Two News Interviews in the Week after the Catalan Referendum: BBC World Service and DW News Germany
A few days after the referendum, on Thursday October 4th, I was interviewed by both BBC World Service and DW News Germany and asked for an opinion on the current political situation in Catalonia. It wasn’t only a chance to express my views but the questions and tone of the interviewers were revealing of the attitude of the foreign press.
On the linguistic question, Catalan is as much of a distinct language as Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese. In this day and age, it’s more difficult to talk about ethnic differences because there’s been lots of immigration, particularly from France in the 19th century and from the rest of Spain in the 20th century. However, the Catalans feel Catalan and I’ve lived here for 30 years. I consider myself an adopted Catalan and when I visit Spain, I say I’m visiting Spain because it feels like another country.
Dan Damon then asked if there had been forced assimilation of Catalonia by Spain in the same way as the Bretons accused the French or the Welsh accused the British of assimilation. I replied that after Catalonia was annexed by Spain following the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, which was when all the political institutions were abolished and Castilian Spanish became the language of the administration, the law, the language of politics.
For a century or so, Spain was reasonably effective in assimilating the Catalans but then Catalonia got involved in the industrial revolution and regained its confidence. Since the 1880s, there have been pushes for more autonomy, regional government and at times, independence. There were two declarations of independence during the Second Spanish Republic in 1931 and 1934, for example. Then came the Franco regime, which was a period of repression rather than assimilation, of the Catalan identity. Since 1975, the Catalans have been free to express themselves so their identity has flowered whilst the Spanish central government in Madrid hasn’t given them the recognition that they would expect.
Dan Damon then asked me where Catalonia was going politically saying that a lot of Spanish people were unhappy because they didn’t want to see their country broken. I replied rather aggressively that what they do with their country was up to them. I backed this up by saying that, as someone on the ground here, although the referendum on Sunday was important but even more important was the general strike on Tuesday when hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Catalans came out onto the streets in support of an agreed referendum.
Dan Damon then wonder whether in an agreed referendum with all the polling stations open there would still be a vote for independence. I was 100% certain that there would, particularly after the police violence on Sunday. Every action of the Spanish authorities since 2010 when the Spanish Constitutional Court rejected large parts of the reformed Statute of Autonomy has pushed Catalans towards independence because Spain has never been open to dialogue.
I admitted that although I had written about Catalonia extensively about Catalonia and was passionate about the culture and language, I hadn’t got on board with Catalan independence until 2012. I had witnessed that as every year passed more people had come to conclusion that there was no dealing with Spain and the reason why the Spain government wouldn’t agree to a binding referendum was because it knew that there was a majority for independence.
Dan Damon then asked what would happen if Catalonia declared independence and I mentioned a tweet I’d seen, which had a photo of the people on general strike and the caption said “There are no police in the world who can stop this”.
His argument was that companies were leaving Catalonia for Spain, the EU wouldn’t recognise Catalonia and the Catalan debt would rocket because the country wasn’t participating in the global economy so there were lots of ways it could go very wrong. I admitted that there were dangers but said I believed that Catalonia would be able to weather the storm. I wasn’t as pessimistic as the official line suggested I should be and argued that with a capital like Barcelona, which is an international centre for tourism, services, industry, agriculture, commerce and banks, the rest of Europe and Spain, in fact, would be cutting their noses to spite their faces if they let Catalonia go under.
The situation was one of brinkmanship. I knew that the Catalan people and believed that the Catalan government were prepared to take things as far as necessary and for the economic reasons givens, at some point something would have to give. Obviously, Catalonia stood to lose a great deal if it was ejected from the global economy but I personally didn’t think it would go that far.
Dan Damon wasn’t convinced, “Fascinating”
The second interview of the day was a few hours later with DW News Germany by which time the proposed parliamentary session on the following Monday had been declared unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court because they feared that a declaration of independence would be made. As yet it was unclear whether or not Catalan lawmakers would obey the ruling.
A short clip followed talking about the divisions in Spain and Catalonia and how the Catalan Parliament had been expected to declare independence from Spain on the following Monday. They were keen to point out that although Carles Puigdemont said he represented the will of Catalans, a majority of voters hadn’t taken part in the referendum the previous Sunday. Similarly, they reported that Mariano Rajoy had said that Puigdemont was acting outside the law by trying to enforce an illegal referendum and Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría described Puigdemont’s message as a journey to nowhere because there is no democracy, no coexistence or rights outside the law and Mr Puigdemont has been living outside the law, outside reality and outside sanity for some time.
In Barcelona, people just wanted the politicians to find a solution to the problem. A woman intereviewed in the street said “I am well aware of the problems we are facing. This is like a divorce. There’s no coming back. You can’t divorce today and get married tomorrow.” A man said “The situation’s very tense. We’ve reached the stage where the Spanish and Catalan governments need to ease tension. They need to talk and international mediation would be perfect. ” The Catalan government had called for mediation but the Spanish government said it wouldn’t enter dialogue until they dropped their threat of declaring independence.
I was asked given the relative prosperity of Catalonia why Catalan separatists thought they’d be better off independent. I explained that there were a number of issues. Firstly, there is the identity issue. As I say in my book, Catalonia is a nation and should be a sovereign state but also Catalonia gets a very bad deal from the Spanish government because the tax deficit, which is the difference between the money paid to Madrid by Catalan taxpayers and the amount returned to Catalonia in investment, amounts to around 8% of GDP, which 2015 was about €16 billion.
The interviewer repeated that Catalonia was the richest region in Spain so it wasn’t doing badly. I replied that Catalonia effectively was a cash cow for Spain while suffering unemployment and housing shortages. Similarly, in other parts of Spain, children get their school textbooks paid for by the state but not in Catalonia. The Catalan administration is continually in debt to the Spanish government.
He asked whether this was enough to merit independence or whether there should a political negotiation between Barcelona and Madrid. I argued that the dispute had been going on for centuries but that the contemporary independence movement began in 2003 with the renegotiation of the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, which would have give Catalonia the right to call itself a nation, the Catalan language would have had priority, the Catalan judiciary would have had extra powers and furthermore, Catalonia would have had the right to collect its own taxes. It was passed by the Catalan Parliament, the Spanish Parliament and at referendum but was still deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish Constitutional Court. It was at this point that Catalans realised there was little chance of reaching a negotiated agreement.