What's Up with Catalonia?What’s Up with Catalonia? by Liz Castro

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Do not invite an American to speak about Europe; he will usually display great presumption and a rather ridiculous arrogance.

—Alexis de Toqueville

Perhaps the most politically controversial topic here in Madrid is the Catalonian independence movement. Almost everyone I speak to is vigorously against it, for one reason or another. I’ve heard people say that it is just a bluff for political negotiations; that it is based on calculated lies; that it is illegal and unconstitutional; that the Catalans are just crazy people; and so on. Indeed, it is my understanding that disagreement over the Catalonia Question is one of the major causes of the current political deadlock in Spain.

People talk about it a lot. But even after dozens of conversations, I still felt that I didn’t understand the situation; I was only hearing one side of the story. So for my first trip to Barcelona, I decided to open this book, a collection of essays by several pro-independence authors. It is a quick read: I read half of the book on the flight to Barcelona, and the other half on the flight back to Madrid. And now that I think of it, that is probably the best place to read this book, suspended in midair between the two cities.

It is this stance, an attempt at impartiality, that I am trying to maintain. But this is difficult for me. As one of the essays in this collection explains, many Americans are predisposed against independence movements because it reminds us of our Civil War. Of course, Catalonia is a completely different issue, so my association is illogical and unfair; and besides, my whole country originated in a war for independence. Yet I find it difficult to contemplate the option of secession without feeling queasy. That’s my bias.

This collections offers a variety of arguments for and perspectives on independence. The reasons offered for secession range from economic, to sentimental, to nationalistic, to linguistic, to historical, to political, often in combination. But, to quote Warwick, the result is less than the sum of its parts. The authors have different priorities and their arguments often contradict one another, which creates a sense of incoherence. One author argues that the Catalan language cannot be used as the primary marker of their identity, since a significant portion of the region’s inhabitants don’t speak it fluently; but another author comes out strongly for Catalan. Lots of authors talk about taxation and fiscal spending—all of them quoting the same statistics, which got rather tiresome by the end—but others said that they would want independence even if these financial troubles were cleared up. The tone of the essays ranged from dry analysis to impassioned pleas. It’s a hodgepodge.

One thing seriously lacking from the discussions of taxation and fiscal spending was how the Catalonia situation compared with that of other countries. In a nutshell, the complaint is that the Spanish government takes more money from Catalonia than they spend on it. But it is my understanding that this is a common occurrence when one region of a country is richer than another: money is diverted to where it is needed most. New York and California help to fund other states; and from what I’m told, Berlin is on the receiving end of a lot of financial support. If one of the authors had framed the fiscal situation in an international context, it would be easier to see whether it was fair.

These criticisms notwithstanding, I think this is an extremely valuable collection. Yes, there are much better overviews of the independence movement in Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Hooper’s The New Spaniards; but those are two foreigners trying to summarize a complicated situation. This collection lets the Catalans speak for themselves, leading to a much more nuanced view of the independence movement. It shouldn’t be read in isolation; this is only one half of the debate. But it is an important half.

Personally I can’t decide how I feel about the whole thing. I am hostile to nationalism in general; and it strikes me that both the pro- and anti-independence positions are tinged with nationalism, for Catalonia or for Spain. I can certainly understand why, after Franco’s repressive policies, there is a considerable amount of bad blood built up in Catalonia; and I appreciate that it would make many Catalans very happy to have a country of their own. On the other hand, I think one mark of a country’s greatness is the amount of diversity it can incorporate, so I’d prefer it if the opposing sides could figure out how to live together without stepping on each other’s toes. Secession strikes my American mind as an overly drastic solution to the problem. But at this point I will take heed from Toqueville’s warning and say no more.

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4 thoughts on “Review: What’s Up with Catalonia?

  1. Oh, nooooo, don’t take that advice, keep talking.

    I’m devouring your posts on Catalonia and their situation. I’m thinking that the separation is ultimately a question of will. Some will for it, some don’t. I’m also asking myself what would it bring, to each side. Apart from satisfaction or resentment, where would it put Spain and Catalonia in the context of Europe and the world. I believe some European countries opposed, right? (It will involve lots of funds and a tremendous amount of burocracy, for a result of limited benefits outside of the emotional realm.) As you say, a richer region pays more, the issue at heart, like in the States, it’s that they are not attached to their efforts of supporting those other people, they see others as strange to their values and culture. (It is the same here. Isn’t California bankrupt, btw? You see, here in Texas we also feel we don’t have much in common with, say, California, hahaha.) It’s interesting, no, piercing and painful to read and be in the middle of conflicts. I’m reading They Called Themselves the K.k.k with my dd, and it’s a nuanced riddle, the famous Reconstruction.
    In my vacation in Malta, there were lots of tourists, many from Catalonia. One Catalonuan nationalist lady started talking to me, and she also gave me the monetary and patriotic reasons you mentioned. I kept thinking too, how their pensions and retirement plans differ from the rest, and how much they get in other terms -which means riches too, since they have many different laws and incentives than Spain. For example, while homeschooling is not ratified by Spanish law, in Catalonia is widely practiced and more protected. Spain will do better acknowledging them more, looking at them as an example. As you said too, the riches of a country reside party in their diversity.
    I’m enjoying everything you write, Lotz. Thanks a lot.

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    1. Thanks so much for reading!

      I decided to “say no more” after I wrote this review, which was a couple years ago (I sometimes post old reviews that were on Goodreads). But now I’m working on the series of which you’ve read the first part, so don’t worry!

      I believe you’re correct that the EU in general is opposed to Catalan independence. Apart from the huge amount of work separation would require, as you point out, independence could also set an undesirable precedent in the EU, bolstering many other independence movements on the continent.

      This article has information about what states receive more than they pay in federal taxes, and which less:

      https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/05/which-states-are-givers-and-which-are-takers/361668/

      New York, for example, gets back about 80 cents for each dollar we pay in taxes. Texas receives about $1.40 for each dollar they pay, making it a net receiver. And North Carolina receives almost $8 for every dollar they pay!

      As you say, this situation—which is very normal across the world—can only be considered objectionable if the Catalans don’t feel an identity with Spain. Even so, New Yorkers (in my experience) often feel alienated from the rest of their country, too, and hardly anybody talks about the tax deficit. So I have trouble believing that this very normal tax situation is the real reason people want independence.

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      1. I couldn’t agree more with you. And numbers can be used to justify opposing views, specially if we don’t use the taxes alone, but other figures. It’s more, as you wrote in your first article, how the regions, in America, Europe (and I venture say all over the world) came to existence. In 1812, some States were tired of fighting, -they have had enough, while others were thirsty for war, and the territory gain it promised. Who is right? Los catalanes are tired of Rajoy, but the Spanish too, even those who supported him. After the 2009 crises, as you pointed, people are emerging with tiredness, resentment, and the latent conflicts are only accentuated to the point of violence and turmoil. The American Civil War saw a devastating loss of lives, but what came after was so damaging, we are still suffering from it, and at times of discord, those non healed wounds are opening again and new ones are being inflicted.

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