Catalonia – divisive policies that merge identities

December 12, 2012 4:18 pm

Catalonia is undergoing profound changes – particularly with respect to its class boundaries and defining elements of identity – which are prompting the development of a new Catalan identity.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?

By Sonia Andolz-Rodríguez

The Fall of 2012 will doubtless go down in the history books of Catalonia and Spain. In a global context of economic crisis and cuts to social and labour rights, unequal wealth redistribution between Spain’s regions has become a contested issue. The Spanish tax system – where income is collected and redistributed amongst regions in different proportions – has historically been the central issue for Catalan nationalistic claims. Despite a long history of Catalan nationalism, it is notable that the pro-independence movement has only been able to attract significant international attention in recent months. Something is changing in Catalan politics and, more importantly, in its society. While the Catalan case does not differ much from other national conflicts in plurinational countries – such as the Scottish in the United Kingdom or the Flemish in Belgium – it does have its own particularities, and may well have very different consequences.

According to The Economist, Catalans “constitute Europe’s biggest language group without a state (27th Nov 2012). Prior to the Fall of 2012, identity singularities were deeply rooted in Catalan-from-origin society, but the differences with other-Spanish-from-origin Catalans still remained. Further, the arrival of new foreign ethnic minorities into the territory had not yet blurred those differences. Those gaps have now started to disintegrate, and changes in identity and group cohesion amongst Catalan society are already evident. Whether an independent Catalonia becomes a reality or not, only time will tell, but what is certain is that a new Catalan identity has begun to develop.

On 11th September, Catalonia celebrates its national day. Traditionally, the day is marked by official gatherings arranged by the regional government, with some institutional acts and citizens gathering in main streets of Catalan cities to celebrate the nation’s traditions, its culture and its folklore. However, this year something was different: the broad social and economic context in the world offered a golden opportunity to criticise Madrid’s policies. Strong austerity measures promoted by the EU for Spain – which were firmly applied by the ruling conservative president, Mariano Rajoy – were seen as the final straw that broke the camel’s back in an already tense relationship between Madrid and the Spanish regions.

In the months prior to 11th September, the Catalan government had made cuts to public education and health at a higher rate than the Spanish government, while increasing its own debt in the fiscal balance with the central Government. Catalan society was in need of explanations: blaming Madrid for the worsening of Catalonia’s debt was the next step. The rally through Catalonia’s capital of Barcelona on 11th September attracted nearly 1 million people, and became the spark that lit separatist sentiment in Catalonia.

Following that demonstration, the regional president of Catalonia, Artur Mas called regional elections, some two years ahead of schedule, for “renewing the Parliament and remaking new majorities more in accordance to the general feeling”. However, the 25th November results did not conform to those expected by president Mas. His objective of increasing his parliamentary power through new elections in order to put forward a road map for independence wasn’t achieved, or at least not the way he would have expected. While voter participation was the highest in democratic history (70%), this huge participation also defied all previous forecasts and pre-election predictions. The results were more plural than ever and new forces entered the Parliament. What is yet to be seen is if majorities will be formed around the nationalistic/non-nationalistic axis or along traditional left/right divisions.

The components that traditionally grouped people around those two axes were economically-based. Whilst in Euskadi (the Basque Country), speaking Euskera (Basque) is seen as a political decision, in Catalonia it is a class issue. While more true in urban than rural areas, by and large, speaking Catalan is a proof of status: the more educated one is, the more fluent in Catalan he or she will be. This fact owes itself to the waves of unskilled southern Spaniards that migrated north to Catalonia during the fifties and sixties, attracted by the region’s industry. This migration coincided with the harshest decades of the Francoist dictatorship (1939-75) which promoted Spanish as the country’s sole national language, and prohibited the use of other co-existing minority languages. Thus, many of those new arrivals and their descendants have remained Catalan-illiterate, and maintain the identities and traditions from their region of origin. Although schooling years are bilingual and cultural and historical values are mainly taught in a plural way, taking into account general and local history versions, the new generations of those with parents originally from southern Spain have historically identified themselves more with Spanish nationalism. This has also been reflected by votes in successive elections over the past thirty-five years. Politicians have not remained unaware of this difference and the so-called cinturón rojo (red belt, in Spanish, referring to the metropolitan area around Barcelona, traditionally voting for the socialist party) becomes a Trojan horse for other parties’ candidates. Although there are generally two main parties in Spain concerning the left-right axis (right-conservative PP and centre-left PSOE), in the bi-national regions voters may also consider other parties according to the nationalistic factor (i.e. pro-Spanish or pro-Region). Accordingly, the so-called cinturón rojo voters have various options for left-leaning parties. As the area has traditionally been a bastion for PSOE’s socialists, it means the nationalistic or pro-Catalan independence factor does not interfere in their decision.

In this sense, foreign minority groups arriving in Catalonia for the past two to three decades have faced this bi-national character in a different way. While foreign communities from Pakistan or China mainly learn Spanish, minorities settling in rural Catalonia – like sub-Saharan Africans – have embraced the Catalan identity more strongly. The exceptions amongst ethnic groups are the Catalan Gitanos (local Roma) who arrived in the Peninsula around 1415 and whose Catalaness is part of their own identity. Despite being a separate group ethnically speaking, the Gitanos are part of the local society and therefore not considered as a minority in here. During the past three decades, minorities in Catalonia have generally not taken part in the national/bi-national debate.

Other more symbolic expressions of this identity gap can be found in the flags hanging on balconies. While in big suburbs of Barcelona there is a predominance of Spanish flags for 12th October (Spain’s national day), it is the Catalan colours that hang for 11th September on the balconies of the capital’s centre and other big cities and towns. Also, there is a greater public support for La Roja (Spanish soccer national team) in the cinturón rojo area, which is mainly considered elsewhere in Catalonia as the representation of central nationalism.

Seventy-five days have brought the historical class structure to a breaking point. If the previous 11th September public demonstrations were mainly a reduced image of “rural Catalonia” and the pro-independence active minority, this year’s – what many stated as an amalgam 11th September – represented a much wider range of interests and groups; discontented youth, the so-called “Barcelonan traditional bourgeois” (mainly left intellectuals from Catalan wealthy families), some of the ethnic minorities’ associations and even the police union. The boundary was permeable and parties have not remained blind to this. Their speeches, attending to public opinion, have targeted new groups and audiences with a clear intention of securing a bigger share of the vote. It is still too early to say if a real class-rupture is occurring, or if nationalism will finally represent more than simply an economic power grab. True, the new parliament is more fractured, but the debate is more nuanced, and the representative voices more broadly curated.  Accordingly, Catalonia is experiencing a huge change not only in the political sphere but mainly within itself, particularly its class boundaries and defining elements of identity.

Sonia Andolz-Rodríguez is an independent analyst on human security and post-conflict management. She did her post-graduate studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, receiving an MSc in refugee and forced migration studies and an MSc in social anthropology. Her main interests are nationalism, ethnicity, religion and identities as sources for violent mobilisation. 

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If you are interested in contributing to the debate on conflict in Spain, particularly the Basque Country or Catalonia, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.

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