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Torra’s unnerving Catalan supremacism

Spain is a democracy trying not to succumb to populist politicians whose solutions lie in always blaming others for their problems

Catalan regional premier Quim Torra.
Catalan regional premier Quim Torra. EL PAÍS

Joaquim Torra, the newly appointed regional Catalan premier, has defined Spanish speakers as “beasts in human form, scavengers, vipers, hyenas.” He has also accused Spain of never having exported anything other than “misery, both spiritual and material.” All this led to him being denounced by anti-racist NGO SOS Racisme in Catalonia.

His predecessor, Carles Puigdemont – currently in Berlin awaiting possible extradition to Spain after organizing an illegal referendum and unilaterally declaring independence – fed the myth that “Spain steals from us” by affirming that all of Catalonia’s problems would be solved if every Catalan family stopped sending €10,000 every year to the rest of Spain. And before him, Artur Mas, regional premier from 2010 to 2016, justified independence aspirations over the supposition that Catalan DNA is more Germanic and less Roman than that of the rest of Spain.

The victimization strategy has reached its apogee by trying to convince the rest of the world that there exists an oppressed nation (Catalonia) within an authoritarian state (Spain) in the heart of democratic Europe

Supremacist views were also espoused by Jordi Pujol, who governed in Catalonia for 23 years, from 1980 to 2003. Pujol described the Andalusian as “an anarchic man who lives in a state of ignorance and cultural, mental and spiritual misery”. His victimization strategy was denounced as early as 1981 by Josep Tarradellas, the premier who returned from exile in 1977 to restore Catalan self-government under the new democratic regime after Franco’s death. Pujol, Tarradellas stated, attempted to “hide the failure to act of a whole government and the lack of moral authority of its members” by using the “well-known and widely discredited trick of turning himself into the persecuted, the victim”.

Today, a little over 40 years after Tarradellas’ return, the victimization strategy of Catalan nationalism has reached its apogee by trying to convince the rest of the world that there exists an oppressed nation (Catalonia) within an authoritarian state (Spain) in the heart of democratic Europe. But the data don’t lend any credence to such a thesis. Catalonia’s per-capita GDP (Catalonia comprises 16% of Spain’s population and 19% of its GDP) is €29,936, compared with a Spanish average of €24,999. It is thus only natural that it contributes to the common treasury somewhat above what it gets. The Catalan language is understood by 95.2% of the Catalan population, and 73.2% speak it. Outside of Spain, neither the Council of Europe, nor the European Union, nor the OSCE, nor the Venice Commission, nor Human Rights Watch nor Amnesty International have denounced or sanctioned the Spanish government for denying Catalonia’s right to self-government, its language, identity or culture.

The ethnocentrism of the independence movement, which conceals a big reaction by the more affluent, rural interior against immigrants from other parts of Spain, is the big elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss. Studies reveal that civil servants and people with income over €2,400 a month support independence almost twice as much as those earning less than €900 a month and the unemployed. Support for independence reaches 75% among those with four grandparents born in Catalonia but it’s only 12% among people born outside Catalonia. How do secessionists explain that none of the 13 newly appointed cabinet members have a surname that is among the 13 most common in Catalonia?

With the Catalan crisis it is frequent to find foreign observers resorting to explanations based on the Francoist past and the oppression suffered by Catalonia during the dictatorship. However, these explanations leave out a key fact: until the arrival of the global populist wave in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the secessionist drive was marginal in Catalonia and its defenders didn’t reach 10% of the vote until 2003. But after 2008, whether it’s Spain, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, the United States, Hungary or Poland, exploiting national feelings became much easier for opportunistic politicians than managing the economy and public services or being held accountable for corruption, which has been rampant in Catalan governments. When you are richer, getting rid of the poor and the immigrants can seem like an easy solution, even at the cost of destroying social harmony.

Sadly, xenophobic and discriminatory nationalism, an old European acquaintance, is back. Spain, despite the claims of Catalan secessionists, is not different or worse than the rest of its European neighbors: it is just another democracy trying not to succumb to populist politicians whose solution is to always blame problems on others. The last thing Europe needs is to add Torra’s and Puigdemont’s xenophobic Catalonia to Orban’s Hungary, Salvini’s Italy or Kacynski’s Poland.

José Ignacio Torreblanca is op-ed editor at EL PAÍS.