Catalonia: The continuing struggle

Sagrada Familia
Sagrada Familia (Wikimedia Commons)

Many Spaniards grudgingly admit that Catalonia should have greater autonomy and that a redistribution of tax revenues would bring government closer to the people. But the poorer regions in Spain worry about the effects of the redistribution of tax revenues. Many wonder that the calls by Catalonia and the other autonomous regions for an ever greater say over their own affairs could ultimately lead to the break-up of the Spanish state.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: April 23, 1997


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “Catalonia – the continuing struggle”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

For most of this century, virulent nationalism has bedeviled Europe. In the 1920’s and 30’s, the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy led to the outbreak of World War II. For decades, Portugal and Spain were ruled by reactionary and isolationist military dictatorships. Today again, nationalism is rearing its ugly head, for instance, in France where Jean-Marie Le Pen and his National Front are advocating a French-first policy and the expulsion of all immigrants. In Austria’s last elections, a third of the voters gave their backing to Jürg Heider and his far-right nationalistic Freedom Party. In several countries of the former East Bloc, rabid nationalism is also re-emerging after being suppressed for decades by Communist rule. As Europe approaches the new millennium, the curse of nationalism is back.

We constantly explain that we are a nation. People often don’t understand us, but we are a nation: Catalonia. We have our own history, our own culture and our own language. Many small nations with a strong identity like Catalonia often turn inwards and close themselves off to the outside world. But our nationalism is peaceful. We say we are a nation within a state, the Spanish state.

Catalonia in north-eastern Spain is the richest and most industrialised part of the Spanish state. It was originally settled by a number of different peoples, including the Celts, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths and Arabs. By the 11th century, Catalonia’s political foundations were established, and a century later, Catalonia and the neighbouring kingdom of Aragon were united, with Catalonia being the most important of the two states. By the 13th century, Catalonia established what has been described as the world’s first parliamentary democracy. The Catalan parliament consisted of a chamber for the nobility, one for the bourgeoisie and another for the clergy. Parliament set up a committee, known as the Generalitat, which collected taxes and decided how the money would be spent. During Catalonia’s golden age during the 13th and 14th centuries, the rule of Catalonia and its neighbour Aragon spread far beyond their own borders to Sardinia, Corsica, much of present-day Greece and Sicily. The confederation even controlled the gold trade with Sudan. Catalonia became one of the richest regions in the Mediterranean Basin, and its capital, Barcelona, monopolised trade throughout the western Mediterranean. It was at this time that the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce was established, according to its president Antoni Negri.

This extraordinary building illustrates a very important part of the economy of Catalonia and was started in the 13th century with an institution called Consulado del Mar, Consulat da Mar. Add that time, the king of Catalonia gives to the businessmen of Catalonia the possibility to be consuls in all the Mediterranean Sea. These people had at that moment the responsibility to develop the economy of Catalonia, to offer our products and also to protect our rights in all the Mediterranean. And all the rules and all the instructions has been recorded in a book and has been used for years like a textbook, like a main ideas for commerce, for trade, for workers’ relationships with businessmen, also for insurance. The policies of insurance have been established in this book and these rules.

The Catalan language first appeared in written documents in the 9th century. By the golden age, Catalan writers and thinkers were having a profound impact on Europe’s view of the world. Ramón Llull was one of those Catalans. A missionary and writer, he was the first person to put forward the theory that the earth is round. It was also during this golden age that Catalan became one of the most widely-spoken languages in Europe, says Dr. Castellet, the director of the Institute of Catalan Studies in Barcelona.

Catalan is a language, different, complete separate from Spanish, from French too, developed in the Middle Age from Latin. It resemble much more to Portuguese and in some sense to Italian because one of the many differences between Spanish and Catalan is that the Spanish had a very, very strong Basque and Arab influence. The pronunciation, the Spanish pronunciation is the Basque one, coming from the former kingdom of Navarra. And the Spanish language took many, many words from the Arab. Arabs remained in Catalonia only eight years. In the centre of Spain, let’s say Castilla, some 400 years, and in the south of Spain several hundred years, so the influence on the language was much more stronger than on the Catalan. So we can say probably that Catalan is more of Latin than Spanish in this sense.

A peasant revolt against Catalonia’s feudal institutions plunged the nation into a deep crisis. Catalonia then became part of the Spanish crown, but it managed to retain its autonomy and its parliament until the early 18th century. By the 19th century, Catalonia recovered some of its former glory. The region developed quickly because of the industrial revolution. Thanks also to an increase in maritime trade again became the most developed region in Spain. The economic boom also led to a renaissance of the Catalan language and culture and fuelled growing separatist feelings. In the early part of the 20th century, Catalonia again obtained a limited degree of self-rule, only to see it quashed a few years later. It wasn’t until the early 1930’s that Catalonia achieved autonomy, but again, it was not to be.

In 1939, after a fierce civil war, the nationalists led by Francisco Franco came to power in Spain. All forms of Catalan nationalism were crushed. It was forbidden to teach Catalan in schools, and Catalan books and publishing houses, bookstores, public and private libraries were burned. The Catalan language was also banned from radio and later from television. The Franco regime even tried to stop the people from speaking Catalan and went so far as to put up stickers in phone booths ordering people to speak “Christian”,  in other words, to speak Spanish. People could not even give their children a Catalan name. The renowned Dutch soccer player Johan Cruyff, who became the star of the Barcelona football club in the early 1970’s, was one of the few people who was able to get around the ban. He registered his son’s Catalan name – Jordi – in the Netherlands, and the Franco authorities had no choice but to accept it. But throughout the 3.5 decades of Franco’s rule, says Pedro Artiz, the cultural advisor of Catalonia’s main concert hall, the Palau de la Música, the Catalans continued to fight for their dream of Catalan autonomy.

In 1945, during the opening of the new season of the Barcelona municipal orchestra, for instance, Catalan activists carried out a daring operation. In the middle of the concert, they lowered the Catalan flag in the Palau de la Música. The Franco government, which had sent representatives to attend the concern, was livid and imposed a fine of 10,000 pesetas. That’s not very much today, but at the time it amounted to the equivalent of thousands and thousands of dollars. The concert hall’s owners didn’t have that type of money because they depended entirely on donors’ contributions. The fine was eventually paid by a Catalan cultural activist.

Even though Catalan was suppressed during the Franco dictatorship, the spoken language was kept alive in the rural areas and in the homes of the urban middle class. Catalans have always been extremely proud of their language, and even though the Franco authorities banned the teaching of Catalan, many young people like Dr. Castallet of the Institute of Catalan Studies, were prepared to take risks to quench their thirst for knowledge of the language.

What happened for example in my case, at the age of 15, I went for the first time to a course in Catalan. It was private. It was done in an Alpine club. It was say quite dangerous to attend this course in the evening because it was not allowed, but many, many young people at the time did this thing, so that the situation was not terrible bad.

But other developments exacerbated the effect of the ban on the teaching and use of Catalan in public, says Dr. Castallet.

Due to the industrial development of Catalonia in the 50’s and 60’s, Catalonia received one million immigrants, that means that more or less 25% of the population of Catalonia at that time.

Since Catalan could not be spoken in public, these new immigrants from elsewhere in Spain had few if any opportunities to hear the Catalan language. In addition, since schools didn’t teach the language, the immigrants were unable to get any formal education in Catalan. The result was that the Catalan language continued to decline till the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975.  The Caudillo’s death marked a turning point for Spain and particularly for what are known as the historical nationalities: the Catalans, Basques and Galicians. With the return of democracy, they were anxious to recover their autonomy. A new Spanish constitution was drawn up, granting considerable powers to the regions. The autonomous communities can have their own president, government, legislature and supreme court, and they can take responsibility for everything from housing to health and social services. Under the new constitution, the new central government only retains exclusive responsibility for foreign affairs and trade and defence. Other areas, such as education and environmental policy, were left open for negotiation. The constitution was approved in a referendum in late 1978, and by the following year, Catalonia had obtained full home rule and quickly took over control of education, set up its own police force, as well as radio and television stations in Catalan.

One of the priorities of Catalonia’s new regional government known as the Generalitat – the term first used in the Middle Ages – was the revival of the Catalan language.

The key point was probably a law approved by the Catalan parliament with the support of all political parties – that’s important – called the law for the normalisation of the Catalan language. From now on, Catalan was taught again in schools as the mother language. It is now supposed that everybody at the age of 16 is able to understand, to speak, to read, to write Catalan and Spanish at the same level.

At schools like this one in a middle-class suburb of Barcelona, Catalan became the main language of instruction in the late 1970’s. A sizeable minority in this community are immigrants from other regions in Spain. But the school’s director, Joaquín Canalls (sp?), himself an immigrant, says the switch from Spanish to Catalan did not cause any major problems.

People like myself who come from other regions in Spain have been completely integrated in Catalonia, both culturally and linguistically. When democracy was restored in Spain, I was teaching in a nearby town. At the time, 30% of the student population spoke Catalan, the other 70% Spanish. We carried out a survey, and 95% of the parents said they wanted their children to be taught in Catalan. Today, 50% of the students speak Catalan at home. The other half speak Spanish, but they are fluent in Catalan. It was in no way traumatic. There were no tensions or any other problems.

According to Catalonia’s education minister, Josep Javier Hernández, the lack of opposition to the re-introduction of the Catalan language was due largely to the regional government’s policies.

In general, Catalan society has succeeded in adopting a policy of peaceful coexistence with the Spanish-speaking minority while at the same time actively pursuing a policy of reviving the Catalan language. The policy is peaceful because we are not trying to root out the Spanish language. The fact that Catalan has again been given official status in Catalonia doesn’t mean that we should forget or abandon Spanish. Immigrants have understood this better than anyone else. My own case is testimony to that: when I came to Catalonia in 1965, I didn’t speak a word of Catalan. Today I speak it as well as my wife and my children.

Strolling down the narrow streets and picturesque squares of Barcelona, you hear a mixture of Spanish and Catalan. Over 90% of the people who live in Catalonia understand Catalan. Two-thirds of them are able to speak it, and about half use Catalan on a regular basis in public. Both Catalan and Spanish have been the official languages of Catalonia since 1983, when the Catalan nationalists launched a linguistic normalisation programme. But now the Generalitat is considering a new law to strengthen the position of Catalan. If adopted, all companies and stores in Catalonia will have to serve their customers in both languages. The proposed law is controversial, not least of all because many multinationals have set up their Spanish headquarters in Barcelona. They’re now wondering whether they will have to hire interpreters, a development which many fear could harm Catalonia’s competitiveness. Already, some publishing houses have moved their headquarters from Barcelona to Madrid. But few fear that Catalonia’s growing nationalism will lead to an exodus of business. The region’s economic foundations are solid, says Antoni Negri of the Barcelona Chamber of Commerce, and they’re based on services and manufactured products.

Cars absolutely is one of the most important. Chemicals, textiles. Also we are making trade from food industries and services. We are bringing these products from other countries and transferring to Europe. Also in technical side: TVs and videos, all these new products. We have a lot of companies, foreign companies, they are producing here and exporting to abroad. 70% of our exports are to Europe, but the 30% is to other countries.

Catalonia has traditionally been Spain’s economic motor, and that’s still the case today.

Our territory is only 6, 7% of Spain. Our population is between 14, 15% of the Spanish population. Our industrial product it’s 21% and we are exporting near 30%. So it’s clear that we are the motor of Spain. The figures are quite clear.

Another figure gives perhaps an even clearer picture of Catalonia’s importance to the Spanish economy. Every year, Catalan taxpayers contribute over a trillion pesetas to the Spanish treasury, that’s over 6.5 billion dollars. Most of the money is then passed on by Madrid to the poorer regions in southern and western Spain. While the Catalans don’t dispute the need for a redistribution of wealth in Spain, Jordi Ajalaget (sp?), a professor of political sciences at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, say they feel that so much money is flowing to Madrid that Catalonia is suffering.

Catalonia is what’s known as a net payer, in other words we pay more taxes to the Spanish national treasury than we get back. Catalan nationalists have always wanted to change this state of affairs. They want more money to deal with Catalonia’s problems. They believe that the government closest to the people, the Catalan government, must get greater financial autonomy. It would make it easier to meet people’s real needs. For decades now, people have been saying that Catalonia is bleeding the Spanish state, that it’s expropriating Spanish money. But it’s been proven that Catalonia gives far more than it receives. Spaniards need to understand this. You can’t squeeze the rich part of the country too much because the engine will slow down and lose momentum.

The Catalan nationalists of the Convergence and Union Parties, led by their president Jordi Pujol, took the first steps towards achieving greater financial autonomy after Spain’s parliamentary elections in 1993. The Socialists, who had been ruling Spain for over a decade, lost their parliamentary majority. Eventually, they had to turn to Mr. Pujol and his nationalist party to secure a working majority in the Spanish parliament. In exchange, the Catalan nationalists demanded that Madrid give them back 15% of the tax revenues generated by Catalonia. According to Javier Trias, the number two man in the Catalan government, the move benefited not only Catalonia but also the rest of Spain.

I believe it’s in our interests and those of the Spanish state that we continue to be a locomotive, pulling the rest of the Spanish economy along. But to be a locomotive, we also have to make sizeable investments in our infrastructure, in roads and highways, a high-speed train connecting us to France, high tech projects, universities, the health system. These investments are essential to attract foreign capital and remain competitive. That’s what we want for Catalonia. We want more autonomy or, to put it another way, a greater degree of sovereignty so that Catalonia can be an efficient locomotive. If Catalonia prospers, I believe it’s a good thing for all of Spain.

The Catalan nationalists were able to secure an even bigger portion of the tax pie after last year’s parliamentary elections. The conservative Popular Party led by the current Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar emerged as the victor of the poll. But lacking an overall majority, Mr. Aznar had to get the Catalan nationalists to join him in a government coalition. Mr. Pujol agreed but at a price: he demanded and got the right to administer 30% of Catalonia’s income tax revenues, twice as much as under the previous coalition agreement. But, says Javier Trias, Catalonia would like even more.

Yes, we always want more. It’s true. We believe that the current 30% puts us in a better situation than the previous one. But if you look at the German states, for instance, they get 42% of the federal tax revenues. The current coalition agreement is valid for four years, but we’re already thinking of other ways of increasing our revenues. We believe that the present system by which the Spanish government collects taxes and then gives us our share is outdated. We want to collect them ourselves and then give Madrid its share. This system would give us greater sovereignty than we have at the moment.

The Catalan nationalists are well aware that they are walking a tightrope. Many Spaniards grudgingly admit that Catalonia should have greater autonomy and that a redistribution of tax revenues will bring government closer to the people. But the poorer regions in Spain are particularly concerned about the effects of the redistribution of tax revenues. Many wonder if the calls by Catalonia and the other autonomous regions for an ever greater say over their own affairs won’t ultimately lead to the break-up of the Spanish state. Gabino Puce is a parliamentarian representing Andalucía, pain’s southern most region, which has benefited greatly from the transfer of funds from the wealthier parts of Spain.

I believe there is a limit to what the autonomous regions in Spain can demand. We can’t constantly be asking for more power and money from Madrid. The Spanish constitution stipulates that the central government has exclusive control over interior affairs, foreign relations, the armed forces, etc. If we keep on asking for more, there will come a time when the central government will have to say no.

Spain is already one of the most decentralised countries in Europe, and a majority of Spaniards, even most nationalists, favour maintaining Spain’s monarchy and the Spanish constitution. In the Basque country, however, the separatist movement ETA and its political wing Herri Batasuna advocate the use of violence to achieve complete independence. But in Catalonia, says Professor Agiliget, all parties, even the pro-independence movement, believe the democracy and consensus are the only way to go.

There’s a pro-independence movement and a political party which got 8% of the votes in the last elections for the Catalan parliament. 80% of the voters support the mainstream parties, almost all of which see Catalonia as a nation within the Spanish state. The Socialists, for instance, favour a federal system. The neo-Communists or post-Communists agree, and they believe every region should have the right to self-determination. The nationalists, for their part, don’t really know what they want. They speak of a confederation with Spain, keeping the king, but they want all of Catalonia’s institutions to be sovereign.

But there’s a growing awareness in Catalonia that increasing European integration will have a far greater impact on the relations between Madrid and the autonomous communities than Spain’s own domestic politics. At this point, no one can predict what the European Union will look like in a decade or two from now. But the EU is certain to grow, and it may one day have up to 30 member states, a far too unwieldy number for the EU’s present political structures. Many Catalans, including Javier Trias, the number two man in the Catalan government, believe that a totally new system will have to be devised to represent the peoples of Europe. Mr. Trias believes that it’s inevitable that the nation states will become less important in this new system.

It’s true that we would prefer that Europe be based on regions rather than states. We want Europe’s regions to gradually get more power. One of the main problems facing the European Union now is that our centralised form of government simply hasn’t worked. A Napoleonic centralised model simply isn’t competitive enough anymore. Everywhere in Europe, politicians are trying to find new ways of organising public services to make them more responsive to people. Whether we like it or not, public services are going to be transferred to local authorities. These will be linked to regional governments rather than the national capital. This is a major international revolution. I’m not trying to downplay the importance of the nation state when it comes to national defence and foreign affairs. But what people really care about are services. People won’t get the services they want and need if everything is centralised in Madrid or Paris. Most of these services will have to be coordinated and run at the regional level. If governments want to be effective, they have no choice but to get closer to people.

Catalans are convinced that political union in Europe will involve surrendering power not only downwards to the regions but also upwards to a new supranational entity. If this indeed is the way the European Union develops, national boundaries and governments will become increasingly irrelevant. No wonder, says Catalonia’s education minister Josep Javier Hernández, that the inhabitants of Catalonia and many other areas in Europe are convinced that regional governments would better reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the continent.

Europe’s regions and particularly the regions with cultural or historical roots and their own identity are unique. I believe that they play and must continue to play a very important role because this is what Europe is all about. Europe is not only about sharing a common history and creating a single market. The diversity of Europe’s peoples is also essential to understanding the whole concept of Europe. If we lose this diversity, if we become more uniform, Europe will be the poorer for it. We belong to a diverse continent and that is our strength.

“Catalonia: the continuing struggle” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Rick Kingma. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.