Nation, State, Nation-State

Nations, Emotions, Identities in a Late-Modern World: Reflections on the Catalonian Quest for Independence

Ana Marta González[1]

“A fatal vote is cast everyday in the ineffable secret of hearts that decide if a nation can really continue to go on... A nation is ultimately a huge community of individuals and groups that rely on each other. This relying on one’s neighbor does not necessarily imply having sympathy for him”.

(José Ortega y Gasset, La España invertebrada, 1921)

“Catalans’ competent administrative capacity was subjugated by a false conception of the State considered as a foreign phenomenon, which entailed, in some circles, accepting narrowly defined pragmatism and, in others, developing a kind of mysticism around direct action. And this dualism is one of the main reasons for the political and social sub-versions present in Catalonia...

We mobilize en masse, in a social chain reaction. At that moment, we start to get angry collectively. All the selfishness that makes us surly and sullen infiltrates our love for the noblest ideals. We draw strength from weakness and make ourselves admired all over the world through the strength of our collective mobilization. And so we continue forward, irresistible, euphoric, and capable of landing on the Moon”.

 (Jaume Vicens i Vives, Noticia de Cataluña, 1954)


1. Independence in the contemporary context

Until recently, the most appropriate context for speaking about nation-states was a class on nineteenth-century thought and history, or on the decolonization process. In the context of late modernity, marked by sharp individualization processes and the advance of neoliberal orthodoxy, the use of terms such as nation, state or nation-state, with which modern subjects used to think and project our reality and political aspirations, had been gradually stripped of their reference to problematic collective subjects, coalesced by virtue of race, history, language and culture (Requejo 2005, 110). In the last quarter of the twentieth century, it seemed that the era of the nation-state was coming to an end, replaced by higher-level political structures, such as the European Union, which was gradually absorbing sovereign prerogatives from their member states; these, on the other hand, were giving way to federal structures underneath (Maíz 2003), in principle better equipped to manage local needs. Certainly, the Yugoslav Wars at the end of the last century served as a wake-up call for the persistence of national sentiment beyond decades-long communist structures. Nevertheless, the globalization of markets, the development of international corporations that operate transnationally, and growing mobility, made our societies more mixed and plural; all this seemed to lessen the centrality of the modern nation-state, requiring an update of liberal thought in order to accommodate the reality of a burgeoning cultural pluralism.[2]

Yet, partly as a consequence of the 2008 financial crisis, and with greater intensity since the 2015 migration crisis – this movement has reversed, and states seem to claim back greater control on many issues. We see this in Europe, where consensus on economic and migratory policies breaks down at times, as well as on a global level, with the United States withdrawing from international pacts and organizations. Nationalist sentiment – America first, Brexit, Italy first, … – has returned and taken to the streets, channeling an ambiguous popular response in which discontent over political management of the economic crisis is mixed with fear that has grown out of threatened cultural identities. Pressured from within by popular demands that in various ways break with the former, liberal consensus, states are less willing to enter into transnational deals that might effectively address problems whose roots are usually global, but whose negative consequences are irremediably experienced locally. The idea that the best foreign policy is domestic policy thrives. From this perspective, appeals to “national identity” and controversies surrounding national symbols (Moreno Luzon & Nuñez Seixas 2017) can be explained as more-or-less stalled popular reactions in the face of consequences of globalization that are experienced as negative and substantiated in ongoing economic and migratory crises. In times of uncertainty, human beings seek assurances in the most unlikely of places. Of course, it would be appropriate to ask whether national identity, insofar as it involves raising borders where it might be necessary to build bridges, is what a global, culturally diverse and changing world needs. But that question goes beyond the confines of this particular contribution.

The more limited, but no less complex task entrusted to me involves examining whether the desire for independence from Spain that a considerable part of the Catalan population has expressed can be understood simply as another case of nationalist upsurge in the global context described above, or if it responds to more complex, specific causes.

It is a real challenge to talk about current realities on which events and people make a different mark every day. Here I have tried to distance myself from that immediacy, with the aim of achieving a relatively balanced view. I do not consider it my task to speak about recent events, such as the October 2017 Referendum, or the symbolic – for many frustrating – unilateral declaration of independence, which attracted the interest of international public opinion.[3] Concerning these facts,[4] as well as their legal consequences, political controversy continues. My interest is to understand how we got in this situation and the underlying reasons for some of the claims that could be the subject of a reasonable political dialogue, but which, since the beginning of the process, seem to have lost importance, stuck in an emotional whirlwind whose end point we still cannot make out.

In any case, the desire for independence that approximately half of the Catalan population manifests is not necessarily based on nationalist positioning. Certainly, the term “nationalism”, insofar as it suggests identification with a certain culture and politics, is by definition divisive.[5] But, as we will shortly see, that is not the whole reality of the Catalan independence movement, in which different visions of Catalonia as a nation coexist. The word “nation” is not employed here in its old and medieval sense (Suárez 2016, 15-16), but rather in the sense that it has acquired in the modern age, when it came to replace absolute monarchs as subjects of sovereignty – which, despite a division of powers, was still understood as indivisible. It is precisely in this framework where “national sentiment” came to play a socially unifying function, analogous to religion’s role in modern states with the principle “cuius regio eius religio”. Throughout the nineteenth century, already in full romantic swing, “national sentiment” and its characteristic symbols (Thiesse, 2017, 12) came to be considered an expression of the historically differentiated identity of communities that, for various reasons, had not “acquired” their own political personality, which is why they were still in the process of fulfilling their “historical destiny”. This thought promoted the construction of a collective subject based on the confluence of political reason and sentiment. Although the role of the latter in the configuration of modern political spaces varied depending on whether it was a “state-led” or “state-seeking nation”, (Tilly 1994, 133) the nineteenth century became for everyone the century of national histories in search of a national essence. More or less shared stories, built by subjects who wanted to inhabit a world that suited them, flourished.

However, it is not easy to specify the geographic and temporal scope of “national sentiment”. As Henry Kamen (2014, 199) writes, “the problem of trying to define a specific set of feelings (identity) when speaking of a ‘nation’ is that said feelings are by no means exclusive, especially when people have feelings rooted in very different places”. To paraphrase Kant, we could say that sentiment without reason is blind; in particular, a sentiment cannot even be called “national” if it is devoid of political reason. However, in the order of foundation, the relationship between sentiment and political reason can be articulated differently. Namely, when liberal principles prevail, the work of political reason precedes the appeal to sentiment; when sentiment prevails, it indicates a preexisting identity, configured over the course of a history that, assumed in the present by a certain community, is conceived of as legitimizing a constituent process in the political sphere.

Although contemporary processes such as the construction of the European Union, or the political-administrative decentralization of different states, allow us to qualify and question both the indivisibility of sovereignty and the cultural homogeneity of nations, we are currently witnessing a new rewriting of both uses of the term “nation”. In some cases, national sentiment that ideally converges with the state as an already constituted political-administrative structure has reemerged; in other cases, differentiated outbreaks of national sentiment that are not necessarily compatible with the former have emerged within already-constituted nation-states.

It is a fact that Catalan society is currently divided over this issue, whose evolution and outcome also affects the whole of Spanish society. Catalans who feel “they have a composite identity, both Catalan and Spanish at the same time” (Borrell, 2017, 19) coexist in Catalonia today with others who identify themselves as Catalan alone, rejecting their relationship with Spain altogether. However, as noted above, not everything in the Catalan conflict is reduced to a conflict of identity sentiment; at least not in the nineteenth century sense. In this regard, there are three distinctions that may be useful for identifying the elements involved in the recent claim for independence:

a) First, not all nationalism is pro-independence. In fact, the most characteristic historical product of nineteenth-century Catalonia was a culturally and politically fertile “Catalanism”, (Termes 1986)[6] which, from both traditionalist and conservative positions,[7] as well as from federalist and republican ones,[8] proposed autonomy, or, in general, some forms of self-government, without renouncing the possibility of exerting a positive influence on the rest of Spain. Jordi Pujol came to describe this Catalanism as “non-independence nationalism”.[9] Understanding why a considerable part of it has recently evolved towards pro-independence positions, requires taking into consideration a multiplicity of factors, including cultural, legal, economic, and emotional ones. The specific weight of these factors in the personal preference for independence varies, but, taken together, they constitute a more or less shared story regarding the evolution of the “Catalan question” since the 1978 Constitution and the promulgation of the first Statute of Autonomy in 1979, until the reform of said Statute in 2006 and the Constitutional Court Ruling 31/2010. Enacted in a rarefied political climate, the 2010 ruling, which declared some articles of the 2006 Statute unconstitutional, marked a before and after in the evolution of the Catalan conflict.

b) Not all supporters of independence rely on nationalist theses. There are sectors of the Catalan population that, apart from national sentiment and beyond historical and cultural considerations, support independence mainly for instrumental and pragmatic reasons. They think that statutory and/or constitutional reforms aimed at solving the legal and fiscal tensions with the State administration have failed and that Catalonia “would do better” on its own.[10] While opinion is actually divided on the extent to which an independent Catalonia would be politically and economically viable, this initially minority position won more supporters with the economic crisis, around which time the Generalitat President, Artur Mas, also intensified his criticism of the State finance system and its fiscal policies towards Catalonia.

c) A third sector of the population has joined the independence movement for mostly emotional reasons. While such emotionality may be intermingled with cultural and/or pragmatic motivations, it deserves separate attention because it is formed on the basis of perceptions and emotions aroused by events that many Catalans experience as grievances, whether we agree or not. To the extent that this position is strongly mediated by stereotyped narratives, we could describe this posture as “post-emotional”. A post-emotional society, according to Mestrovic (1997), is marked by reinterpreting past events, in ways that scarcely leave room for a common political space. This post-modern, highly self-referential nationalism, closer to what Kant would call passion than what he would call emotion (González 2015), is generating social division within Catalonia itself, and has contributed to the reappearance of a reactionary Spanish nationalism that tends to accentuate social division not only between Spain and Catalonia, but also within the very heart of Spanish society.

Subsequently, among supporters of independence, there are some who adhere to the principle of legality and others that, frustrated by the short-term impossibility of a legal path, appeal directly to the democratic principle, putting law and democracy in opposition to one another. In recent months, the latter position has come to speak of a “Slovenian way” for Catalonia – a comparison that provoked immediate response from the Slovenian prime minister, who rejected any resemblance between Slovenia and Catalonia. In any case, the mere suggestion of a unilateral route that appeals to the will of the people could support the initial impression that the Catalan conflict is part of a more general process that involves deconstructing the twentieth-century alliance between liberalism and democracy, not so much as a result of the 90s debate between civic nationalism of a liberal nature[11] and another of an organic, ethnic one, but as the emergence of a populist and post-emotional nationalism; yet it is also revealing of one weakness inherent in classical liberalism insofar as it tends to consider itself neutral in terms of culture, or to understand cultural matters as accidental to the political process.

It is clear that they are not accidental; indeed, culture – the way of life that a human group develops over time, of which language is a particularly characteristic expression – is so central to the life of a people that if it is marginalized or shown the door, it will jump back in through the window, and not necessarily in the best of its versions.[12] There are, in effect, both better and worse forms of culture; rigidly identitarian and postmodern forms are certainly not among the better ones. If the political events of the last few years have anything to teach us, it is that, in this oscillation between psychological experiences and reflective mediations, which Simmel (1986, 164) identified as a feature of modern culture, we are missing the characteristic stability of culture that gives nuance to the life of a people, nourishing a common “feeling” that is as far a cry from boring technocratic discourses as it is from more or less ephemeral emotional reactions. Knowing how to interpret that feeling, articulating it with the conditions derived from institutional mediations, and without confusing it with more transitory emotional alterations, is part of what political reason is about, insofar as it conceives itself as practical, not just pragmatic or technical reason.

In any case, in order to give a more complete picture of the situation in Spain with regard to Catalonia, it is important to address the different factors in play, be they legal, fiscal or related to the media. Before, however, I will begin with a summary of the historical-cultural context at stake. While I do not intend to endanger political reason by appealing to the presumed inevitability of historical reason, ignoring history prevents us from understanding the complexity that political reason eventually needs to confront.

2. History and politics

Beyond the complexity of the positions involved, a not-at-all-new problem underlines the current Catalan conflict; while this secular problem saw perhaps the beginning of a solution in the 1978 Constitution, for diverse reasons of a legal, cultural, political nature it seems to have reached a dead end. The problem is nothing other than the social and cultural specificity of Catalonia, which – explicitly avoiding the word “identity” – José Enrique Ruiz-Domènec has called “the historical entity” of Catalonia and its conflictive relationship to central power. This latter feature, long ago identified by historian Jaume Vicens i Vives (2012), is revisited by Ruiz-Domènec (2018) in his recent monograph as a key to understand Catalonia’s history. Some have called it the “Catalan problem”, (Ortega, Azaña 2005)[13] although one could likewise speak of the “Spanish problem”.[14]

It is not possible, in effect, to properly contextualize the so-called Catalan “problem” without taking into account the center-periphery tensions that characterize the development of the Spanish nation from the early modern age. Perhaps we can better understand this aspect by comparing the formation of the Spanish and the French States. As Tocqueville explains in The Old Regime and the Revolution (1982), the centralism that the Bourbon dynasty imposed in France, by abolishing local laws and privileges for the benefit of the Court, constituted slow and secular preparation for revolutionary changes and, ultimately, for identification of the French people with their nation. But nothing similar happened in Spain. For reasons that go beyond this contribution, under the ruling of the Habsburg dynasty – thus, until the eighteenth century – Spain followed a model of government inherited from the Catholic Monarchs – Isabel and Fernando – that, at least on paper, was meant to govern by respecting the various historical communities and each territory’s jurisdiction (Perez 2011, 345). Unlike the French monarchs, who, starting from Dagobert I (603-639), were all buried in Saint Denis, the monarchs of the different Spanish kingdoms are buried throughout the territory. It was not in vain that for a long time people spoke of “Las Españas” in plural, including the American viceroyalties (Williamson, 1992). Indeed, the configuration of the modern Spain took place through a process of gradual incorporation, responding to what John Elliot (2009, 3-25) has described as “compound monarchies”. Upon incorporating new territory, the King committed to respecting its privileges and institutions, which obviously limited the King’s power, for example when it came to collecting taxes for military campaigns. Precisely one of the most important modern uprisings in Catalonia, still under the Habsburgs, took place on the occasion of the Union of Arms that the Count Duke of Olivares sought in 1626 during the reign of Felipe IV (Elliot 2004; Hugon 2015). Yet it was with the advent of the Bourbons and Philip V’s promulgation of the Nueva Planta Decree in 1716, that Catalonia lost its privileges. With the new dynasty, the centralizing efforts aimed at achieving more efficient state administration gained momentum (Pérez 2011, 154). In the medium term, these efforts paid off economically: through royal decrees, Charles III liberalized trade with America, and Catalonia became a prosperous region, as well as a motor of enlightenment and progress; yet, there was a cultural price to pay, namely, the imposition of Castilian as the language of the monarchy.[15] Later, under the influence of romanticism, a variety of cultural personalities emerged to defend the Catalan language and traditions, marking the beginning of the Renaixença,[16] which has played a fundamental role in the genesis of nineteenth-century Catalanism.

This was decisive for the formation and cultivation of a Catalan national sentiment differentiated from Spanish national sentiment, which had otherwise also strongly emerged in Catalonia during the war against Napoleon.[17] Insofar as identity requires self-consciousness, it is not inaccurate to say that resistance to Napoleon “created” the nations of Europe because it offered them awareness of themselves as differentiated peoples. However, after this first expression, politically articulated as “national sovereignty” by the Cádiz Cortes in the Constitution of 1812 (Pérez Royo 2015, 11), Spanish national sentiment barely had time to mature; this could explain its apparent weakness against Catalan national sentiment, as Borja de Riquer (1993, 8-15) has argued. His thesis finds support in the 1835 words that Alcalá Galiano directed to Spanish liberals on the necessity “of making the Spanish nation a nation, which it is not, nor has been until now” (Alvarez Junco 1998, 428); Ortega’s considerations at the beginning of the twentieth century reflect the same idea: he believed that localism, rather than national sentiment, thrived and reigned in Spain (Fusi 2000, 230). His words were backed by history: “Between 1808 and 1840 (…) wars of independence, the loss of America, misrule on the part of Ferdinand VII, and a Carlist war left Spain practically stateless. The country lived in real administrative disorder. Precisely, and as a consequence, the great Spanish problem of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came to be the articulation of the country as a true national state” (Fusi 2006, 22). Yet precisely the course of the confrontations that tore the country apart during those decades, first between traditionalists-Carlists and the liberal-enlightened faction, and later among different liberal factions, revealed two ways of understanding Spain, namely a liberal vision, affiliated with an urban sensibility and centralizing tendencies, versus a more traditional view rooted mainly in rural areas. The fact that Carlism was defeated on the battlefield did not signify its immediate cultural decline. It is not accidental that, from a historical point of view, precisely the territories with the largest Carlist presence – Navarra, the Basque Country, Catalonia – have most insistently defended their idiosyncrasy (Manent 1998, 13). Such idiosyncrasy derived not only from language, but also from public and/or private law that for centuries permeated the life and customs of those territories.[18] Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that during the monarchical Restoration that followed the ephemeral first Republic of 1873, it was in Catalonia, more than in the rest of Spain, where a modernizing nationalism of an overall Spanish scope developed (Cacho 1998, 23).

History operates with certain inertias that we cannot simply forget: although the Cádiz Cortes, which led to the first liberal constitution in 1812, drafted a Civil Code developed on the basis of Castilian law, which unified existing laws, several ups and down thwarted its promulgation until 1889; even then it presented carve outs for former provincial territories in matters such as family law and inheritance. From this perspective, José Ortega y Gasset’s words from 1910 are understandable: “Since Spain does not exist as a nation, Spanish intellectuals have a duty to build Spain” (De Riquer 2014).[19] Alvarez Junco (1998, 467) notes that this sentiment was common among Spanish intellectuals: Unamuno thought that Spain was “yet to be discovered”, and Ortega wrote: “Our first task consists in discovering what Spain is and then, second, inculcating it to the masses”. That “the masses” would allow themselves to be nationalized according to the ideas of intellectuals, as if they were nothing more than some amorphous material, devoid of ends and ideas of their own, is another matter entirely.

Plato (2008, 279b) compared politics to the art of weaving. Wisely governing the inherent diversity of the different peoples of Spain, making it compatible with equality before the law, has never been an easy task, to which the effort to write the Civil Code can attest; yet, dodging this task makes politics, understood in the style of the classics as “the art of the possible”, superfluous. For politics is the art of taking reality as it is and improving it, not the art of recreating it ex novo according to whim, or limiting individual rights and liberties by imposing artificial uniformity where the spontaneous development of social life has unfolded in different languages and customs: different ways of relating and organizing coexistence that are not only perfectly legitimate and respectable, but also deeply enriching for the whole of Spanish society, like the initiatives of so many anonymous Catalans who, starting from the eighteenth century, developed an entrepreneurial spirit in so many regions of Spain[20] and in overseas territories.

Although Catalanism developed throughout the nineteenth century mainly as a cultural movement, it did so in a social context marked by growing social conflict that originated with industrialization processes. Perhaps embodying the peculiar position that, according to Vicens i Vives (1961, 24-25), geography and history have given to Catalonia as a “corridor” between Europe and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, “during the nineteenth century, Catalonia wasted two entire generations on the almost obsessive goal of making Spain something different from what it had been under the baroque structure inherited from the Habsburgs and from adopting the unfavorable marriage between French Jacobinism and Germanic idealism”. However, in the nineteenth century, Catalonia’s desire to contribute to the construction of a prosperous nation was repeatedly met with the reality of deep social differences between an industrial Catalonia and the rest of Spain, then mainly agrarian. The frustration generated by this situation worsened after the loss of Cuba,[21] where Catalans held many commercial interests.[22]

The star that today adorns the pro-independence Catalan flag – the Estelada – comes precisely from Cuba. It has triumphed with supporters of an independent Catalonia among many options that surfaced throughout the twentieth century.[23] While in the rest of the country “regenerationist” intellectuals reflected on the need to rethink Spain and endow it with a project for the future (Serrano 1998), in Barcelona, a sector of Catalanism retreated into itself, preparing a clearly political direction for its aspirations. These were implicit in the words of Father Josep Armengou (1979, 79; Cacho 1998, 82) published clandestinely several decades later in the midst of Franco’s dictatorship: “Per nosaltres Catalunya és la tesi, Espanya una hipòtesi, i no Pas l’unica” (Catalonia is our thesis; Spain is just a hypothesis among others) Outside of independence, the only hypothesis that Catalonia could accept corresponded to a decentralized, plural Spain. This not only affirmed the priority of the Catalan nation over the Spanish one, but also conditioned its union with the Spanish nation on Spain’s ability to welcome its specificity. Certainly, what that specificity consists of and whether it would be preserved in an independent scenario remains a disputed question even within Catalonia. Depending on how we narrate history, we could speak either of the realization of a singular historical destiny, foreshadowed in Catalonia’s multiple rebellions against centralized power, or about the frustration of its vocation as the “corridor” between Europe and the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, i.e., the unilateral abandonment of a long-standing historical project it shared with the rest of Spain, a project that has taken different forms throughout history, and that, with the advent of democracy in the twentieth century, included the incorporation of Spain into the European Union.

In any case, what is clear in the meantime is that the Catalan conflict does not speak only of Catalonia; it also speaks of two keys for accessing the historical reality of Spain: on the one hand, in a centralized or decentralized key – a perspective that is contaminated by the complicated relationship between centralized power and peripheral nationalisms during the Franco dictatorship – and, on the other, in a self-absorption or universal projection key. Both keys, however, are related; as Elliot, and Ortega before him, has observed, for the Spanish nation, which began organizing around the kingdom of Castile, through successive processes of incorporation, plurality was not an end in itself, but rather the consequence of a project of universal scope to which nations were added inside and outside of the peninsula. This universal project explained and justified internal plurality, and all those incorporated desired to participate equally in it, although that desire was not always satisfied. Certainly, until the reign of Charles III, Catalonia, like the rest of the territories of the former Crown of Aragon, could not fully participate in the Spanish expansion in America. As historian Luis Suárez (2016, 379) has pointed out, no one can deny that, “if America is the result of Castilian expansion, the Mediterranean expansion is a Catalan contribution and is largely responsible for Spanish culture”. The contribution of Catalonia to the historical reality of Spain is not limited to economic and industrial development. Spain’s dual cultural projection towards America and the Mediterranean would not have been possible without this internal tension between Castile and Catalonia. Forgetting about that tension, drowning it with homogenized[24] centralism or breaking it with independence, would mean putting an end to the history of Spain as we have known it in recent centuries, and would inaugurate a different history all together.

3. Law, Constitution and Statute

Politics, as mentioned, is the art of weaving, as well as the art of the possible, of reaching agreements in circumstances and with interlocutors that are perhaps far from ideal. In both senses, it is not difficult to recognize an authentic political endeavor in the 1978 Constitution, which inaugurated the most fertile period in Spain’s recent history. On the basis of the economic prosperity achieved in the last years of Franco’s dictatorship, and within the limitations imposed by a transition marked by asymmetric forces in terms of power and democratic legitimacy,[25] the Fathers of the Constitution tried to weave a modern Spain respectful of individual rights and freedoms, capable of integrating the diversity inherent in its peoples and their languages. The project of a Spain with autonomous communities mirrored this attempt. It not only tried to guarantee a constitutional framework for the development of self-government among different “communities”, but also attempted to structure a simultaneously unitary and diverse State (Pérez Royo 2015, 48).

When drafting the Constitution, these communities were not yet set. For this reason, the Constitution established two formulas for territories to decide the kind of community they wanted to form: a faster and more complete track for territories that in the first democratic elections of June 1977 had shown greater desire for self-government – three quarters of the municipalities in each community had to vote for it, plus a Referendum with an absolute majority had to ratify it – and a slower one for the rest. Among the first were Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia, all of which correspond to “historical” communities, or nationalities,[26] i.e. communities with their own language that had achieved autonomous status in the Second Republic. In the debates that preceded the Constitution, no other such community was foreseen. However, the reference to a “strong will of self-government” allowed Andalusia to enter in this category, thus diluting the uniqueness of historical communities in a homogenizing solution[27] popularly known as “coffee for everyone”, which some have interpreted as a strategy to dilute the Catalan territorial conflict, while others saw it as a step towards the federalization of the State.[28] The latter point is contradicted by the fact that the Senate as a chamber of territorial representation still today takes the provinces as its unit, so that the communities as such hardly take part in the country’s political course (Pérez Royo 2015, 125, 129). In any case, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Andalusia accepted the reinforced autonomy route. The remaining communities were set up later according to a different procedure.

In the following years, and up to 1983, different Statutes of Autonomy were approved. Understanding the hybrid nature that these statutes have in the Spanish constitutional order reveals one of the catalysts of the current Catalan conflict. Thus, I allow myself the liberty of reproducing here a text that can be accessed on the webpage of the Spanish Congress, which explains Spanish constitutional order, saying that, “the Statute of Autonomy constitutes the norm that links the State and autonomous order in a hybrid formula since, on the one hand, it is, according to article 147.1 of the Constitution, the basic institutional norm of the Community and, on the other, when approved by an organic law, it is part of the state order”.

The text continues to specify that the Statute “is not a Constitution in the proper sense of the term because it is not born of an original constituent power, which territories that are constituted as Autonomous Communities lack, but rather owes its existence to its recognition by the State. The Constitutional Court demonstrated this point in Ruling 4/1981, noting that the Statute of Autonomy is not an expression of sovereignty, but rather of autonomy, which refers to limited power. In effect, autonomy is not sovereignty and since each territorial organization endowed with autonomy is a part of the whole, it is impossible for the principle of autonomy to be opposed to that of unity; indeed, it is precisely within unity that autonomy takes on its true meaning… Therefore, the Statute of Autonomy… is the basic institutional norm within the terms of this Constitution... Regarding the legal nature of the Statutes of Autonomy, it must be pointed out that this is a complex norm that cannot be confused with the organic law that passes them”.[29]

Between 1980 and 2003, under Jordi Pujol’s Presidency, Catalonia developed self-government in accordance with its specific Statute, and expanded its competences according to the provisions of the Constitution. Some have mentioned that Pujol, president of the Democratic Convergence of Catalonia, deftly maintained the dual soul of traditional Catalanism: on the one hand, a nationalist tendency, but, on the other, the desire to participate in the governance of Spain (Piqué, 2017, 283). He especially expressed the latter desire with the Majestic Pact with José María Aznar, President of the Spanish Government between 1996 and 2000, whose Popular Party then had a simple majority in Congress, and therefore needed Catalan support to legislate. Something similar also happened with the previous government, presided over by the socialist Felipe González. But in his second term, from 2000 to 2004, Aznar’s party won elections with an absolute majority, which meant that he did not need to work with the Catalans to carry out his initiatives in Congress. This circumstance may explain the policy turn towards greater centralization, which in addition to the concentration of economic power in Madrid, (López Burniol 2017, 208) on the rise since the 1980s, was met with some uneasiness in Catalonia. Perhaps here we can locate the start of Pujol’s changing discourse towards an openly more nationalist one, something that caught the attention of Henry Kamen.[30] In any case, Pujol's retirement from active politics in 2003 gave a new ruling class the keys to his party, which, with Artur Mas at the helm, openly evolved towards pro-independence positions (Piqué, 2017, 286).

In addition, despite winning the 2004 elections, Artur Mas could not form a government majority on his own, and, instead, accepted a Generalitat government formed by a left-leaning coalition and chaired by the socialist Pasqual Maragall.[31] It was then, at the beginning of 2004, when the Catalan Parliament began the Reform of its Autonomous Statute, a tortuous process, in the course of which political positions were radicalized (De Carreras 2017, 108).

According to Ferrán Requejo, this reform was initiated “in order to obtain three basic objectives: to increase the symbolic and political recognition of Catalonia as a differentiated national reality, to increase and better protect the self-government of Catalan institutions, and to improve the deficient and onerous system of financing for which Catalonia maintained, after inter-territorial transfers, a fiscal deficit of around 7-9% of its GDP” (Requejo 2007, 123-124). Both discussions on the national reality of Catalonia and the calculation of the fiscal deficit quickly turned into heated debates, which, far from ending with the approval of the Statute in 2006, have continued beyond 2010, the year in which a sentence from the Constitutional Court declared fourteen articles and additional dispositions of the Statute unconstitutional, other twenty-seven were submitted to the Court interpretation, and the Preamble was declared without juridical effect. This ruling can be considered, at least in the eyes of public opinion, as a trigger of the recent crisis, which is why we must refer to this question in some detail.

Statute reform and Constitutional Court ruling 31/2010

In principle, any reform of the statutes of the communities that agreed to fast-track autonomy must be initiated and approved in the parliament of the community; then it goes to the Congress of Deputies and, once approved in Congress it is submitted to referendum in the community of origin. The Catalan Parliament initiated the reform of its Statute at the beginning of 2004, with the Socialist Pasquall Maragall as President of the Generalitat. A few months later, the socialist party of Jose Luis Rodríguez Zapatero won the 2004 general elections; during his electoral campaign, Zapatero had promised to approve the Statute as it came out of the Catalan Parliament.

“To prepare the text, a broad session was formed, composed of four representatives from each parliamentary group, for a total of 20. After some very confusing initial debates, the Institut d’Estudis Autonòmics (IEA) sent them a first partial draft as a basis for discussing reform and the session adopted it...”. According to Professor Eliseo Aja (2014, 74-75), the method was not particularly suitable, and the process lacked necessary political leadership, which resulted in the progressive radicalization of positions conveyed by the parties that fought for the leadership of the Catalan cause – Esquerra Republicana (ERC) and Convergencia i Uniò (CiU). All this was reflected in the text brought to Parliament: noteworthy for its length and complexity, the text incorporated several new sections, among them a very long one dedicated to regulating the relations of the Generalitat with the State, with other Autonomous Communities and with the EU.

From a technical point of view, “the most striking novelty is this fragmentation of competencies to improve their success in a possible power struggle... a technique designed to address conflicts of power before the Constitutional Court, rather than to govern. That’s why we talk about ‘blindaje de competencias’” (Aja 2014, 78). This was one of the points later declared unconstitutional in the Constitutional Court ruling, not so much because of an unwillingness to clarify the competences of the State and Autonomous Communities – an aspect on which there is considerable consensus[32] – but because the definition of said competences does not correspond to the Statute, but to the Constitution, which is the higher norm.

Another conflicting section relates to judicial power in Catalonia because the Statute seemed to mandate that the Courts should reform the judicial power’s organic law (Aja, 2014, 79), something that also exceeds its powers. Likewise, Catalonia requested a tax regime similar to the one that the Basque Country has for historical reasons, and that was recognized in the Constitution of 1978.

However, the most striking part is perhaps the philosophy that inspires the Preamble and the preliminary title, in which Catalonia as a nation is understood as the “axis of the Catalonia-Spain relationship”, appealing to historical rights as the basis for developing the different proposed powers.

Debates took place in the Parliament of Catalonia during July 2005, but the differences between the tripartite in government and Convergencia i Unio regarding education, local regime, historical rights and financing did not prove viable. On September 19, 2005, President Zapatero met with the leader of CiU, Artur Mas, without whose votes the process could not move forward and, on September 30, 2005, the Statute was approved in the Catalan Parliament, although with votes against it from the Popular Party: its leader in Catalonia, Josep Piqué, considered the new Statute a move to alter the nature of the State and “move Catalonia away from Spain”. This point of view found echo in a January 2006 article written by the historian José Alvarez Junco in the El País newspaper, with the title “Cataluña vista desde España” (Catalonia seen from Spain.) In it, Alvarez Junco noted that, by speaking of the European Union as Catalonia’s “political and geographical reference space without mentioning Spain even as an intermediate step...”, the Statute “distills a will to ignore Spain, if not certain aversion”, which is why it should not be surprising “that those who have a deep sentimental bond with Spain take this as an affront”.[33] The emotional tone in public opinion rose by the day. Significantly, around the same time, a new political party began to take shape, Ciutadans, which some university professors and Catalan professionals promoted, declaring themselves opposed to the “imposition of Catalan nationalism”.

In November 2005, the Congress in Madrid admitted the Statute. Conflicting questions immediately surfaced. As Requejo (2007, 125) recalls, Rodríguez Zapatero announced an effort to amend the text so that the PSOE could accept it, “retracting, therefore, the promise he made during the Catalan electoral campaign of 2003”. Public opinion was radicalized. When it seemed impossible to continue the process, on January 21, 2006, Mas and Zapatero reached a new agreement. They resolved to move the term “nation” and mention of historical rights to the Preamble, which lacks juridical enforceability, and to commit a minimum of state funds to Catalonia (Aja 2014, 81).[34] However, ERC did not adhere to this pact. As a result, it abandoned tripartite government in Catalonia. The June 18 referendum, requesting the people’s approval of the Statute, had just a 48.8% participation rate, of which 73.9% voted in favor, 20.7% against, and 5.3% cast a protest vote.

The Statute had been approved, but with reduced participation, and at the expense of losing a partner in the government. President Maragall announced shortly afterwards that he would not run for reelection. Meanwhile, the Popular Party filed an unconstitutionality appeal before the Supreme Court, which was followed by other similar initiatives from other autonomous communities.[35] In particular, this appeal was based on the following arguments: 1) The use of the term nation, since the only nation foreseen in the Constitution is Spain; 2) The treatment granted to the Catalan language, conceived of as an obligation imposed on all those living in Catalonia; 3) The establishment of different rights and duties for the citizens of Catalonia; 4) The regulation of a judicial body proper to Catalonia, which fractures the unity of Spain’s judicial branch and independence; 5) A distribution of powers between the Generalitat and the State that leaves the State as an afterthought within Catalonia; 6) The principle of bilateralism – making it necessary to negotiate with the Generalitat the powers that belong to the State; 7) The regulation of Catalonia’s own international relations; 8) The financing system, since it opens the possibility of an interregional framework that lacks solidarity and that affects the quality, breadth and equality of the benefits to which all Spaniards have the right.[36]

A ruling from the Constitutional Court took four years. When it came, on June 28, 2010, after a controversial process in which several magistrates had been recused,[37] social polarization was clear. In August 2008 Jordi Pujol, whose moral authority was still intact (various corruption cases had not yet come to light), published an article in La Vanguardia, entitled “Juicio severo” (A harsh trial), expressing his indignation at facts that, in his opinion, revealed the rest of Spain’s resentment and hostility towards Catalonia.[38] All this contributed to a fertile space for polarization and confrontation when the ruling was issued: “Madrid humiliated Catalonia”. An emotional reading of the events prevailed over its more technical aspects. For anyone interested in the history of Catalonia, it would not have been difficult to predict a new episode of collective rauxa.[39]

Although it is imperative to comply with a court ruling, it can be noted that, from a technical point of view, this ruling had some anomalies and other clearly improvable aspects, not only from formal and practical points of view, but also in terms of its content (Aja, 2014, 92-93). The main anomaly lay in the fact that the Court ruled on a Statute approved by organic law in the Cortes Generales – the highest sovereign body – and already subject to a binding referendum. The anomaly herein derives in part from the aforementioned hybrid character of the Statutes – on the one hand, the result of a pact between the central government and the Spanish Cortes with the autonomous governments and their parliaments and, on the other, approved by an organic law: although organic laws may be subject to review by the Constitutional Court, it is not clear that the same should happen with Statutes, insofar as they are not mere organic laws.[40] At least this is one ambiguity that, according to qualified jurists,[41] makes reform of the current constitutional order advisable.

The political significance of this apparently technical point is clear if we bear in mind that a few months before the ruling was made public, twelve Catalan newspapers published the same editorial, with the significant title “La dignidad de Catalunya”[42] that warned of how the sentence could affect many Catalans’ attitudes toward Spain. The situation was made worse not so much because articles were declared unconstitutional – in reality very few were – but because of the Preamble’s tone, which offended the nationalist sentiment of many Catalans. With this mood in place, September 11, 2012, the national holiday of Catalonia, became an occasion for demanding independence. From this moment on, political events sped up: on September 20, the then president of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, met with Rajoy in order to request a fiscal pact for Catalonia;[43] on September 25-27, 2012 the Catalan government announced the end of the legislature and called for elections to Parliament for the month of November; on September 27, the Parliament of Catalonia approved Resolution 742/IX, which affirms “the need for the people of Catalonia to freely and democratically determine their collective future”, urging the government resulting from the impending elections to convene consultations (Ridao 2014). In October, President Mas once again met with President Rajoy to discuss several issues, including the issue of regional financing, but he modified his agenda at the last minute and only addressed one topic, namely the need to hold a referendum on the independence of Catalonia. In the elections held on November 25, Mas’ party lost 12 deputies, but he still got support from ERC for the investiture.

On December 19, both parties signed an “Agreement on national transition and to guarantee the parliamentary stability of the Government of Catalonia”. There, they drew up a road map that was meant to lead to the holding of a vote “so that the people of Catalonia can pronounce itself on the possibility of Catalonia becoming a State within the European framework”. That referendum took place in 2014. Although it had little participation and was deemed unconstitutional, the Road Map that the nationalist parties – CiU and ERC – agreed upon continued to guide the independence movement until the events of October 2017.

The extent to which this road map was based on a plan developed when Jordi Pujol still held the Presidency of the Generalitat goes beyond the scope of this analysis. I am not sure that it adds anything substantial to the explanation of the resurgence of independence, since the Generalitat’s educational and cultural policies have always been manifest. Looking back it is more perplexing that, during the 1979 negotiations of the first Statute, Catalonia was offered an economic deal similar to the Basque one and rejected it;[44] it is perplexing because regional funding had always represented one of the most contentious points in the relationship between Catalonia and the State, and was one of the demands that Mas presented to Rajoy on September 20, 2012.

4. Fiscal balance and regional financing

The 1980 Organic Law on the Financing of Autonomous Communities (LOFCA) and the Statute of each Autonomous Community, in coordination with the State Treasury, regulates the regional financing system in Spain in an effort to avoid economic and fiscal privileges, ensure solidarity between regions and sufficient resources for the exercise of regional competences. Certainly, as Lopez Casasnovas (2015, 147-8) points out, this is a source of conflict, since the LOFCA often “overrides statutory provisions with the idea that the Constitution (Article 157.3) calls for an organic law that coordinates regional financing”, thus limiting de facto financial autonomy. This did not prevent the law itself, in its additional provisions, from recognizing a special situation for several territories, namely the Basque Country and Navarra, whose tax regime has historical precedents recognized in the 1978 Constitution, and, on the other hand, the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla. With these caveats, the remaining Autonomous Communities, including Catalonia, are financed according to a common system.

For years, the system was characterized by highly decentralized spending[45] and minimal decentralization of revenue collection: the State was the main revenue collector, which meant that, in practice, the Communities were mainly financed through State transfers.[46] In 2001, reforms took place that increased communities’ powers in terms of collection and represented a path toward fiscal co-responsibility, but differences among some communities also came to light, provoking a debate over whether inter-territorial redistribution funds should continue to cover all community expenses equally. Thus, in the 2009 reform, the difference between each community’s overall financing needs and their needs associated with essential public services, such as health, education and social services, was introduced for the first time (León 2015, 153). At present, the Autonomous Communities’ taxing power is comparable to that of German Länders, but the Communities’ participation in that tax revenue does not actually respond “to a constitutional pact, but rather to a state law that is modifiable whenever necessary” (López Casasnovas 2015,149).

In fact, the financing system is commonly criticized for its lack of transparency since, beyond the annual quantification of per capita income, the provision of basic public services, etc. that the National Institute of Statistics carries out in coordination with the corresponding bodies in each community, determining each community’s needs, is subject to bilateral political negotiation that considers more than just the number of inhabitants: for example, it considers population dispersion or insularity (León 2015, 54).

On the other hand, the existence of a dual tax regime – regional and common – has become a source of controversy over the years because the per capita income of these communities is significantly higher than that of the communities that follow the common regime; in addition, according to widespread opinion, those same regions do not contribute proportionally to inter-territorial redistribution. Although most Spanish parliamentarians do not believe that the regional regime should extend to the rest of the territory, comparison with this regime has motivated request for deeper reform of the system. In this claim, Catalonia has been a forerunner, demanding greater autonomy to collect and manage its own taxes.

The economic crisis exacerbated the situation. In 2011, Artur Mas intensified his criticism of the regional financing model, arguing that his community’s contribution to the State coffers and redistribution funds was greater than what Catalonia received from the State to finance its expenses. In April of the same year, the then Eurodeputy for ERC Oriol Junqueras sent a letter to all eurodeputies, asking for help to put pressure on the Spanish State to put an end to the fiscal deficit and economic suffocation in Catalonia (Borrell, & Llorach, 2015, 65-66).

This confused debate on the regional financing model with the need for fiscal balance, two issues that must be distinguished. While the former refers to the income available to regions in their budgets to finance their services, which the central administration transfers, in addition to revenue that regional governments themselves collect (León 2015, 58-59),[47] fiscal balance is nothing more than an accounting instrument, subject to notable methodological limitations,[48] designed to measure financial flows. The nature of fiscal balances lends itself to endless debate unless there is an initial agreement regarding what is to be measured. For this reason, López-Casasnovas[49] argues that the way fiscal balances are used is matter for a political debate, not for a technical one. Basically, fiscal balance will say one thing if its purpose is to “identify the ultimate recipient of the expenditures and benefits of the State's sovereign and unique fiscal performance”, as Uriel Jiménez and Barberán Ortí (2007, 17) have it, and it will say another if its purpose is “to assess the fiscal remnant if the expenditure that directly impacts its territory (monetary flows) were to be assumed by Catalonia from a collection established on its own taxable base”. The possibility of raising this question depends, once again, on how we understand the articulation of functions relevant to national sovereignty and autonomous communities on tax matter.[50]

Territorializing fiscal flows, as Catalonia intends, is technically possible; in fact, fiscal calculation presents more difficulties when the balance is understood “in terms of the final incidence of flows that affect the well-being of individuals”. Emphasizing fiscal balance in this way could lead to forgetting that ultimately it is not the territories, but the citizens who contribute to sustain public expenditures according to their economic capacity, and also that they are the first recipients of redistributive policies;[51] nevertheless, it is also true that “plural states contribute to more than one jurisdiction (the one that legitimately represents citizens in said territories)”.[52]

On this basis, the question that is genuinely relevant from the point of view of the communities – in this case, Catalonia – is whether the collection of taxes by the State, instead of by the regional government, reduces the responsible and efficient administration of those resources, and, after redistributive transfers, creates a negative balance in the community of origin, violating what is known as the “principle of ordinality”; that is, the community that contributes the most not be harmed in the final redistribution. Thus raised, the problem of intergovernmental financial relations is common to all countries with a federal or semi-federal fiscal structure. Despite its complexity and opacity, the financing system of Spain is not significantly different from that of other countries with a federal regime, both in theory and in practice: “In most countries... the spending needs of regional governments are usually greater than what they collect through taxes” (León 2015, 36).

The inevitable discrepancies and negotiations aimed at solving specific problems or introducing structural reforms in the financing system would not in themselves justify the beginning of a secessionist process without other aspects of a cultural, juridical and, above all, emotional nature, that, instrumentalized politically, have led to the present moment.

5. Emotions and stories

The 2010 ruling on the Statute generated an emotional climate that added to concern about the economic crisis. In this context, the proposal for an independent Catalonia emerged. Sociologist Marina Subirats wondered in a 2014 article why it was this kind of project that seized the Catalan electorate at that time. Subirats’ qualified answer to this question is backed by her monumental work (2012) on the social evolution of Barcelona and its metropolitan area between the first years of democracy and 2006. She considers the confluence of political and sociological factors, including, on the one hand, the problems in the CiU party, which was split on how to reformulate its strategy and “strained by austerity measures in social areas and by the growing shadow looming over the Pujol family”.[53] On the other hand, a “new” social class was emerging that was receptive to nationalist ideas, namely a hybrid that came together in the first years of democracy made up of people from the old working class, young people from the professional middle class educated in the ideology of the left, as well as of middle class, small business owners motivated more by identity issues than by social convictions. It was a “young, educated class, mostly of Catalan origin” that would have spread the illusion of a “society of the middle classes” throughout the social body and that, with the advent of the crisis, was suddenly confronted “with the reality of the lack of jobs and the frustration of their great expectations, created precisely during a period of economic growth”.

According to Subirats, “this group is, in large part, behind the pro-independence political project and stands as its spokesperson in light of the absence of a national bourgeoisie, which is on its way out and instead has emerged as a transnational corporate class increasingly unaccustomed to strong territorial ties”.[54] While in other places frustration with the crisis led to a revival of left-leaning utopias, in Catalonia, politicians channeled it towards Catalonian independence. In Subirats’ words, it seemed an “available utopia” with “roots in old and new grievances, in defeats, frustrated attempts at regeneration, offenses and misunderstandings. Yet its primary strength is based in a contemporary need for hope. In this sense, the movement is more visceral than doctrinaire, calling upon all to join in; it is not a question of rebuilding an old Mediterranean empire or affirming a national essence, but of jumping out of a drifting ship with the hope that, in a small boat, it will be easier to find the path to Ithaca, or, failing that, directly to Eden”.[55]

From a sociological point of view, it is not surprising that the sectors most present in the independence movement correspond to those that could be considered the losers of globalization, namely “the middle class of local origin and the working class in rural Catalonia”. If the working class is often the biggest loser during great changes in capital, the striking move here is that conservative Catalanism shifted towards nationalist positions. But this is explained because the Catalan bourgeoisie, which had traditionally been the economic engine of Spain and had thus found a way to defend its interests in Madrid, gradually lost its prominence in national politics because of the concentration of political and economic power in the capital, a process that has grown with the advance of globalization: the economic agents that now have the most weight in national politics are no longer linked to any particular territory. In other words, despite its relative importance, the political and economic weight of Catalonia in Spanish politics has decreased compared with its importance during Franco’s time. These identity claims, in this case, are not a simple product of nostalgia; rather, they conceal a loss of power.

All this does not prevent social groups like the local middle class and the working class in rural Catalonia from converging in the emotional sphere for reasons that we neglect at our peril. Subirats (2018) reflects on the available data and concludes that beyond the various motivations that have led some to favor pro-independence political options, “there is a common element, a feeling of humiliation, enormous discontent with the central government and how the PP, as well as the PSOE, have used Catalonia to group their voters and obtain electoral victories. In addition, there is perhaps a more general discontent that comes from the crisis, a lack of progressive perspectives and the social decline that has manifested itself in recent years”.

However, these social problems barely took up space in initial Catalan political debate, which has been monopolized by the issue of independence in a way that perplexes the external observer, as if breaking with Spain would bring with it the solution to all problems and has no associated disadvantages of any kind. While reality always presents fissures, which call for the work of a political reason familiar with contingencies, the independence story is presented with the consistency of self-referential ideologies and quasi-metaphysical ambition.

6. Final reflections

It is not easy to constructively conclude analysis of the Catalan independence movement because construction, in this case, is a political matter, and politics requires a plurality of voices. It is additionally difficult because any process of national construction or deconstruction deliberates on the nature of the political subject (Pérez Royo 2015, 14), i.e. it asks what turns a group of people into a people. This question, however, cannot find solution in alleged national essences prior to the work of political reason, for this work precisely consists in weaving a space of coexistence in which real people, that is, people with different trajectories and sensibilities and marked by a variety of pre-political ties, can coexist in justice and peace. Territorial diversity should not be an obstacle to this if the people involved exercise sufficient political intelligence and will. That is to say, if they want to live together.

Although there are historical and cultural reasons that support the uniqueness of the Catalan people, it is also true that a large part of that history is unintelligible apart from Spain. Combining both aspects may lend toward proposals for constitutional reform in terms of federalism,[56] but those prospects are not at all encouraging at the moment. For this, in effect, we need a political class with a national vision that is capable of leading what López Burniol (2017, 255-256) has described as a “transactional dialogue” in which, on the basis of respect for the facts, the law, and the interlocutors involved, “both parties agree to make reciprocal concessions to reach a viable agreement, even if it does not fully satisfy either party. A dialogue of this kind is only possible if both parties avoid negative words, gestures and attitudes. This is not about defeating an enemy because Spain and Catalonia cannot be considered enemies, however much some insist on presenting them as such. Rather, it is about agreeing with a political adversary that one cannot do without”. Even though initiating this dialogue is responsibility of the side with greater authority and resources its culmination is not possible without the help of the people as a whole. Both inside and outside of Catalonia, we must calm our spirits so that reason may flow and we must openly recognize that, if, on the one hand, an independent Catalonia is not viable today, on the other hand, Spain cannot afford a Catalonia in perpetual upheaval.

Regrettably, many people, within and outside of Catalonia, seem to be hoping to take political advantage of this conflict, despite the fact that, in a culturally plural international context, marked by the challenge of managing globalization and its consequences, the true imperative is found in working to create political alliances that are regional rather than state-driven, collaborating to civilize the economy and place it at the service of the people. As long as emotion continues to prevail in public debate, and politicians remain trapped in their own short-term objectives, the words with which the French Hispanist Joseph Pérez closed his book Entender la historia de España seem to fit and even connect with Ortega’s words at the beginning of this chapter:

“Something is breaking in Spain. A nation has a past, as well as a will to continue life in common. Yet, nations are not eternal: they are born and die like all living organisms. In the same way that, at the end of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese ceased to feel Spanish, it is possible that a day will come when most Catalans and Basques will no longer feel Spanish. Spain would then be separated from territories with which it has had a long common history. It would cease to be the Spain that it has been for centuries, to become another Spain that we cannot yet describe”. The same can be said of Catalonia.


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[1] During the past few months, I have had conversations with many people, both inside and outside of Catalonia, who have helped me consider aspects and hues of the Catalan question that are not sufficiently reflected in the available literature. Both previous reading, as well as interviews and informal conversations in Barcelona have helped me better understand the complexity of this issue, which is often distorted and instrumentalized in public opinion. My sincere thanks go to Borja de Riquer i Permanyer, Jose Enrique Ruiz Domènec, Dolors Udina, Margarita Mauri, Eliseo Aja, Marina Subirats, Jordi Sellarés, Juan José Lopez Burniol, Lluis Foix, Josep Ramoneda, Ferrán Requejo, Joan Ridao, Guillem Lopez Casasnova. My thanks also to Beth Udina for her invaluable help in coordinating all of these interviews.
[2] It astonishes Ferrán Requejo (2002, 16-17) that, “the main political theories of liberal democracy, including many of the intellectually strongest, such as those of J. Rawls and J. Habermas, are so deficient when considering national pluralism” because they assume there can only be one national demos in a democracy.
[3] The December 21, 2017 elections were no exception to the general controversy that arises from the interpretation of electoral results. In principle, voters for non-independence parties outnumbered those in favor of independence, but this depends on how one counts the votes from a hinge party, such as Catalunya en Comú, whose vote does not always follow a univocal path. However, the results are interesting since they registered very high participation levels (81.94% compared to 77.44% in 2015). It is a different matter to examine if the application of current electoral law grants a majority of seats to what has been called the “independence bloc”.
[4] Josep Ramoneda (2018) offers a particularly helpful reflection on these events.
[5] Fusi (2006, 38) has addressed the Basque case in a book that is especially interesting given its focus: Identidades proscritas. El no nacionalismo en las sociedades nacionalistas. See also Nuñez Seixas (2018).
[6] Francesc de Carreras (2017, 107-192) gives a summary account of how the three most representative figures of the different Catalanism currents – Almirall, Torras i Bages and Prat de la Riba – continue to mark the debate.
[7] Represented by figures such as Torras i Bages, Prat de la Riba, Cambó and even Pujol.
[8] From Almirall, Maciá, Companys until Maragall.
[9] On this point, I am particularly indebted to Lluis Foix.
[10] I am grateful to Josep Ramoneda for confirming this point. See Rovira (2008) at
[11] Liberal nationalism is found in authors like Ignatieff, Finkielkraut, and implicit in Viroli's republican patriotism or Habermas’s constitutional patriotism. (Maiz 2003, 430-431).
[12] Both an aggressive and dialectical use of symbols, as well as a trivial use, characteristic of our consumer societies, seem far from what could be called noble patriotism compatible with universal humanism.
[13] That debate has again recently resurfaced in Spanish media:
[14] I am not referring here to the debate between Laín Entralgo (“España como problema”) and Calvo Serer (“España sin problema”) during the Franco period, but rather simply to the center-periphery problem, i.e., when we speak of the “Catalan problem” as a conflict between Spain and Catalonia, there is a tendency to identify Spain with Madrid. However, this is problematic not only for Catalonia, but also for Spain in general, which could in fact benefit from a Madrid-Barcelona bipolarity or, eventually, some form of multi-polarity, rather than opening the door to accumulation of political, economic and cultural power in Madrid given that the latter often occurs at the expense of, and by stripping assets from, other capital regions.
[15] Ortega y Gasset (1951) characterized Charles III’s reign as the most particularist and anti-Spanish of all Spanish monarchs, because after him each group no longer shared the feelings of the rest (46). For Ortega, particularism runs parallel with the disintegration of Spain, understood as a process of incorporating different elements in a forward-looking project (49).
[16] Aribau’s 1833 Renaixença begins with an “Oda a la patria” (national anthem).
[17] How this sentiment is interpreted is another question (Kamen 2014, 172 ff).
[18] I am indebted to Lopez Burniol for this observation.
[19] Years later, however, in his article “La nación frente al Estado”, Ortega seems to assume the reality of the former when he urges, “expecting everything from ourselves and to fear everything from the State”, because “the State and its institutions are a nation’s adjectives and nothing more”. See (Marichal 1989, 53).
[20] Contemporary Galician history speaks to “Catalan fomenters”, the first of whom arrived in the mid-eighteenth century and, among other things, started up the seafood conservation businesses that now characterize Galicia (Villares 2014, 212, 221). More than a century later, these fomenters were assimilated into Galician society, families like the Curberas and Massós, and stopped sending remittances to Catalonia (324-5).
[21] Alvarez Junco (1998, 411-12) offers some interesting reflections in this regard: “Why did the 1980s generation feel so dismayed at Cuban independence when the politicians and intellectuals from Fernando VII’s era barely noticed the decisive events surrounding Hispanic America’s independence? ... For contemporaries of Ferdinand VII, the king had lost some territories... for his grandchildren, we had lost the colonies”.
[22] Last names like Partagás, Gener, Bacardí, Güell, etc. speak to the connections between Cuba and Catalonia, possible because of Carlos III’s royal decrees that allowed for free trade with America. Many Catalans settled in Cuba and made their fortunes with sugar, tobacco, rum, banking and the slave trade.
[23] The novelist Joan Sales reflects on confusion about Catalan flags in his novel Incierta Gloria (2005, 269 ff).
[24] On this matter, the attitude one holds towards language has an importance that is more than symbolic. The policy of linguistic immersion that the Generalitat enacted, in line with the 1983 law of linguistic standardization, was upheld by the Constitutional Court in 1996. However, some have begun to question it again – an indication that part of Spanish society has not yet accepted bilingualism as a natural part of our society.
[25] Javier Pérez Royo (2015, 20) speaks of a reciprocal “balance of weaknesses” on which the transition rested, and which made it possible to keep the monarchy intact and compatible with the principle of national sovereignty. De Riquer has described the ambiguity of the negotiations that surrounded the constitutional pact in his unpublished text, “La transición española”.
[26] A term that Miquel Roca apparently introduced in the text of the Constitution.
[27] Attributed to Prof. Manuel Clavero Arévalo.
[30] Kamen contrasts Pujol’s praise of Feliu de la Penya in 1983 as a model for everyone “who wants to build a solid and progressive Catalonia” with his stance years later, saying, “he is no longer a reference point for Catalonia”, possibly, as Kamen conjectures, because Feliu de la Penya felt both Catalan and Spanish at the same time.
[31] Maragall was appointment president as a result of the “Tinell Pact” between the Socialist Party of Catalonia, Republican Esquerra of Catalonia, and the Catalonia Green Initiative – Esquerra Unida i Alternativa; this pact left CIU president Artur Mas and his government out despite his success in the elections.
[32] On this point, I refer back to the document prepared by professors of constitutional and administrative law presented in December 2017 at the Royal Academy of Political Science under the title, “Veinte propuestas para la Reforma de la Constitución” (Twenty proposal for Constitutional reform).
[34] Requejo (2007, 126-7) details the economic aspects: “Catalonia will receive 50% of its income tax (until then it received 33%), 50% VAT (35%) and 58% of excise taxes on alcohol, fuel and tobacco (40%), but without participating in the corporate tax scheme. It is not clear, however, how much overall financing Catalonia will receive with the new statutory text, since increased percentages will be partially compensated by the reduction or elimination of transfers from the ‘sufficiency fund’, as well as subsequent agreements of a multilateral nature. In order to further alleviate Catalonia’s financing deficit... the State guarantees a volume of investments for seven years that matches the Catalan contribution to the Spanish GDP (18.5%), but it does not establish a calculation system or what we should understand for ‘infrastructures’”.
[39] According to Vicens i Vives (2012, 233), “being arrauxat means, precisely, lacking in seny (common sense), obeying emotional impulses, acting according to rash decisions. In these circumstances, we let ourselves be carried away by passion, without weighing the realities involved or measuring their consequences... Rauxa is not a fit of madness... but a foregoing of a measured spirit in the face of limitless fanaticism and passion. Rauxa is the psychological basis of an all or nothing mentality, a denial of the ideal of compromise and a pact dictated by the seny collective”.
[40] “It was, in the words of several Spanish constitutionalists, a ‘juridical coup d’etat’ since it granted the Constitutional Court the category of a third chamber that could correct what the Cortes, the highest sovereign authority, had approved. The autonomous statutes are the fruit of a political pact between the central government and the Spanish Cortes with the autonomous governments and their parliaments and are then voted on by the public. They cannot be corrected by the Constitutional Court since they are not in fact organic laws, but rather are of a different nature – a superior political pact. The PP biasedly filled the interpretive gap on this issue in the Constitution itself and the Zapatero government was complicit in the matter”. De Riquer, “La Transición española”.
[41] See Document on “Veinte propuestas para reforma de la Constitución”.
[44];;; A similar possibility seemed to have surfaced in 83:
[45] In terms of healthcare, which is a fundamental part of autonomous communities’ budgets, decentralization dates back to 1982, with transfers to Catalonia (López Casasnovas, 2015, 136, 141).
[46] “To calculate the expenditure needs of the regions, their services are split into three (common services, health and social services). For the common services, there is a fixed amount for each CA (39.57 million) and then the distribution of funds is based on the following weighed variables: population (94%), Surface Area (4.2.%), Dispersion (1.2%), Insularity (0.6%). There are additional funds: relative income (for CA with an income under average) and funds to compensate a low population density (Aragon and Extremadura). And finally, a series of modulation rules, which are a series of adjustments and corrections to favour or compensate some CA (those of per capita income under 82% of average) and those of high dispersion (Asturias, Castile-Leon and Galicia). Health funds are distributed according to the protected population and the rate of population older than 65 years. And finally, the variable to distribute social services funds is population older than 65 years. To finance these needs, a simple equation holds: needs=taxes transferred +/- Sufficiency Fund; where the taxes transferred are the capital assets tax, the inheritance and donations tax, the transfer tax, 33% of income tax, 35% of VAT, 40 % special taxes (alcohol, oil tobacco), 100% taxes on transport, 100% taxes on electricity. The sufficiency fund is an adjustment mechanism. If the taxes transferred are larger than the needs fixed, the autonomous community has to transfer this fund (the fund is negative), otherwise it is positive and the autonomous community receives a transfer in addition to the taxes. As a result of these mechanisms, the Spanish regional transfer system over-equalizes. Thus, autonomous communities such as Catalonia with more fiscal capacity end up with less expenditure per capita than the majority of autonomous communities” Paluzie 2010, 357-370, 364-5.
[47] According to Sandra León (2015, 240) “even if regional financing were reformed, it would not significantly impact the results of fiscal balance in the communities. Balancing the scales mainly depends on the effect of the Central Administration’s redistributive policies in the communities (pensions and unemployment insurance) and, to a lesser extent, on the investments that the central government makes in the autonomous communities (for example, in infrastructures)”.
[48] “The first methodological difficulty is found in data selection since all and only the income and expenses with regional scope should be taken into consideration, which implies – on the other hand – the capacity to measure this scope. From this perspective, any rigorous analysis… must begin by distinguishing personal capital flows from territorial ones (…) But even geographical distribution of territory-based spending is not always indicative of interregional flows, like when it comes to important items such as education and health expenditures, whose volume does not depend on the number of inhabitants in a territory, but rather on the structure and composition of the territory’s population. (…) Another important limitation in this analysis is the need to differentiate the territorial impact of income and expenditure and its territorial occurrence. (…) Incidence does not just depend on the initial impact of income or public spending, but also on the activities developed by those who are affected by it in the first person, activities under which the benefit or burden is transferred to other people who are affected by public financial activity”. Fernández Miranda, Alfonso, unpublished text provided by Eugenio Simón.
[49] López Casasnovas,
[50] For an excellent summary of this issue see Aja (2014, 266-271).
[51] López Casasnovas (2015, 142-3) highlights the frequent errors that are committed when interpreting data on healthcare expenditures in the different regions as inequitable.
[52] López Casasnovas,
[53] Subirats, M. “El desafío imposible”, November 2017. In this article, Subirats speaks of the “CIU and ERC’s encouragement of two civil society organizations that have led the independence movement during all these years is evident, although the related details have never been made public”, that is, of ANC and Omnium Cultural, which took center stage in Barcelona while 15M grew in prominence in Madrid, redirecting social discontent towards the issue of independence.
[54] Subirats, M., “La utopía disponible”, La maleta de Port-Bou, November, n. 6, 2014.
[55] Subirats, M., “La utopía disponible”.


Nazione, Stato, Stato Nazione

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