Attitudes Harden in Spain as Catalonian Referendum Looms

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“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.”

Communication Breakdown

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.

8 thoughts on “Attitudes Harden in Spain as Catalonian Referendum Looms

  1. Technical issue: why do I get this when I try to subscribe via RSS? This XML file does not appear to have any style information associated with it. The document tree is shown below.p.s I am using Netvibes


    1. Hi Mac. Thanks for the comment (and praise). Most appreciated. As for the technical problem, tbh I have no idea what could be causing it — my complete lack of IT knowledge is just one of many weak points I have. That said, your comments are always great, so I’d just ignore it if I were you.


  2. Excellent post (as always) My family, although not I, are very deep in Basque politics, and I also have many cousins in Catalonia (in fact one of my Basque ancestors fought alongside Jaime El Conquistador, whose tomb I made a pilgrimage to recently ) so I have great affection for Catalans as well.

    One thing I cannot get the independence-minded fanatics to understand is this: that Spanish nationalism is so deeply embedded in the political culture and so strong a sentiment, that even if independence is gained there will be one obsession driving the Spanish Army and politicians – to get those territories back, by hook or crook. And they will have a lot of popular support, particularly if economic stress increases.

    If the EU – which acts as restraining force even as it exacerbates tensions through massive immigration and the erosion of sovereignty – disintegrates, war over the issue would be quite likely: one can imagine a Spanish ‘Hitler’, agitating over the return of the ‘lost lands’ to the bosom of Holy Mother Spain. Death threats from the Right are very common in politics in Pais Vasco even now: passions run high in certain circles. .

    Taking a wide historical view, the independence movements are worse than folly: they are very dangerous and destabilizing. To both Basques and Catalans one would say: ‘Be careful what you wish for, you might get it!’ Think of the Balkans.

    At the same time, one understands fully the disgust and anger at the corruption of Spanish politics, the constant insults and slights, and the attempted repression of the Catalan and Basque languages (I take an ironic view of the latter, as my family being landowners of the old nobility haven’t spoken a non-romance language like Basque for at least 1,000 years: still, it’s one of our people’s historic languages, and to be supported. )

    What a mess! But please God it doesn’t become a bloody mess……


    1. Great comment Albizu. While both the national and international media obsess about the rising tide of Catalan nationalism, they ignore (whether intentionally or not) the re-awakening monster of Spanish nationalism. And as you say, that could well be a far more dangerous threat to peace, order and stability than the Catalan and Basque separatist movements combined.

      One thing’s for sure, though: if the parties do not return to the negotiating table fully committed to breaking the deadlock and finding a long-lasting settlement that allows each party to declare triumph for its own side (and let’s face it, that’s pretty unlikely with Rajoy and Mas leading negotiations) things could get very ugly, very quickly in this beautiful, tragic country.


  3. First of all, I’d like to apologise for not writing in English (my daughter had to translate this for me). I wrote it in Catalan because it’s my mother tongue and because I can express myself much better in Catalan than in Spanish. I promised my daughter that this year I’d sign up to an English course, which is what I’ve done. I hope that the next time I write to you it will be in English.

    After reading “Attitudes Harden in Spain as Catalonian Referendum Looms” and as the mum of a girl of a similar age to the girls you talk about in this article, I’d like to make clear that neither me, her dad nor the rest of the family have ever instilled in our children radical or “separatist” ways of thinking. We have always tried to bring them up to respect others, to listen to and take into account what others say so they can form their own opinion – and all the pros and cons involved – before expressing it.

    What is true is that at the moment we – that is, the catalans – are the focal point of extreme criticism and derogatory comments from among some politicians and media organizations. Some have even gone so far as to compare our ideas to Hitler’s and, painting as extreme radicals, they say that we catalans are determined to destroy the political system.

    It’s hardly surprising that teenagers who hear these kinds of things day after day end up believing what they’re told (or sold). The ugly truth is that some media go out of their way to alter reality. ( This link is for a video where a girl from Andalucia explains that “Catalanofobia” does exist.

    At times, my daughter has been unable to hold back her tears when watching TV. “How can they say all these things about us?” she asks. “It’s not true!” “Mum, Why are they against a language, If when we talk to someone who doesn’t speak Catalan we do it in Spanish?”, “Why do they hate us so much?”. It is really hard, if not impossible, to answer these types of questions to your teenager daughter when you know she is right.

    As for the growing desire for separatism in Catalonia, it’s true that more and more adults who never used to talk about politics, the importance of our language or the situation between Catalonia and Spain are now doing so. It’s true that the economic situation we live in has a lot to do with this. But it is also true that citizens are fed up with all the lies. We are so sick and tired of the political and economic scandals directly implicating the Spanish government that the only way out we can see is separation from Spain.


    Primerament, disculpar-me per no escriure en angles. Escric en català perquè és la meva llengua materna i m’expresso molt millor que en castellà. He promès a la meva filla que aquest any en matricularia en un curs d’anglès i així ho he fet. Espero que el pròxim cop que escrigui quelcom sobre el seu blog, ho pugui fer amb anglès.

    Desprès de llegir el seu article “Attitudes Harden in Spain as Catalonian Referendum Looms” i com a mare d’una noia d’edat semblant a les que fa referència en aquest article, voldria deixar clar a tots els seus lectors que ni jo, ni el seu pare ni la nostra família hem inculcat mai idees separatistes ni radicals a les nostres filles. Hem intentat educar-les pel respecte vers els altres, que sàpiguen escoltar i reflexionar abans de donar la seva opinió un cop valorats els pros i els contres.

    El que és cert, és que en aquests moments Catalunya i els catalans estem sent el centre de critiques i comentaris despectius per part de certs politics i alguns mitjans de comunicació. Alguns ens han arribat a comparar fins i tot amb les idees de Hitler i deixen ben clar que els catalans som uns anti-sistema.

    No es d’estranyar que els joves adolescents que escolten dia rere dia critiques als catalans acabin creient el que diuen algunes televisions, les quals alteren la realitat que es viu a Catalunya; deixo un link on una noia andalusa explica la “catalanofòbia”,

    A la meva filla molts cops veient les noticies de la televisió, li han caigut les llàgrimes dient, “com pot ser que diguin tot això de nosaltres? Si no és veritat…”, “per què estan en contra del català? Si nosaltres quan estem amb un castellà parlem en castellà per que ens entengui i molts cops tot i sabent que entenen el català els parlem en castellà…”, “Per què ens tenen tanta mania als Catalans?” és molt difícil poder contestar a totes aquestes preguntes a una filla adolescent, quan veus que te raó.

    Pel que fa al creixent el sentiment independèntista a Catalunya, és cert que molts adults que mai hem parlat de política a casa ara ho fem, és cert que pot estar provocat per la situació econòmica que estem vivint. També és cert que els ciutadans d’a peu estem cansats de mentides, escàndols politics i econòmics dels nostres governants. Tot aixo, poden ser unes de les raons per les que veiem com a sortida separar-nos d’Espanya.


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