By Peter Geoghegan
St George’s Day is most commonly associated with England, but the feast of the fabled dragon is a big deal in Catalonia, too.  Every April 23, Catalans exchange books, flowers and other gifts on the dia dels enamorats (lovers’ day).
But on April 23, 2015, Catalans could be doing something very different on St George’s day – making a unilateral declaration of independence.

Last December, the nationalist government in Barcelona announced that it would hold a ‘consultation’ on independence.  On Sunday 9 November 2014 – the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, incidentally – Catalan voters will be asked a question with two parts: “Do you want Catalonia to become a State?” and “In case of an affirmative response, do you want this State to be independent?”  If a majority say ‘yes’ to both, independence will be declared the following St George’s Day.  Madrid has said it will not recognise the vote.

Polls suggest nationalists could win.  According to a recent poll by the Catalonian regional governing authorities, 60 percent of Catalans believe that Catalonia should be a new state in Europe.  A somewhat narrower majority (52 percent) support the idea of complete independence.

The rise in support for Catalan independence is striking.  In 2007, barely a fifth backed leaving Spain.  Possibly more importantly, Catalan’s sense of identity is in flux, too.  In 2009, less than 20 per cent said they felt “Catalan only”.  Last year that figure was 31 per cent.  The number feeling “more Spanish than Catalan” has fallen, too.

The clamour for independence can be attributed to a number of factors: Spain’s financial travails, growing anger at cash transfers from wealthy Catalonia to poorer regions, a strengthening sense of a distinctive Catalan identity and politics, and widespread frustration with the central government’s reluctance to grant more powers to the Catalan parliament.

Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous and most economically productive region and accounts for about a quarter of the country’s taxes – far more than its share of Spain’s population.  In 2012, Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – was €16bn (around 8 per cent of the region’s GDP), according to the Catalan government.  Such disparities have deepened Catalan resentment.

But more than the economics, it is Madrid’s attitude to Barcelona that appears to be generating most anger and frustration and driving support for independence.  Earlier this month, an editorial in the Madrid daily ABC accused the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (Catalan National Assembly, ANC) of preparing a coup d’état after the ANC said that harbours and airports would have to be secured if Catalonia declared independence.  In a country that saw an aborted coup as recently as 1981, such language has more than just symbolic content.

Madrid has also raised the rather farcical spectre of an independent Catalonia floating aimlessly outside the international political system.  Spanish Minister for Foreign Affairs, José Manuel García-Margallo, has said that a unilateral declaration of independence ‘would condemn Catalonia to wandering around in space without international recognition’.  Cue thousands of tweets about ‘space Catalans’.

But there does seem to be growing disquiet with the role of the European Union in the Catalan debate.  When I last visited Barcelona, in September, I met many Catalans in favour of ‘independence in Europe’, a separate state within an increasingly federalised Europe.  This is changing, says Liz Castro, activist and editor of ‘What’s Up with Catalonia?’ 

“There is a growing anti-Europe sentiment among Catalans,” she says. “What’s happening is making Catalans go ‘you can take your EU and shove it’.”

Catalan nationalists, of course, will be watching Scotland’s independence referendum with interest.  “If the Scots lose I don’t think it will be a big deal here, but if the Scots win it will be,” says Castro.

Scotland and Catalonia, however, are very different places.  Spain’s asymmetric devolution might resemble the United Kingdom’s piecemeal efforts to transfer power to the ‘regions’, but the constitutional similarities are often overplayed.  Forty years ago Spain was a dictatorship.  Many Catalans talk with ambivalence about ‘the Spanish state’ as if it is somehow does not encompass them.  Madrid’s intransigence to demands for greater Catalan autonomy evinces the central state’s lack of confidence, and a burgeoning crisis of legitimacy.

The problem for Catalan nationalists – and to an extent for their Scottish cousins – is gaining international legitimacy as reasonable, democratic movements.  Outside of Catalonia – and indeed outside of Scotland, at times – these sub-state nationalists are regularly caricatured as flag waving crackpots, fringe right-wingers holding onto out-moded territorial notions in a globalised world.  Instead of diminishing with the electoral success of mainstream nationalist parties, this depiction has often increased, particularly within the corridors of power in the European Union.

The crisis in Crimea, and the recent ‘referendum’, has not helped the cause of avowedly civic nationalists, either.  Just this week, with an eye on Crimea, the Guardian and the Financial Times both carried articles on the rise of so-called ‘micro nationalism’, hinting, with scant supporting evidence, that the whole of Europe might fracture into thousands of sub-state pieces.

Catalan nationalism has a long history.  The challenge now is for its supporters to convince the outside world that their grievances are justified and their political project is inclusive and democratic before making any St George’s Day unilateral declarations of independence.


2014-03-29 21:08

The EU’s credibility in terms of democracy and subsidiarity are now on trial.
Should the Spanish state resort to violence in order to suppress this movement,it will have a dramatic effect on how the rest of the world perceive the EU as a whole.
For that reason,I am sure that violence will not be tolerated and pressure will be brought to bear on the Spanish state to reach an accommodation.
Hiding behind legalities will not cut it and a political solution will have to be found.
At least,here in Scotland,we still have the appearance of democracy for now.
2014-03-30 00:30

If you Google Antoni Gaudi’s Casa Batlló in Barcellona, the building is symbolic of St George and the dragon, with the roof tiles forming the scales of the dragon.
I also heard the dragon was symbolic of the Spanish state oppressing the Catalans, symbolised by the ‘skeletal’ like balconies below.

There is a lot more to be said, but I’d recommend you look for yourselves.
It really is quite a building, and quite unlike any other, where the struggle of two nations and ordinary people is so literally expressed in a building.

1904. Just compare it, interiors included, to what we build now. I don’t want to be cruel, (Enric Miralles was a Catalan), but I cannot see it any other way that our Parliament building was just such a wasted opportunity. I cannot like it, and it hasn’t grown on me. We should have waited, and addressed the issue with the rounder confidence of a sovereign country.
Auld Rock
2014-03-30 20:07

Aye Breeks but remember ‘Devolution’ was supposed to kill ‘NATIONALISM and the SNP – STONE DEAD’ according to Georgy Porgy.

Auld Rock

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