Protests in Catalunya: What is all the fuss about?
If you’ve been watching the Spanish news recently, I’m sure that the demonstration in Barcelona in Catalunya will have caught your attention, so I’m very grateful to Lisa, (aka Mum from Family Life In Spain), for asking me to provide a quick overview of the situation in Catalunya. She sent me a few questions and I think the easiest way to approach the issue of Catalan Independence and the whys and wherefores of the demonstration is to go through them one by one.
Why are the Catalans so keen to obtain independence?
It’s a simple question of identity, really. Catalans have their own language, culture and history. The language is based on vulgar Latin and is actually a lot older than Spanish which is based on high Latin. A quick example is the verb To Eat – manducare in Vulgar Latin, menjar in Catalan, manger in French and mangiare in Italian whereas comedere in High Latin gives us comer in Spanish.
There are many more examples but I know from experience that when I speak Catalan I think differently from when I speak Spanish.
Culturally, the Catalans are more staid and less passionate than the Spanish. The Sardana – the National dance – is very methodical in comparison with flamenco. Bullfighting is seen as individualistic and cruel and is illegal here. Most Catalan activities are based on groups. For example, castells – the human castles – are a group effort that require cooperation. Both language and culture are the result of a different history.
The Moors only controlled Catalunya for 80 years and never really made it into the Pyrenees whereas the Spanish Reconquista took 700 years. Consequently, there’s very little Arabic influence on the language and racially, the Catalans see themselves as the South of Northern Europe. They also had a massive empire in medieval times and had it not been for the discovery of America, which brought incredible wealth to Castile, the balance of power on the Iberian peninsular could well have remained much more equal.
You add all this together and the Catalans quite understandably feel different and would like to have their own state.
The crucial moment in Catalunya’s relationship with Spain came to a head with the end of the Spanish War of Succession in 1714. In 1700, Spanish King Carlos II died without an heir, and up until that point although ruled by the same monarch, Catalunya had enjoyed a great degree of freedom and was effectively a separate country. There were two pretenders to the throne – Philippe de Anjou, grandson of France’s Louis XIV, and the Habsburg Archduke Charles of Austria. Castile backed the centralist Bourbon pretender and looked forward to a Franco-Spanish axis that would come to control Europe, whereas Catalunya backed the Habsburg, who promised to respect their relative independence, and England and Holland frightened of French hegemony formed an alliance with the Catalans and Austrians. Unfortunately, for the Catalans, Charles became King of Austria and decided he wasn’t too bothered about being King of Spain and Philippe, by then Felipe, bought the English off with Gibraltar and Menorca, so the Catalans were left to fight alone from 1712 to 1714, when after a long siege Barcelona fell on September 11.
Not surprisingly, after 13 years of war, Felipe V wasn’t too pleased with the Catalans, and revoked all their laws, closed all the universities and made speaking Catalan illegal. Catalunya wasn’t allowed to trade with the Americas and all goods exported from Catalunya to Castile had to pay duties whereas Castilian goods imported to Catalunya were duty free.
Barcelona entered a period of severe economic decline, and also had to pay for the upkeep of 50,000 Castilian troops that were billeted in the Citadel (now Parc de la Ciutadella). By the beginning of the 20th century, Catalunya had resuscitated economically but in 1923, the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a successful military coup in Spain, and amongst other things, banned the Catalan language again and increased the taxes.
In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began and once again Catalunya backed the democrats and held out almost to the end. The victor of the Civil War, good old General Francisco Franco hated two things – Catalans and reds – and Barcelona was full of both of them, so without much ado, it was firing squad time again and prison if you were caught speaking Catalan in the street.
This is very recent history, and people of the older generation, my ex-wife’s parents for example, speak Catalan at home but as soon as they are out in the street switch to Spanish. Franco died in 1975 but even now there’s no way you can get her father to speak Catalan in public. Similarly, many people of my generation, who left school before Catalan was reintroduced in 1980, resent the fact that they never learned to read and write in their mother tongue.
What are the main differences in the beliefs of Catalans and Castilians?
People are people and Catalunya is a modern cosmopolitan region. Traditionally, Catalans were blonder and taller than Castilians but Franco shipped in a couple of million Andalusians and there are Moroccans, South Americans, Chinese, Pakistanis and grizzly old Nottinghamians like me, so we’re pretty much the same as anyone else, I think.
What’s important, though, are the cultural and linguistic factors I mentioned above. The children of the Spanish immigrants who arrived in the 50s and 60s have grown up speaking Catalan, dancing Sardanas and supporting FC Barcelona, so they feel different.
Another important point is that although many people want independence, given their Spanish ancestry, lots of Catalans love Spanish culture and are very happy to be bilingual. There’s a fantastic flamenco scene, and typical Andalusian festivals, such as the Feria de Abril are celebrated with mucho gusto.
What’s sparked the current upsurge of pro-independence feeling has been the ridiculous behaviour of the Partido Popular – there’s been a barrage of anti-Catalan insults from Esperanza Aguirre and company, and more importantly, the government reneged on the tax agreement we have and refused to return taxes we’d paid to central government, so we’ve now got a deficit and have to ask for help. When Catalans see Partido Popular politicians being processed for corruption in Valencia and see Bankia go down the drain due to incompetent management, we don’t feel too happy about trusting our money to a bunch of crooks.
The Catalan word ‘seny’, which means something between common sense and fair play, pretty much sums up the Catalan way of doing things. We like being moderate and measured, and I think the demonstration on Tuesday was a fantastic example. It wasn’t reall anti anything, it was pro-Catalan and took place in a happy friendly atmosphere. We’re proud and pleased when we do things well.
Obviously, we’re incredibly proud of the language, and some of our brilliant writers – Jacint Verdaguer, Josep pla, Mercè Rodoreda,even Terenci Moix. Painters – Picasso cut his teeth here, Salvador Dalí, Tàpies and host more. Gaudí and the Modernistas – what can I say!
The Romanesque churches in the Pyrenees. El Barça! The beaches. The food. The Gay scene …
There’s so much we can be proud of that, without doing anyone else down, we feel we should have the right to do this under our own name not as a maligned region of Spain, a country which always seems to take anything good we do, the Spanish national football team, for example, as its own but criticise anything that’s not quite up to scratch.
We’re also very proud of our flag, by the way. It’s called La Senyera and the four red lines are the Four Fingers of Blood that our first king Wilfred the Hairy scraped on a golden shield before going into battle against the Moors and securing Catalunya as an independent state in the 9th century.
If Catalunya was granted total independence, how would it impact the life of an expat living there?
Difficult question and it all depends on how Europe and Spain react. If we gain independence, we’ll have to leave the European Union and apply for re-entry. The current rule is that new states are only accepted as long as there is unanimous agreement from the current states, so if Spain gets shirty about this, we could be in for a very difficult ride.
Any problems for ex-pats will come about as a result of non-EU membership rather than any express desire of the Catalan government, who will be extremely keen to make life as easy as possible for foreign nationals and so establish itself in international terms.
But the truth is we don’t know what’s going to happen yet. If Mariano Rajoy is minimally intelligent, he’ll give the Catalans the tax deal they are asking for and that might close the flood gates for a while. However, intelligence and diplomacy aren’t typical Partido Popular qualities, so I reckon that Catalan politicians are already working behind the scenes on the European question.
I’ll stick my neck out here and say that if independence comes there’ll be an unsettled period but then Catalunya without the tax drain will become significantly more prosperous. If I had money to invest, I’d be keeping a very close eye on the property market in Catalunya now.
About the author:
Simon Harris has lived in Barcelona in Catalunya since 1988 and is author of Going Native in Catalonia. He has recently started www.barcelona-travel-guide.info. The site’s only been going since late August but there’s a blog at bcnblog.barcelona-travel-guide.info and a forum at forum.barcelona-travel-guide.info, and he is very happy to answer your questions about Barcelona-related travel or simply argue the toss in English, Spanish and, of course, Catalan. You can connect with Simon on Facebook – Barcelona Travel Guide at or on Twitter through @simonharris.
If you would like to learn more about this wonderful part of Spain, please also have a look at Going Native in Catalunya.