Security and Foreign Policy

Catalonia, A Liberal Narrative

Catalonia's independence movement has been a project that spans centuries but the conflict still remains heated. Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla sheds light on the history and politics plaguing Catalonia and Spain.


The Catalonian question is the fault line of Spain. Back in 1412, in the little village of Caspe, the Catalonian Princedom pledged allegiance to the Kingdom of Aragon. In 1479, both Aragon and Castille became united by marriage to form what today is known as Spain. This date, and the French victory of Louis XI over Charles of Bourgogne (1480) mark the beginning of the modern State (Portugal notwithstanding) in Western Europe. Catalonia inherited Aragon and the only interlude of secession was 1640-1652 in which Catalonia chose to become French. Back in Spain, it followed the ups and downs of the common polity to this day. Therefore, forget the Scottish metaphor and remember: not Catalonia, no Spain.

In 1808, Napoleon invaded his only allied Kingdom, Spain, and the legitimate King, Charles the IVth, ordered his subjects to obey the “Emperor”. The people revolted and started a vicious war which I would call “national” faut de mieux. In this context, the Spanish people invented the word “guerrilla” and the bourgeoisie the word “liberal“. For while the former fought tooth and nail, the latter convened in Cadiz and gave itself a Constitution third only to the American and French (1812). At the time, the Spanish Monarchy was the only global polity in the West and nominally extended from today’s British Columbia to Patagonia in America. In the Pacific, it owned the Philippines and 3,000 thousand islands. The question of citizenship was thorny, to put it mildly. The answer was radical. All inhabitants of the realm were to be considered citizens except those of African origin, who would become citizens once freed. The Inquisition was abolished too.

Such a largesse was not acceptable to the provincial élites and two Civil Wars followed to try and restore absolutism. The geographical fulcrum of both were Basques and Catalans. The fire was put out but its embers are still hot.

When confronted with the problem of how to manage a Spain without the gold and silver from Latin America, the liberal élite failed to deliver. But finally it understood that a reasonable way to deal with the issue would be to abandon economic liberalism and adopt a tough instance of customs duties. That favored the inefficient industry of Basques and Catalans and gave them the false idea that they were better than the rest of the homeland. Indeed, they were not, for their higher standards of living derived from forcing the rest of the Spaniards to buy wares at a price not in line with the rest of the world. In short: the Catalonian industry was Catalonian but only in name. In fact, it was Spanish. On top of this bad mix, absolutism and supremacism, a third factor came into being. Xenophobia brought by the migration from the rest of Spain. All this toxic brew was cemented by the arrival of the German form of nationalism with language, and folklore as basis of identity. This is why, after World War I, the Catalonian bourgeoisie started to call itself nationalist. But not ‘independentist’. First because a large part of its population was working class and it did not share national ethnic ideals. Second, because the working class being mostly revolutionary, Madrid was its indispensable class shield.

Catalonian petty bourgeoisie, outside Barcelona, found another set of values in a radical movement, Esquerra. It tried to be accepted in the Komintern, to no avail. Then came the Spanish Civil War. Esquerra chose to cooperate with the revolutionary Republic. The bourgeoisie was suppressed by alphabetical order of family names. When democracy came, 40 years later, the question of national narrative became of essence. The person in charge of its creation was a Mr. Jordi Pujol. He knew how to reconcile the different factions of Catalan-ism into a solid bloc around a set of false narratives, among them: the revolt that split Catalonia from Spain in 1640 was of national import. During the War of Spanish Succession in 1711, Catalonia fought for its national freedom and was subdued and invaded. Spain is a backward country and Catalonia the advanced bow of the Peninsula. The Catalan language is the soul of an alternative nation and being in danger of extinction is to be nurtured at the cost of a full immersion, which includes fines if you advertise only in Spanish. For the narrative was enforced through a set of media funded by the regional government, in an Orwellian way and with the full legal support of the Kingdom of Spain. But for all its nationalism, Pujol proved to be a crook. He went so far as to prompt the criminal division of the Fed to step in. The Fed did not believe all this money could come from just graft.

Spanish socialists then understood that in order to have access to a 2 billion honeypot of the Catalonian Home Rule, they had to label Esquerra a progressive. They did it and opened a Grand Coalition between both parties. That sent the “moderate” Catalan nationalists to the opposition. This national socialist turncoat legitimized Esquerra and radicalized Pujol’s heirs. The old principle I Iet you rob you stay put came to an end. And when the Grand Coalition unraveled, all hell broke loose. Nothing would do but independence, even if the most voted party is a Spanish Constitutional one. The rub came with the numbers. With 90 seats needed to alter the Home Rule, how to go independent with only 60? PM Puigdemont explained: “I am aware of the fact. But either we do it this way or we will never achieve our goals.” Independence followed…for ten seconds. The Catalans celebrated the event queuing up at the Banks and 4 million corporations left Catalonia. Criminal proceedings started. The usual suspects (Chomsky, Varoufakis, etc.) stepped in to advocate leniency for the perpetrators. They did not understand that the Spanish Liberal State was challenged by an ethnic coup very much like Weimar and Hitler. They continue to not understand it. Puigdemont’s heir now in office is an even worse character. His past tweets show him as a supremacist true stock and barrel. A racist has labeled him Le Monde. To top it all and to fill the void of votes for independence, (only 47% of the constituency), Spaniards have been presented with an Assembly of Catalonian Mayors, a way of representing the homeland inspired in the Chambers of Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.

The obvious question is how and why Catalans of this kind can have a say in Spanish political life even now. Well, the Catalonian independentism lacks the import and the numbers to make a nation, but in an attempt to not to be a nuisance has always demanded compromise. Its first incarnation was customs duties. Then came post-industrial democracy and liberals like myself banked on total freedom to socialize Catalanism into the mold of a European region the likes of Baviera. The present and third chapter is to pretend we do not hear the insults to Spain and allow the independentists and their meager majority, based upon first past the post politics, to enjoy the pork barrel of the Home Rule as long as they do not open an independentist procedure once again. Of course, the temptation is doing away with compromise now that we know it does not work. Well, there are reasons for prudence. On the institutional front, 1978’s democracy was designed to rest on two parties with occasional incursions from Basques and Catalans. The first obstacle to alter the status quo is internal. Given the exceptional degree of polarization in the Spanish political life, both conservatives and socialists prefer to have at hand Basques and Catalans rather than being forced to face without alternative the hatred foe of the opposition. And the second obstacle is that tuning the system might very well mean to throw the baby out with the dirty diapers. Consider the Valley of the Fallen, that megalomaniac monument topped by a cross 150 meters high where Franco is entombed with 35,000 victims of the Civil War-caused by himself and his buddies. The New York Times demands it to be closed. Well, Franco never wanted to rest there. It was King Juan Carlos I that took the decision. With it went the honor of a Dukedom and the dignity of Grandee of Spain for his successors. Besides, the motto of the 1978 democracy is and always was “from legality (Francoism, that is) to constitutional monarchy“. No other source of legality is acknowledged or mentioned.

Ambassador Jose A. Zorrilla is a career diplomat from Spain with postings in Milan (1989), Toronto (1993), Shanghai (2001), Moscow (2004), and Tbilisi (2009). He has published a book on the rise of China “China la primavera que llega” (China, the spring that arrives) and shot two documentary films (“Los Justos” (The Righteous) and “El desierto y las olas” (The Desert and the Waves)) and one full length film “El Arreglo” (The Deal) that won the Opera Prima Prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival in 1983.  He has just published a novel “El espía en Saratov” (The Spy in Saratov) (De Librum Tremens) and “Historia fantástica de Europa” (An Imaginary History of Europe). He is a frequent contributor to El Mundo with articles focusing mostly on current affairs.

Photo Credit: Day Donaldson

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