a much closer allegiance to Spain than to Catalonia — the inevitable result, no doubt, of the massive waves of immigration to the north-eastern province from other parts of Spain last century.
Imponderables and Unknowns
As for where Catalonia is heading, it’s impossible to say. It is like peering into a pitch-black tunnel and wondering where it might end. There are simply too many imponderables and “known and unknown unknowns,” to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfield, the former US Secretary of Defense and one of the world’s “least wanted” war criminals.
One thing that is almost certain, though, is that, barring a miraculous economic recovery in Catalonia or the replacement of the current Spanish government with one that is much better disposed to negotiation with its Catalonian counterpart — neither of which are likely to happen any time soon — tensions between the two “countries” are poised to escalate. Indeed, with neither side willing to make concessions to the other, the perpetual cycle of action and reaction risks tearing apart the final flimsy threads keeping Spain’s national fabric together.
In my 2012 article “Spain vs Catalonia: A Tale of Two ‘Countries‘” I wrote that perhaps the most tragic irony of the European project is that it may well end up ushering in a new age of European nationalism, as the European social contract disintegrates, leaving misery, social discord and extremism in its wake.
In the words of the British historian Antony Beevor, “The great European dream was to diminish militant nationalism. We would all be happy Europeans together. But we are going to see the old monster of militant nationalism being awoken when people realise how little control their politicians have.”
Judging by recent events in Europe, the monster is already among us and is growing at a frightening pace. Most worrying of all, by targeting countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy, it appears to have set its sights on some of the old continent’s youngest and, by extension, most vulnerable modern democracies.