World

Postcard from Spain: An Homage to Cata-loonia

By Timon Wapenaar 30 September 2017

It's high noon for the question of Catalan independence, and a spaghetti Western-style Spanish standoff unfolds while the EU bickers over Brexit and tries to ignore the stink left by the German far right's presence in the Bundestag. Will a Catalonian UDI pave the way for the balkanisation of Southern Europe and the retreat of the EU to its former nucleus north of the Alps and the Pyrenees? Or will the crisis continue limping from event horizon to event horizon, with no solution in sight except for voters and Eurocrats to look the other way? By TIMON WAPENAAR.

We live in an age which demands simple answers to complex questions. As the recent rash of European referenda shows (Greece, Scotland, Italy, Brexit), the fate of nations and the product of thousands of years of history may be reduced to a simple binary formula, complete with attendant binary memes and hashtags. One word, chanted this week in the streets of Barcelona, claims an entire history unto itself: “Independencia!” The language of soundbites and populist chants is stripped of context, and must be understood by means of subtext, resonance and implication alone. The word “Independence!” tells a tale of suffering, of defiance, of resistance, but it is a story which must be inferred by the listener.

One over-memed quote by the Spanish writer Unamuno comes to mind: “Sometimes, silence is the worst lie.” In this case, the lie is the silence which the chant (or the meme, or the hashtag, or the tweet) imposes on the discourse around it. After one shouts “Independence!” in the streets, there is no room left to debate history, or economics, or political philosophy. Instead, there is just the great wooshing noise of biased rhetoric cascading into the discursive vacuum imposed by that single word. That was Brexit. And that is where Spain finds itself today: neck deep in memes, popular chants, and political soundbites.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Spanish GDP growth has a huge role in making the overall EU figure look less anaemic, while during the tensest moments of the Euro debt crisis, a compliant Spain dutifully whipped southern Europe into line. Spain, now once more hailed as the “growth engine” of the EU, is supposed to be an example of the successful implementation of austerity. If Catalonia declares independence, Spain will come apart at the seams.

In many ways, a Catalonian UDI could be more painful than Brexit. Take Spain’s sovereign debt, for example. Since those loans were made against an economy worth approximately EUR 1 trillion annually, how could a country which loses 20% of its GDP overnight be expected to make good on that debt? A newly independent Catalonia might have every intention of honouring the debt it has already issued as an Autonomous Community within Spain, but would it really be able to do so if the moment of its independence is also the moment it leaves the EU? And shouldn’t it by rights inherit a portion of Spain’s sovereign debt? And what about a currency? No one’s mentioned a currency. Oh well, I suppose a new Catalan republic could just use the US dollar, like Zimbabwe.

These questions have been drowned out by the steady rhythm of the popular chant, which on its own would be worrying enough, except that the Catalonian-haired president of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont, has promised to declare independence within 48-hours of a “yes” vote being confirmed, ie. October the 3rd. That’s this October the 3rd. What happens in that event is anyone’s guess. The European Commission has disavowed itself of any association. The official line from Brussels is that it will not speculate what might happen in “36, 48, or 72 hours,” but that an independent Catalonia would be born outside the EU. The UN flat out refused to send referendum observers. Even the Venetian independence movement has decided to distance itself from the Catalonian “process.” Meanwhile, the attempts by Barcelona to establish pseudo-diplomatic ties with actual, real national governments, have been met with nothing more than polite cold shoulder; and the Catalonian constitution, which was originally promised to be voted on during the referendum, will only be written after independence. One thing is fairly certain: Madrid will not accept a “yes” result from an illegal referendum, especially one in which there is no minimum turnout necessary to declare a vote valid.

As for the running of the referendum itself, things seem about as confused. If the Madrid dailies are to be believed, one may simply download and print the ballot form. This is good news, since the national government has been doing things like raiding refrigerated food trucks suspected of carrying frozen voting materials. 6,000 ballot boxes have been hidden. I hope someone remembers where.

One thing should be reiterated (as it is, ad nauseam, by the Madrid press): the referendum is illegal, having been declared in violation of the Constitution by the Constitutional Court. That really should have been the end of it, which might explain why Madrid is coming down hard on Catalonia in response. Much has been made of the arrest of 14 members of the Catalonian government, the mooted sedition charges against various members of the independence movement, the seizure of internet domains hosting referendum sites, and the freezing of Catalonian funds by the national government. The English press has echoed the exaggerated and strident condemnation emanating from the pro-independence camp. “Spain compared to North Korea” said the Guardian (in mobile format), which makes the comparison sound fair. Only after opening the article do we find out that Spain has been compared to North Korea by Catalonia (which in itself should give you an idea of what Madrid is dealing with in the form of the Catalonian government). The Express (yes, I know, but if we learnt anything from Brexit, it’s that deplorable Express readers can, and will change the fate of nations, if given half a chance) screams “FRANCOISM DIDN’T DIE.” A headline in the Independent speaks of “Repression over Catalonia”. How quickly we have forgotten how the Catalonian police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, cracked Catalonian skulls with such relish during the massive anti-austerity protests held during 2011 and 2012. Now many of those same protesters are taking to the streets again, to slash the tyres of cars belonging to the Guardia Civil, one of Spain’s two national police forces.

“Truthful hyperbole” was used to sell us Brexit and the Trump presidency (even while it was also being used to sell us Remain and Hillary Clinton), and now it is being used by internet crusaders like Julian Assange to peddle us an independent Catalonia, and to paint as a fascist anyone who begs to differ. This has been going on for decades in Catalonia itself, and was, until only recently, tolerated by both Conservative and Socialist governments in Madrid. Catalonia has steeped an entire generation in a creation myth which is demonstrably false. Catalonia, since the House of Barcelona was created by Wilfrid the Hairy in the 9th century, has never been independent. The common idea that the Catalan National Day, celebrated on September 11th, marks the moment in history, in 1714, when Catalonia finally fell to the dominance of Madrid, is a gross and hideous misinterpretation of history. The fall of Barcelona on September the 11th, 1714, marked the end of the wars of Spanish Succession, fought between Habsburgs and Bourbons, and there were Catalans on both sides. But why stop there? John H. Elliott, a regius professor at Oxford university, tells how he was stupified to find himself in conversation with a Catalan university student who was absolutely convinced that the Spanish civil war was fought between Spain and Catalonia. According to Elliott, a pioneer in English language Spanish history, an entire generation “has learnt a deformed history.”

This process is not happening by accident. What started as a Catalonian taalstryd during the 1980s, has mushroomed into a concerted effort to use the educational system to push a nationalist identity. That should ring some bells in South Africa (in a rare display of woker-than-thou-ness, both sides have accused the other of practicing apartheid). In April this year a review of Catalonian history and geography textbooks brought to light the way in which Catalan 11-year olds are being indoctrinated. Most of the distortions occur by omission. Only the history of Catalonia is taught, and, in one textbook, while 34 pages are devoted to Catalonian geography, only 4 deal with Spain. Maps are included in which Catalonia has all the appearance of being an independent state with the EU, and history textbooks have invented an entirely new and fantastical kingdom to be inserted into the late middle ages: the awkwardly named “Kingdom of Catalo-Aragon”. All of history is presented as a struggle between “Spain” and Catalonia, with the latter habitually playing the role of victim. One book states that “the sole language of Catalonia is Catalan, and its culture, festivals and symbols are exclusively those which are not shared with the rest of Spain,” (emphasis added).

So no Christmas, then.

In the light of all of this, it is less surprising that the national government has demonstrated such reluctance to “negotiate” with Barcelona. It was only two weeks ago that the mayor of Barcelona declared that the police in that city would have to obey both the national government’s instructions to impede the referendum and the Catalonian government’s instructions for it to go ahead. And that they should do so “at the same time.” How does one negotiate with people who believe in mythical kingdoms and are capable of such extravagant cognitive dissonance?

That is not to say that the response from Madrid has been precisely measured, nor is it likely to reduce tensions between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. Already, fully one third of all Spanish riot police have been deployed in Catalonia, making violence all the more likely. But this is hardly a case of plucky Catalonia standing up for democracy and liberty against the jackbooted fascism of Madrid, and to present it as such is to throw fuel on the fire. No. This is more like watching Barca and Madrid taking turns at furiously thumping in own goal after own goal while the spectators cheer wildly and trash the stadium. Come Monday morning, we’ll know the score. DM

Photo: People gather during a demonstration to support the Catalan independence referendum in Barcelona, Spain, 29 September 2017. Catalonia is to hold an independence referendum on 01 October, which has been declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court. EPA-EFE/Alberto Estevez.

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