Saturday, September 26, 2015

Independence Day? Or: Why Catalonia Might Not Be Spain

“You still have this…bullshit?”

That was the reaction of my Spanish housemate as we were sitting at the table discussing our respective political systems, and I’d gotten to the part about the House of Lords.
“Ok, we still have these things in Spain, too: an unelected monarchy, and aristocratic people like the Duquesa de Alba. She had more titles than your Queen,” she smiled.

Our conversation had come about because whilst crossing the street last weekend, I had been stopped by a kind-faced older Catalan woman who had taken great pains to follow me across the street; speaking with complicit urgency, she pushed this leaflet into my hand:

7 Respostes Sobre La Independència (7 Answers About Independence) was all written in Catalan: a language of which I still have limited command after two relatively short bursts of living in Barcelona (this is another subject that could take a whole other column to explore, but we’ll leave it there for now), and so I’d asked my obliging, intelligent compañera de piso, who is from a small town near the border between Catalonia and Aragon, to help me translate it.

The seven questions inside, ranging from Why an Independent Catalonia? to Will It be Economically Viable? Will we stay in the EU? are all answered in equally assured tones.

Yes, independence is the only opportunity to create a better and more just state for everyone!

If Catalonia wants to form part of the European Union, it will.

Yes, economically, the Catalan Republic is totally viable.

They’re pretty simplistic responses to very complicated questions. Examples are given throughout of how independence is the only opportunity to create a new state, changing outdated structures, re-establishing democracy and rejecting the current administration. There’s a lot of talk of creating a more just society and maintaining a sense of dual identities.

Living in Catalonia right now must be a bit like how living in Scotland felt just a little over a year ago. Although Barcelona is by far not the most pro-indpendista city in the region (try ordering a café con leche in Girona, and see how they take great pains to reply in Catalan or English), there’s a real buzz at the moment around the forthcoming Catalan parliamentary elections this Sunday. In these local elections, a host of separatist parties from across the political spectrum are placing their hopes in a consensus from the people in forging ahead with secession from Spain. The Catalan President, Artur Mas, has declared the outcome to be a proxy referendum after patently ignoring Prime Minster Rajoy’s insistence that this would be unconstitutional (The Spanish Constitutional Court voted to suspend a Catalan referendum last September, although a non-binding poll was still held, to the tune of 80% voting yes to independence). 

Even so, it probably wasn’t the brightest idea not to allow 16-odd percent of your country to feel they had a say in their own future, and thus the fervent spectre of independence has raised its head again. Even as Spain’s economy supposedly ‘bounces back’ after announcing its strongest quarterly growth in 8 years, on the ground here there’s still a long way to go. Tackling unemployment rates of 18% is still going to take some doing. And in a region of the country that contributes more than 18% of domestic GDP, hard line austerity measures - savage cuts in public spending on health and education, doled out from Madrid - are about as popular as suckling pig would be on David Cameron’s next dinner menu.

Despite my immediate circle here not including any strong pro-independentistas, there are some strange similarities between the type of political conversations we have here, and those I have with friends in the UK. The overarching themes are usually the same - a widespread sense of alienation with the current choice of leading parties and/or the feeling that the parties whose policies you might agree with have little sway in your constituency (Spanish general elections follow a first-past-the-post format, too.) A sense of widespread corruption built into the existing systems, a sense of inbuilt privilege being the surest route into politics and a real distrust of carefully stage-managed communications in the mainstream media. All of the things that led me to write this for The Malcontent, in fact.

Independence might not be the immediate way forward for the people of Catalonia to change  or combat all of these things, but hoping for change from the status quo and sticking two fingers up at the establishment might be powerful enough to create waves that bleed into other parts of Europe.  Just as the Scottish referendum result was watched here with huge interest, so might the Catalan elections be watched in the Basque country, in Galicia, in Wales, and in Scotland again, in return.

What’s evident is that a leaflet like this could be produced in most regions of Europe, even the UK right now and it would gain readership. Is that a dangerous thing, or a sign of so much disillusion with our current political elite that, if harnessed by the right candidate, could be used as a truly unifying force?

My flatmate and I certainly don’t have all, or even any of the answers. But I at least now understand a bit more of the current situation here, and she’s all up to date on #piggate. 

We put on Pulp’s Common People and had a little dance around the living room.