Saturday, October 18, 2014

Simon Harris on Catalonian independence

(Pic source: RT News)
Readers of George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” (1938) will remember the author’s strength of feeling for the cause and for his fellows. Catalonia is that kind of place, even now, for there are a number of English people living there who see themselves simply as Catalans born abroad. In the wake of last month’s rallies, expatriates met to discuss the implications of secession from Spain.
(Pic via Brett Hetherington)

One of the participants was Simon Harris, who gives an account of the issues and feelings of Catalans in this email interview:

Please describe the October 1 expats meeting, and the fears and hope of attendees.

The October 1 meeting was held at the Antiga Fabrica Moritz and a couple of hundred foreign-born Catalan citizens attended (We don't really like “expat”. It certainly doesn't tally with my experience in Barcelona and smacks of people talking English and drinking G&T on the Costas. We live here and get on with our lives much like the locals despite having been born elsewhere.)
The four people on the panel talked of a more prosperous future with a greater degree of social justice.  

The main concern is a possible frontier effect causing a decrease in trade with Spain. But I believe the confrontational style of central government exaggerates this. 47% of Catalan exports go to Spain. Many of the commercial relationships go back decades and are often with multinationals so it’s actually quite difficult to tell where things have been produced. Even the boycott on Catalan cava of a few years ago didn't last long (the alternative was French champagne that doesn't taste the same and costs three times as much). Ultimately, consumers care about quality and value for money so after a period of instability the trade relations will settle at a slightly lower level but at the same time, Catalonia will find new foreign markets. (The area of the economy that will be worst affected is the Catalan banks, La Caixa and Sabadell. Once you've changed your account you don't go back.) 

Our other concern is the general lack of debate. This is partly a cultural problem but also because since the referendum isn't allowed, there's been no real campaigning on either side. People who are active, such as most of those who attended the meeting) tend to be pro-vote and pro-independence. 

What are the arguments for Catalonian independence? 

Firstly, cultural-historical: like Scotland, Catalonia used to be a separate country and was gradually taken over by its neighbour. It still has a strong sense of its identity, which is why the Spanish government has always tried to suppress Catalan language and culture. Catalan was illegal after 1714 under Felipe V and you could be arrested for speaking it under Franco. As recently as 2012, education minister José Ignacio Wert said that he wanted to 'españolizar' Catalan schoolchildren and has since introduce a new education law called the LOMCE which attempts to do so. Although the language of education is Catalan, all Catalan kids are bilingual and in PISA tests (independent EU university tests) Catalan schoolchildren always score above the national average in Castilian Spanish! So the LOMCE is a repressive rather than an educational measure. 

There are also economic arguments. To start with, Catalonia pays far more in taxes than it gets back in investment from Madrid. Yet central government obstructs development in our region and is prepared to accept national disadvantage in order to keep us down. For example, the European Corridor Freight Line which would run from Algeciras, Malaga, Cartagena, Valencia and Barcelona into northern Europe is constantly blocked because it doesn't go through Madrid. Even though it would benefit the whole country, it would benefit Barcelona/Catalonia most. 

Look also at access to airports. Madrid Airport's Terminal 4 has metro, train and new roads - and they plan to spend €16 billion on an AVE (high speed train) connection serving a handful of passengers a day. Meanwhile, connections to Barcelona airport's T1 terminal need improving and Iberia Airlines have just cancelled intercontinental flights from Barcelona. It’s mad. 

The fact that everything in Spain is run by national agencies disincentivises efficiency. For example the hugely profitable Port of Barcelona subsidises the unprofitable ports and hasn't money left to reinvest in its own infrastructure. And so on. 

How has the movement started and grown, and what is the degree of general support? 

Things came to a head when Catalonia's new Statute of Autonomy, which had been watered down and passed by Spanish Parliament and voted on in referendum with 75% in favour in Catalonia, was declared unconstitutional by the national Constitutional Court in July 2010. 

The first demonstration under the slogan 'We are a nation. We decide' took to the streets with more than a million people in Barcelona. Just prior to this informal ballots on independence were organised in villages and towns and the 'Barcelona Decides' ballot took place in the early summer of 2011 with a festive atmosphere and a massive vote in favour. 

The extreme right-wing Partido Popular (they say they're conservatives but the party was founded by former Franco ministers and current leaders have ties with the fascist Falange party) came to power in Spain in the autumn of 2011 and tension increased. In 2012 on La Diada, the Catalan National Day (September 11th) more than 1.5 million took to the streets of Barcelona under the slogan 'Catalonia, New European State' and for the first time independence for Catalonia became a majority opinion. 

The 2013 Diada demonstration was the “Catalan Way” in which 1.5 million people joined hands from Catalonia's southern border to its northern border with France, and in this year's “V” 1.8 million people created a human mosaic in Barcelona. Both events were perfectly organised and there has been no violence of any kind. 

Current support for independence stands at roughly 50% in favour with 25% against and 25% undecided. These figures vary by 5% in either direction, depending on the poll. 

What is the attitude of the Spanish Government, the EU and supranational bodies? 

The Spanish government has refused to negotiate on the main issues.  

A few days after the 2012 Diada, Catalan President Artur Mas met with Spanish President Mariano Rajoy to discuss changes to tax policy. Catalonia currently pays €16 billion in taxes (net of inward investment) to central government; this is 8% of Catalan GDP, making it the most highly-taxed region in Europe. Rajoy refused to discuss the issue. 

The other complaint involves language and education. Under the Education Minister’s LOMCE plan to 'hispanicize' Catalan children, it will be possible for students to go through their whole school career without learning any Catalan. The Spanish Constitutional Court also obliges the Catalan government to pay for private education exclusively in the Spanish language to any parent that asks for it. Yet even in the atmosphere of tension only 40 families in a population of 7.5 million have requested this. Why? Because the Catalan education system is very good as it is and guarantees a high level of integration. 

In Autonomic elections in November 2012, 4 parties included a pledge to hold a referendum in their manifestoes, so now 86 members out of a Catalan parliament of 135 deputies are committed to this. The Catalan government presented a proposal to hold a referendum on November 9 in the Spanish congress, which was voted against by all the major Spanish parties and defeated.  

The Catalan parliament then drew up a law of 'Non Referenderary Consultation' (a non-binding question to find out how many people are in favour of independence and also allow debate from both sides); the Constitutional Court decided that too was unconstitutional and threatened to suspend for life any civil servant who engaged in any sort of organisational activity. 

As a result last Tuesday (14 October), President Mas announced a 'participative' vote would take place without using the census (voters will register using their ID card on voting day), volunteers rather than civil servants would be involved in the organisation and polling stations would be restricted to facilities owned by the Catalan government. 

The Partido Popular government in Madrid is considering taking it before the Constitutional Court as I write [15 October]. It should be noted that many see the Constitutional Court as biased in favour of the Spanish government: some of the judges are former Partido Popular activists and only gave up membership after being elected. 

The attitude of the EU and other supranational bodies is that it is an internal Spanish issue. 

Could you comment further on the November 9 “consultation”? 

Because the consultation is organised by the 'Yes' camp it is unlikely that many Noes will bother to vote, but if as expected 2 million Catalans vote 'Yes' this will be a very strong message to the world. Either way the Spanish government lose. If they ban even this watered-down consultation, they'll look like fascists. If they let it go ahead, the world will see a festive peaceful Catalan society make a powerful democratic statement. 

What are the movement’s chances of success, and what processes would be involved in legal and economic separation? Would Catalonia choose to remain in the Eurozone? 

I think there are high chances of success. Although the participative vote on November 9 isn’t a referendum, the message will be clear if there is a massive turnout. This will be a prelude to 'plebiscitary' elections in which pro-independence parties form a single candidacy with the promise that if they win, independence will be unilaterally declared the following day. 

The Catalan Commission for National Transition has been meeting for the last couple of years and has produced 18 reports on different aspects of the future state of Catalonia. They published a 1,000-page white paper 10 days ago so many things have been considered. 

As there won't be agreement with Spain there will be difficulties, principally in setting up a Treasury and collecting taxes and Social Security. 

Obviously, international recognition will be crucial but if everything is done in a clear and transparent democratic process there shouldn't be too many problems, apart from anything else because Catalonia has a large economy with international exports and is home to multinationals. 

How would you view Catalonia’s economic and social prospects afterwards? 

Obviously, there would be an unstable period before internal infrastructures are in place and international recognition comes. If we can get through that I'm highly optimistic. 

Catalonia has a strong economy centred on its vibrant capital Barcelona. Catalans are creative, gregarious and above all peace-loving. As the demonstration of only 38,000 people in favour of staying in Spain showed last weekend, the strength of feeling in the anti-independence camp, whilst it exists, is not as bitter as Spanish politicians would like us to believe. 

Originally from Nottingham in England, Simon Harris arrived in pre-Olympic Barcelona in 1988 and immediately fell in love with the language, culture and history. He has now lived half his life in Catalonia, where he first earned his living as a musician and then as a teacher of English at the British Council and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and translator of Catalan and Spanish. He published his first book 'Going Native in Catalonia' in 2007 and since 2011 has run the tourism website Simon is an active campaigner for Catalan independence. Find out more on Simon’s blog -

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris will be published by 4Cats Books in early November. Buy from:

4Cats Books
Carrer Mallorca, 299
Pral 2a
08037 Barcelona


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