On the Spanish cultural war against the Catalans and their language: an update

article by Antoni Ferrando

Recently some world press published horror stories about the profligate Catalans, as a threat for Spain, in the wider context of the euro crisis. Catalan budget for 2011, even with a hefty cut of 10 per cent, doesn’t meet the deficit target. But this happens because that same Central Government that sets the target with one hand, blocks the funds to meet it with the other hand. Why do they do it? Probably the Catalans were expected to cut even more and demand less funding. But they will not, Catalan president Artur Mas visited Brussels recently to explain all this, and at the end of the day reality prevails: the Spanish government has still four fifths of the whole debt in its books.

That both governments, Spanish and Catalan, say they are doing the right thing, was to be expected. However, in the behaviour of the Spanish government, there are deep patterns of an irrational disrespect towards the Catalans. Irrational relative to the rational thing to do, from a State government point of view, which should be to keep the State as a working whole. Where does this irrational disrespect come from? Probably is a byproduct of a pervasive and all-encompassing ideology of Spanish nationalism, merged with the machinery of the State, regardless the ruling party of the moment. It shows in many fronts: if the awareness of the “otherness” of the Catalans remains unbearable, is because it source runs deep in the mind of the Spanish nationalist. One of the obvious signs of diveristy is the Catalan language, so it must be fought relentlessly.

In Catalonia the public basic school system works with a Catalan language immersion system, and the individual needs of students not fluent in Catalan are met individually. This arrangement effectively protects the Catalan language an avoids the social division that would create parallel schooling systems in several languages. Moreover, according to data of the Spanish Ministry of Education, the Spanish language skills of the Catalan kids are satisfactory. The European Commission praised the Catalan schooling system as a model for multilingual regions.

But reality be damned: three activist parents pursued their cause until the Spanish Supreme Court ruled (following last summer’s Constitutional Court ruling) and ordered to introduce also Spanish as a second working language, and therefore the breakup of Catalan public schooling. However the rulings will be hardly enforceable: the support of the Catalans to a working school system is massive, with roughly a million students. The Constitutional Court itself is in a deep crisis, heavily controlled by the socialist (PSOE) and conservative (PP) Spanish parties, which as a matter of fact are two wings of a unique and virtual Spanish Nationalist Party.

Meanwhile, in Valencia, the new PP government has announced plans to dismantle schooling in Catalan and merge it with schooling in Spanish and English. Until now there were two lines, Catalan immersion and Spanish immersion but seeing that Catalan immersion was becoming more popular and its demand increasing year after year, currently more than 40% of parents were choosing it, could not be tolerated by the PP. There have already been massive protests against this ruling (link in Catalan).

Earlier this year the Valencian government blocked the reception of neighbouring Catalan Public television, with a totalitarian zeal more effective than any Chinese government. In times of a vast TV offer all around the world, people in Valencia are being deprived of a television channel widely popular just because it’s in Catalan. Again, behind the move there was just more blatant Spanish nationalism, with its persistent unability to accept and recognize cultural diversity.

The long and consistent record of totalitarian inclinations of the Spanish nationalism, and its struggle against Catalan economy and culture, rule out any federal-like arrangement for the future of Spain and boost Catalan independentism.

Photo: truck of Catalan Public Television, by jstar.pl

Catalan socialists block funds for Catalonia

On tuesday, Catalan socialist MPs at the Spanish Parliament voted against the payment of almost one and a half billion euros for Catalonia. As the difference in votes is less than the amount of Catalan socialist MP, back home they have been lambasted by the rest of political parties and media.

In theory, Catalan socialists could try to justify their vote with ideological reasons. They could argue that the central government oversees the whole of Spain and is supposed to guarantee redistribution of wealth and opportunity for all Spanish citizens, regardless of their regional origin.

However, several Catalan socialists said to the media, before the decisive vote, that they would support Catalan interests. They sounded localist first but changed the vote later. To make things worst, roughly at the same time the Spanish socialist government has approved almost 10 b€ for high speed trains and an additional 5 b€ for the rescue of Portugal.

After this, center-right nationalists of Convergence and Union (CiU), now in charge of Catalan government, can easily present themselves as the ones who will keep the struggle for Catalan interests, and so do they. But most importantly, all the other parties blame the Catalan socialists on the same grounds.

The current predicament of the Catalan socialists goes beyond the public relations disaster. They have put themselves in an undefendible position. Now they are those who block the money, in a landscape of recession, soaring unemployment an cuts in the public budget. Next May 22th there are elections to the city councils and socialists are expected to take a beating.

So why do they do it? Formally, the Socialist Party of Catalonia (PSC) is an independent organization and it could maneuver to defend Catalan interests if it choose to do so. In practice, they are the Catalan branch of the PSOE. They have a long and consistent record of voting according the needs of the PSOE at a State level.

Catalan socialists act like this because they are mostly loyal to the Spanish nationalist idea. They have been doing for long the balancing act of sounding catalanist in Barcelona and sticking to the PSOE line in Madrid. After blocking the funds for Catalonia, all that is over: Catalan socialists definitively give up the defense of Catalan interests.

It is important to understand that the blocked funds are not another demand of Catalan nationalists: there is an agreement in place for the distribution of funds at a State level. The agreement is part of the ordinary workings of the State.

So why the Spanish government blocks the money? It could be that the governing PSOE in Madrid chooses partisan fight before any idea of Statehood. Mr Zapatero, the Spanish Premier, reached the agreement on funds distribution with their Catalan socialist counterparts. In 2009 and 2010 the funds were advanced without objection.

What has since then changed is the political color of Catalan government. In Nov 2010 the center-right nationalists of CiU won the Catalan elections by a landslide.

Photo: Spanish Parliament, by betta design

Economic crisis and political dependency stir brain drain in Catalonia

The International Federation of Catalan Entities (FIEC) quotes fresh data from the official statistic body of the Spanish government, according to which there has been a surge of Catalans moving abroad. If in 2009 and 2010 the sum was barely above seven thousand, only in the first quarter of 2011 amounts to 3.827. Presumably things are headed to the highest migratory wave of the last years. Who are the new migrants? It looks very much like a brain drain of young an educated people in search of opportunity.

There is not yet research, but it seems safe to assume the new migrants are mostly young and educated, for several reasons. First, the younger generations of Catalans have a higher level of education than their parents, if only because the lack of jobs acts as an incentive for further studying. Second, holiday travel and EU funded work and study stages abroad but inside the EU have made the “living abroad” experience more common. Third, the Spanish work market, and in Catalonia is not different, does not give much chance to the young: among them unemployment is massive and many of those who work are paid up to 1000 euro salaries.

Economic crisis is stirring a general predisposition to move abroad. In a latin country like Catalonia, this is a deep change. The same organisation FIEC quoted recently another study by a consulting firm, according to which a 90 per cent of the questioned would be ready to move abroad if the right work opportunity is provided. Meanwhile, political and economical elites in Catalonia seem to be unaware of this loss of human capital. Truth to be told, fiscal plundering from the Spanish government and budget cuts leave the Catalan government little room for active policies and at least try to stop the brain drain.

Budgetary cuts prompt social unrest in Barcelona

Demonstration in Sant Jaume's Square
Demonstration in Sant Jaume's Square

Last week in Barcelona public health employees demonstrated and blocked some main streets in protest against budgetary cuts. Further unrest is expected in the public sector.

President Mas has warned about the risk of a “Greek“ scenario meaning probably a downard cycle of ever deeper cuts and violent protest.Catalonia is certainly joining the European wave of protest against the gradual dismantling of welfare State. However cuts and protests have been moderate so far.

Government saves, for instance, hiring less employees than those who retire and scaling down services. Last week’s protests have been mild and serious incidents have not been reported. The traditional place of public protest and celebration in Barcelona is Sant Jaume’s square, the place of the seat of the Government and the City. It’s a small place in the old town and a few thousand people fill it.

Socialist opposition accuses President Mas of irresponsible fear-mongering, while implementing cuts for ideological motives. The socialists are accused of being unloyal to Catalan interests.

Electoral results indicate that Catalan socialists are loosing the argument. They were trashed in the last elections, when socialist president Jose Montilla lost by a huge margin against nationalist Artur Mas. Socialists are expected to take another beating in the upcoming municipal elections in May, when they will probably lose Barcelona after 30 years.

When Catalan socialists say budgetary cuts are ideologically based they intend to present them as a fight against public spending. It is a fact that wealthier Catalans manage to pay little tax and fight social public spending, as it happens evereywhere else in the developed world.

However, the fiscal plundering of Catalonia makes Catalan socialists position indefensable. They sound lame to the embattled middle classes that bear the main weight of taxation. Right now, for instance, while Catalan government is forced to cut, there is almost 1,5 bilion Euro that Madrid is witholding, in violation of past agreements.

Catalan socialist MPs in Madrid have a long and consistent record of utter irrelevancy when it comes to defend Catalan interests. This time is not different: the 25 of them act as yes-men and yes-women, ready to rubber-stamp whatever decision of Zapatero, the socialist PM, facing the conservative oppositon of the Popular Party (PP).

Catalan Independence Act stopped in Parliament

Mr Alfons López Tena, leader of SI, the group who has promoted the Independence Act
Mr Alfons López Tena, leader of SI, the group who has promoted the Independence Act


There was no room for surprise: Spanish unionists of left and right objected against the Catalan Independence Act and voted their objections. Then all 62 MPs of Convergence and Union (CiU), as a single person, voted abstention. Due to the fact that unionist MPs are more than independentists, and CiU is the biggest group, its abstention stopped Independence Act and the debate did not even start. Independentists said they will try again.

There has been speculation about why CiU admitted the Act to the legislative process, knowing they were to stop it at some point. An hypothesis is that they intended to use independentism to style themselves in front of the Spanish State as a bulwark against the breakdown of Spain. However, Spanish government is far from seeing an independentist threat. For instance socialist PM Mr Zapatero dismissed 257 thousand yes vote to independence in Barcelona last April 10th. That’s more than the 180 thousand who voted the current major of the city, but he doesn’t need to be bothered: the former was an unofficial referendum and the latter were regular elections.

This episode shows how independentism remains unable to decisive political action, even if the debt stand-off with the Spanish government is one of the reasons that has made it grow. Catalans pay a high cost for its political weakness in front of the Spanish government, regardless of their political beliefs. Although it has made three quarters of all the debt, the central government sells to the world the story of budgetary undiscipline in Catalonia, the most plundered region.

Moderate nationalists of CiU now in power keep a growingly difficult balancing act: from one hand, they make the right nationalist gestures to calm the growing anger of the population. Here deserves to be considered the fact that debt of the “undisciplined” Catalans amounts roughly to just two years of tax revenues not returned by the central government. And so CiU leaders vote yes to independence in unofficial referendums.

But, from the other hand, they refuse real political action and find themselves forced to negotiate with the State in the weaker position. Meanwhile Catalan government has to sell bonds to its own citizens, just to keep going.

Independence Act Reaches Catalan Parliament


Catalan Parliament

On April 13th an Independence Act is to be debated in Catalan Parliament. It is most unlikely to pass, but it is a propaganda victory for the independence movement in general, and for Catalan Solidarity for Independence (SI) in particular. The Act is not an outright declaration of independence from Spain, but a roadmap to do so in what is today the regional parliament.

The Act states that Catalonia is a nation, to bound with the United Nations Charter and the principle of self-determination of peoples. The people of Catalonia is the only holder of a national sovereignty that is the foundation of the future sovereign and independent State of the Catalan nation. The decision to declare independence is attributed the people of Catalonia and the Parliament as its legitimate representative inside the regional Spanish framework. The Act defines a procedure: within three months from the adoption of the Act it is to be constituted the House of Representatives of the Catalan Nation, that will work so Independence is declared.

Independence will be effective when the current procedural Act is approved; whenever it will be negotiated by the Catalan government with the international community the manner and timing of the declaration of independence; when is declared by a majority of deputies in a session of the Catalan Parliament convened for that purpose.

The Act is very unlikely to pass because SI has 3 seats in a 135 chamber. Independentist MP and maverick Joan Laporta is also a sure Yes vote. Chances are of more Yes votes by some of the nationalist MPs of other groups, like the 62 of Convergence and Union (CiU) and the 10 of Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC). However, the Act may have unforeseeable consequences in Catalan and Spanish politics, By presenting the Act, the small SI group wins precious media coverage. The Act effectively dictates the whole political agenda. Nationalist groups like CiU, which have build a massive appeal in Catalonia on the defense of Catalan interests, with a notorious ambiguity and opportunism towards Spain, now are forced to define theirselves as Spanish unionists or Catalan independentists.

It all will deppend on how much support it gathers among the more nationalist MPs of the other groups. Above all, the Independence Act adds momentum to the Catalan independence movement, after the massive demonstration of last summer in Barcelona and almost 900 hundred thousand Yes votes to independence, in the unofficial referendums held in Catalonia during the last months.

Spain against Catalonia: the debt standoff goes on

The new Catalan administration has pledged a 10 per cent cut in 2011 budget. The Spanish government has reacted demanding a 20 per cent cut and reminding the Catalan counterpart they are free to rise local taxes in their region if money is short.

All Spanish regions have been asked to cut. Spanish government itself is under pressure from the EU, in the wider context of the trouble with the euro. Professor Keneth Rogoff of Harvard University, ex-chief economist at FMI, has added his voice to the growing chorus saying a rescue of the Spanish economy is very likely. He spoke before Portugal asked for help, which makes the Spanish rescue even more likely, as the next in the row.

In the light of all this, a central government forcing the regions to cut their budgets seems reasonable. In Spain there’s one central government to collect taxes and 17 regional governments to spend. It looks as if all what regions must do is open the hand and expect State funds. It seems as if regional politicians can get just praise from spending and blame Madrid if money runs short.

However, reality is far more complicated. Regionalisation in Spain has not only not got too far, as some suggest, but on the contrary, it has worked fairly well. Regions and cities pay much of the so called proximity services to the citizens, the day-to-day workings of the wellness state, with heavy and fixed costs, like the salaries of doctors, police and teachers. In spite of this, they owe just a quarter of the Spanish debt. So who owes the other three quarters?

Yes: that Central government, the same ignoring its huge room for cuts and savings. Spain is full of State-funded white elephants like empty airports, underused highways and high-speed trains. The network of embassies is vastly overstrecthed, far beyond the real worldly importance of the country. All this spending is ideological, supported by an underlying idea of Spanish nationalism and nation-building. It is also outright clientelism and special interests of certaing groups, as in the case of the irrealistically overpaid public officials abroad.

When this central government demands cuts to the regions, its authority will be differently perceived by those who fully depend on State handouts or by those who are net contributors and get less than give away. Catalonia has been historically among the latter. Estimates vary, but the difference between tax revenues collected there and what the central government returns is no less than a 9 per cent of  Catalan GDP, or 19 billion euro. To put this figures in context, contribution of richer German lander stands at a 4 percent, and the cap in the United Sates is set at a 2,5 per cent. Professor Rogoff described the Spanish case as specific, with strengths like top transnational corporations and regions like Catalonia, that could be one of the richest countries in the world. As a matter of fact, Catalan debt amounts roughly to two years of unreturned tax revenues from the central government.

The national conscience of the Catalans is turning this situation into a political conflict. In Catalonia, the sense of outrage is growing across all the ideological lines. The case is not one of a rich region revolting: regions are rich or poor, but also people, and so there is more poor people in the “rich” Catalonia tan people at all in “poor” regions. Neither it is a case of “taxation without representation“: a growing number of Catalans do not want representation at all, and are opting for outright independence. Catalan president Artur Mas has declared he is not afraid of a confrontation with the State.