Francesc-Marc Álvaro | Ni per la llengua ni pels diners
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23 May 2013 Ni per la llengua ni pels diners

The other day I was speaking with a journalist from the United States who had recently become interested about the news coming from Catalonia. With complete frankness he explained that he didn’t know that much about our country, but that he had read up on it as much as possible before coming here. His objective —according to what he told me— is to understand the reasons “why some Spaniards want to stop being Spaniards.” I pointed out that it wasn’t about rejecting or despising any particular identity, but instead about a people wanting to exercise democracy.

Once we had gotten warmed up about the subject, the journalist began to speak to me about what the pro-sovereignty movement calls the “fiscal spoliation” and I could see that he knew the basic figures. With data in hand, he recited what many of us know perfectly well: the Catalan structural fiscal deficit is 8.5% of the Catalan GDP and represents close to 16,500 million euros over the last three years. He had also studied how the inter-territorial solidarity system in Spain ends up affecting Catalonia, which drops seven positions in the ranking of autonomous communities after the implementation of leveling mechanisms, because the ordinality principle is not respected. The paradox —I added— is that the autonomous communities that generate less wealth end up having more resources per inhabitant than those that contribute the most to Spain’s common fund.

He grew thoughtful. He asked me about the failed attempt for a new fiscal pact, and he concluded, quite satisfied: “I get it now: the Catalan independence movement is a matter of economic interests, like what’s happening in Italy with the Lega Nord [Northern League].” I quickly replied that while the economic and fiscal arguments were very much a part of the pro-sovereignty movement and had convinced a number of people, it would be a mistake to attribute the movement’s growth to just this one factor. You had to look deeper, I told him.

The American smiled and took some other papers out of his bag. And he began to read out a fairly decent summary of the history of Catalan culture, with references to Tirant, the monastery of Montserrat, the Catalan Renaixença, linguistic immersion in Catalan schools and the creation of TV3. On his iPhone he had songs by Raimon, Lluís Llach, Sopa de Cabra and Manel, which he didn’t understand a bit but that he enjoyed immensely. Someone had also sent him —he had it on his iPad— an episode of the TV series Dallas that had been dubbed into Catalan and a long excerpt from the film Pa negre [Black Bread].

With a smile on his face, he added: “Perhaps I didn’t explain myself properly before; I wanted to say that money is a determining factor, but I already know that Catalonia’s identity claim is based on a culture and a language that are different from the Spanish one.” I listened to him, fascinated. He spoke of [Spain’s Education] Minister Wert and what had happened recently in Aragon [with the Catalan language], because he wanted to show that he had been keeping himself informed, and then he concluded: “So the way I see it, the independence movement is a language and culture affair, it is about making sure neither disappear, a little bit like in Quebec.” He thought that he had gotten it right at last, but I disagreed: I admitted that there was a clear cultural foundation to Catalan nationalism, but I warned him that people were not calling for a divorce from Spain simply to obtain better cultural protection.

The journalist’s smile faded. He was somewhat upset. If it wasn’t about money or the language, then what drove a significant part of Catalan society to demand a referendum?  He observed me as would a poker player and then he tossed his ace on the table. His smile was back: “I think I understand it now: the pro-independence movement is, above all, about power, the goal is to have a flag in the United Nations, embassies, to speak on equal terms with Brussels, to say that Barcelona is the capital of a state and…”. I cut him off and, kindly, told him that he wasn’t right this time either. To understand what was happening in Catalonia today he would have to consider another factor that is never mentioned but that is even more influential than the economic, cultural or power arguments.

The pro-sovereignty movement —I explained as he took notes— is, above all else, a moral cause. This means that it has come into being after repeated evidence that being Catalan has been and is —for the formal an informal Spanish powers-that-be— an abnormal and defective form of Spanishness. As Catalan-ness is a suspicious identity by default within the Castilian matrix of Spain, their aim is always to dissolve it, smother it, and above all, exclude it from any area of power. A few years ago a Catalan takeover of a company was blocked alongside cries of “[We’d rather be] German before Catalan.” Catalans are always guilty of not being “authentic” enough Spaniards, even the Catalans that are not nationalists. The journalist was astonished. I added that the relationship between the Basques and the Castilians was completely different, and this could be clearly seen, for example, in the fact that no one ever questions the fiscal agreement of the Basque Country and Navarre.

The Catalan pro-sovereignty movement is a moral cause. It is fed by economic, cultural and political arguments that Madrid supplies daily, but it goes beyond these. It is a moral cause because it has to do with our need to stop having to give explanations for being who we are, as if we were children. Anyone who doesn’t understand this profound dimension of the conflict will not understand a thing about what is mobilizing thousands of Catalans today. This visitor, for one, did grasp the concept.