When I left Barcelona for the first time in 1998 to go to Paris, Catalunya was rarely known as a place where identitarian feeling was strong and culture thriving. Very often, my language, Catalan, was known as a Spanish dialect and our claims of autonomy taken lightly, as part of our folklore, in comparison to the violent separatist movement in Basque country.
In all this time since I left my country, more than 10 years, things have changed. News about what Jose Ortega y Gasset called “the Catalan problem” (el problema catalán) have regularly appeared in international media. Something I was not accustomed to. At the same time, a Catalan government more assertive in claiming the position of the Catalan language, and in extending the presence of Catalunya around the world came into power in 2003.
Today, I feel that popular knowledge in Europe about the “Catalan problem” is growing. Yet, this doesn’t mean that it is shared, understood or supported. Reactions are normally related to national experience. French see it as a cultural movement that has to be squashed before it becomes political. Germans do not understand why we want to have more autonomy, let alone independence, when we are not persecuted or repressed like the Kosovars, or we were not forced to live together by the communists like the Slovaks (forgetting Czechoslovakia was founded after World War I). Italians compare our identity to the myriad of dialects and cultures of which Italy is composed of, therefore they see us as just an annoyance which needs to be ignored. Belgians differ depending on which side of the community divide they are in: Flemish being more knowledgeable of the situation (though not necessarily understandable, that depends on which side of the political spectrum they are in), and French speakers (not necessarily Walloons) having a position closer to the French, though without the squashing. British have a rather pragmatic approach based on action, that is, until we don’t do anything about it, it is irrelevant for them. And so on.
Tomorrow, Sunday 13, 700,000 people from 167 towns all around Catalunya will participate in a referendum organized by civic groups, without the support of public institutions or political parties. What started small, with a referendum in Arenys de Munt, a small Catalan town, on September 13 has gradually, but quickly, become the main political issue in Catalunya. From the bottom, this democratic movement has been growing and taken momentum in unexpected ways (wiki page in Catalan about the referendums).
In order to begin understanding what’s happening in Catalunya we need to (at least) go back to 12 April, 1931. That day the local elections in Spain gave an important victory to the republicans (anti-monarchists), including Catalan nationalists in Catalunya. Immediately after, the Spanish monarchist government fell. On April 14, the King Alfonso XIII left the country and the II Spanish Republic was proclaimed. What is often ignored outside Catalunya is that the leader of Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya , the winner in the elections in Catalunya, had already proclaimed hours before the Catalan Republic within the Iberian Federation. Those like Le Monde who argue that this referendum is the effect of “nationalist rhetoric fueled by regional institutions” are damn wrong in thinking that this is a new phenomenon. Catalans have felt their difference for many centuries, the only thing that changes is the opportunities they have had to express them and fight for them…