Montserrat Guibernau speaks at The St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference


Photo by Isabel-Helena Martí

This is the third part of a four-part series, analyzing each of the four respective speakers from The St Andrews Foreign Affairs Conference, “Nationalism in the New Era: Scottish Independence and Similar Movements.”  The review can be found on The Saint’s Events page.

 Prof. Montserrat Guibernau spoke about Catalonia and Spain.  There is over “26.2% unemployment” in Spain as of January, she said, and 23% in Catalonia.  49% are unhappy with democracy, “at a time when Catalonia is loosing competitiveness,” lacks resources, and has a deficit.  In December 2012, 57% would have voted for independence if there was a referendum the next day.  “This is why Catalonia is in the news,” said Prof. Guibernau, “because this is unusual.”  In Catalonia, “nationalism has traditionally been in favor of devolution,” but “secessionism is something new,” having emerged in the last three to four years.  “If you say tomorrow there is a referendum,” Prof. Guibernau explained, people are more in favor of voting for independence than if you ask them about independence in general — which they will say they want but don’t believe they will ever get.

“Catalonia is a nation that has its roots in the middle ages,” said Prof. Guibernau; its status changed in 1714, quite close to when Scotland changed its status, uniting with a larger country.  Spain was going to decide on a new king: most of Spain went for the Bourbon candidate, while most Catalans went for a member of the Austrian royalty, who was seen as more sympathetic to Catalan causes.  The Bourbon won, and Catalonia suffered as a consequence.  The relationship between Catalonia and Spain, Prof. Guibernau said, was “marked by short periods during which Catalonia enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy.”  These periods, however, were inevitably followed by a coup d’état.  The worst of these was by General Francisco Franco.  He brought cultural and political “homogenization” and “authoritarianism.”  It was a bad time for Spain, with no free choice, but even worse for Catalonia.

General Franco’s “dying of natural causes” in November 1975 initiated a transition to democracy the next year.  Franco’s authoritarian dictatorship, Prof. Guibernau said, “from within…generated a transition to democracy.”  Yet the same members of the dictatorship remained in power in the new democracy.  Spain had high unemployment, inflation, a bad economic situation, and no modern economy.  Spain needed to change, to join NATO and the European Union, and meet the requisites “to become acceptable to Western democracies.”  The Basque region and Catalonia pressed strongly for democracy.  Catalonia was dedicated to Spain, and with its industrial power, “contributed to Spanish stability.”

But proving that Spain was genuinely a democracy was very difficult.  Catalan nationalism at the time, Prof. Guibernau said, created the “strongest movement for [the] democratization of Spain,” and devolution in Catalonia.  The “Assembly of Catalonia,” including many parties, right and left, presented a “shared idea that Spain had to be turned into a democracy,” returning the Catalan language and other aspects of Catalan culture, and getting Catalonia recognition.

Prof. Guibernau said members of the ex-Franco regime stayed in the Spanish government until 1985, when the Socialist Party won for the first time.  Catalonia supported the Socialist Party and “also the Popular Party when they did not have the majority.”  The Catalan independence movement came together backing these parties.  Catalonia could not evolve within Spain, nationalist supporters believed, though Catalonia could help Spain in many areas.  Change finally came when Spain was accepted into the European Union and NATO in the 1980s.  Spain and Catalonia were considered the door to Africa before this time, Prof. Guibernau said, which was “designed as something negative…You step out of Franc and there you are, in barbaric Spain.”

Spaniards are proud of the transformation from Francoism to democracy, because it was peaceful.  More recently, there is another transition, Prof. Guibernau said, “[a] wave towards secessionism.”  She pointed to the main reasons for this.  In 2003, when Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar met with Portuguese Prime Minister José Manuel Durão Barroso, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. Pres. George W. Bush in the Azores and posed for a now famous picture, which indicated “Spain had made it,” there was a call against products from Catalonia, in particular, “Cava.”  This, Prof. Guibernau said, “had some positive consequences in Catalonia,” as Catalonia “opened up and tried to export abroad…and not limit their market to the Spanish market.”

In 2006, there was an attempt to write a new Statue of Autonomy for Catalonia.  The original agreement “had to be agreed between the Catalans and the Spaniards,” she said, and was written by many people involved with the Franco dictatorship .  The new version was approved by 90% in the Catalan parliament.  “[It] was accepted,” Prof. Guibernau said, but the day after was challenged in court by the Spanish government.  “That opened a big game, a big distance between Catalonia” and the rest of Spain.  There were a multitude of “symbolic referendums” in many areas, she said, “symbolic” because in Spain, you can’t ask what people want in the future.  The referendums were grassroots events, organized by civil society, “with the support of 15,000 people.”  While “of course these informal referendums were void,” Prof. Guibernau explained, “symbolically,” they had some power.

Many articles of the new Statue of Autonomy were changed by the Spanish court, which announced in 2010, amongst other revisions, that Catalonia defining itself as a “nation” held no legal significance.  “[Here] we find the origin of [today’s] discontent,” Prof. Guibernau said, along with the “fiscal deficit with Spain.”  Catalonia collects taxes, and the Spanish state redistributes them for regional parity, leaving Catalonia with a deficit.  She said, for many years this “has been holding,” but not now.  Catalonia is the main contributor to Spanish federal funds, and “something is fundamentally wrong.”  There were big demonstrations in Barcelona, but “with bad luck,” because it was the day after “Spain won the World Cup in Johannesburg.”  This, said Prof. Guibernau, was “really bid timing,” and the Catalans have “many examples of bad timing.”

In 2012, however, 1.5 million people demonstrated in Barcelona, chanting a very interesting slogan: “Catalonia: New State in Europe.”  This rise in support for independence was based on “awareness of how much Catalonia looses economically,” Prof. Guibernau said, and awareness that the law is not being fully upheld or supported.

New elections led to compromise.  The nationalist party, Convergència i Unió (CiU), called for a referendum asking for independence, although, “this is illegal in Spain.”  The opposition of the state on this matter is clearly “stated in the constitution.”  Article Two declares the unity of the patria, and Article Eight that the army may be used to preserve it.  These are in the constitution, Prof. Guibernau reminded, which was written immediately after Franco’s dictatorship, at the beginning the transition to democracy.

For Scotland, “the problem is will we win or not.”  In Catalonia, she said, the question is if we go ahead with this referendum, will the Spanish government “put it [Catalonia] in prison,” and “accuse it [Catalonia] of sedition?”  This is today’s stage, said Prof. Guibernau, “from dictatorship to democracy then the aftermath of that.”

In Spain, there is a “unitary view of the state,” but in Catalonia there is a “different view of the state” and “conception of democracy,” Prof. Guibernau explained.  This difference is due to three factors.  First, she said, “Spain considers the constitution as static” and can not be changed.  Prof. Guibernau mentioned the movie Lincoln for showing that a constitution can be amended if people think elements are undemocratic, and how such amendments “are possible if people can make a case for that and then they are supported.”  Second, Prof. Guibernau said, the difference “has to do with the conception of democracy…democracy is something that you have to work at.  It’s constant.”  It is something that requires your constant effort, she said, “Democracy can never be employed as a parapet.”  Number three, she concluded: “the European Union creates a different framework.  A completely differently framework.”

Prof. Guibernau commented that “all these different democratic movements,” in Flanders, Catalonia, and Scotland, are happening “because the European Union has seriously stood” for that.  You are taught democracy and dialogue in school, in Scotland and Catalonia too.  Then they say no, she said, referring to members of the federal government in Spain, “and this is a bit of a shock, especially for younger generations.”

People who support the view that Catalonia has an “insufficient degree of autonomy” has risen to 76%; the belief that Catalonia has a “sufficient degree” is very low, somewhere around 20%; if there was a referendum on independence tomorrow, “the percentage that would vote in favor has been rising,” Prof. Guibernau said, “to 52% in early January.”  This is “quite a big worry, because people,” and even politicians, “don’t know what is going to happen.”  Movements have hitherto been “peaceful movements,” she said, but the “distance between Catalonia and Spain” is increasing.


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