Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Final Thoughts On Catalan Independence

One of my new year's resolutions was to avoid posting on any issue related to Catalunya vis-a-vis Spain and the politics of the relationship, but a recent article in the Economist and some comments from a local author about my book made me decide to rant one last time before resuming the resolution for the Chinese new year.

First of all, a little perspective. It is only in Barcelona and Catalunya that anyone really cares. In a lot of ways, it's like the entertainment industry in LA, political gossip in DC; it's a topic that you'll only ever discuss if you live here because of the disproportionate importance given to it by the media compared to what truly concerns most people (jobs, economy, environment etc). Of course, there is a difference. In Los Angeles, it's about which director is about to get the next blockbuster and in DC it's about which politician is a drunk, while here it's about the tricky and emotional question of national identity.

In fact, many of the aforementioned author's objections to the stories were in regards to how I dealt with this issue and whether Spanish or Catalan was the appropriate adjective to use to describe the people from Barcelona.  According to him, there was a consensus reached in the the mid-nineties that anyone born in Catalunya was Catalan first, unless they said otherwise and regardless of the language spoken at home. They could be just Catalan, or Catalan plus something, but first and foremost Catalan. That very well may be the case, but international consensus and law, for many decades, has used the country on the passport or ID card to describe somebody's nationality, thus making the people from Barcelona, Spanish, in the eyes of most of the world and the intended audience of the book. That's the reality of the situation.Besides, on a practical level, how the hell can you tell if someone was born in Barcelona and not in Zaragoza or decide if that group at the table is Spanish and Catalan, simply Catalan or just Spanish? Should one just assume everyone walking the was born here and thus Catalan? That's a bit disrespectful to the millions of Spaniards who live and work in the city, isn't it?

As a fiction writer, the question of Catalan or Spanish often comes down to how best to describe a character and has little to do with local semantic arguments about what constitutes a nationality. For example, the quintessential Spanish beauty, what do you imagine after reading that? A dark haired, dark eyed, brown skin girl, right?  If I were to write the quintessential Catalan beauty, I'd have to use different adjectives: paler skin, larger eyes, blonder hair. I suppose I could replace Spanish with Catalan for the sake of being politically correct (there are many local women who have dark traits), but I would have to remove the word quintessential and add her beauty was due to her Spanish blood or something along that line. It really does seem a petty point to critique but that's the state of the debate of identity politics here it appears.

When I first arrived in Barcelona, my mind and opinions were blank and open when it came to this issue. Politically, socially, economically, I lean left and fully support people's right to self-determination and governance. After seven years of living here, having had literally thousands of conversations with hundreds of people about this topic almost to the point of ad nauseum, I have little sympathy for the nationalist cause or the people who state Catalunya is an occupied territory. Truth-be-told, I find such statements and the arguments in favor of independence lacking in any basis of reality and sometimes tinged with an element of racism.

What do I mean? The vast majority of Catalans I've met, whether their family has been here for generations or their parents came from somewhere else in Spain during the forties and fifties, have little problem speaking Spanish or feeling part of the country. They support the national team, talk fondly about their last trip somewhere in Spain and complain about the ineptness of the national government. They feel both Catalan and Spanish and see no contradiction being both nor do they see one as better than the other. Unfortunately, while the majority, they aren't the ones driving the debate.

From my experience, it seems many of the most vocal and ardent nationalists are people who were born here but with Spanish parents. Claiming to be Catalan and only Catalan, they will renounce all things Spain, sometimes going so far to say they hate the country, while speaking of Catalunya's superiority in terms of culture, demeanor and work habits. I suppose this overcompensation is normal and a psychologist would attribute it to a deep seated insecurity of said people to fit in. Still, coming from the states where citizens celebrate their Irish connection 300 years after their ancestors arrived, I have a hard time fathoming how someone can speak so poorly about the land of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. As a father of a baby girl, I wonder what they're teaching in the schools to make people feel such a way towards their ancestry and if I want my daughter to attend classes here.

True, this is only a small element of the people arguing for separation with most proponents using economics to push for the cause. Some will say, if only we were a republic like the United States to which I reply, you have no clue what you're talking about. The largest state in terms of economy is California. If it were a stand alone country, it would, I think, be the seventh or eighth biggest economy in the world, larger than Spain and perhaps Italy. Yet, the state is an absolute mess financially, on par with Greece, and it receives little of the federal income tax revenue it generates which would help the situation; the money used to run state services raised through local taxes which are the highest in the nation. And what about the millions of federal tax dollars the state contributes? It's managed by a senator in charge of the appropriations committee from a much less populous state who uses it to fund a bridge to nowhere for his constituents, thereby ensuring his re-election. In political jargon it's called "pork" and as a person who has lived both in Spain and in the states, I'm telling you - you've got less of it and more financial control as an autonomy than you would as a state so don't wish for a political system you don't understand.

The most common number cited, however, is 25/15; the amount the region gives to the national economy compared to the percentage it receives back. How unfair, people will scream, neglecting to point out that Spain, and yes Catalunya, has received a far greater amount of revenue from the European Union (namely France and Germany) than they've put in. How one economic model is fine on a European level but not on national one strikes me as a hypocritical, but leaving that alone, I do have a question - What did the regional government do with this money from Europe? Did they use it to reform some of the systematic problems which was the implied agreement? Did they use it to build a different economic model truly separating Catalunya from Spain? No, like the national government, they used it to fund the construction boom that saw the price of housing skyrocket while salaries for the citizens stagnated, resulting in the current mess we're in. And you want these men to run your country?

If you read the comments to the Economist article, you'll see many pro-independence voices claiming the region would be better off without Spain, although they offer no statistics, numbers or even logical conclusions to back up their assertions, only blanket statements. But is it true? Well, they'd gain complete control of tax revenue and end the net ten percent loss of the current system, but they'd also face higher expenditures and pay €937-€1024 more per capita into the EU budget than it would receive (see comments below). Assuming complete responsibility for  ALL services (unemployment, pensions, health, transport, police, etc) isn't cheap, not when there's an aging population, low fertility rates and high unemployment like here. Add GDP shrinking at a slightly higher percentage than Spain as a whole and a growing current account deficit to the equation, and I don't think it's far fetched to predict a wash at best, maybe even a net loss.

The economic problems facing the region (such as the need to lower wages to reduce the costs of goods produced here, but being unable to devalue the currency due to being in the Euro zone) wouldn't go away as a result of separation. After all, I assume an independent Catalan state would use the euro and not introduce its own currency. In other words, even if it were a stand alone country right now, it's economy would be just like Spain's, unless the politicians could convince the citizens to work for less in exchange for independence and that ain't happening. Thinking about it, I'm not sure an independent Catalan state as it stands now would be granted admittance to Europe considering how little appetite the EU probably has to include one more member in the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) block that might need a bailout, especially since the area doesn't offer cheap labor to German factories like Eastern European nations nor is it an exporter of highly-sought after goods. I take that back; there's cava.

But what of those local tax revenues generated which would be used to justify inclusion in the EU and Catalunya's independent status? When I look around the city I don't see an explosion of local, Catalan, businesses. Like the rest of Spain, I see a place beholden to foreign companies, construction and tourism for much of its employment. And just out of curiosity, where do people think a multinational would put its headquarters for the Iberian peninsula if Catalunya became an independent country with its own language? Would some CEO sitting in New York, London or Paris be willing to pay additional expenses to have all communication first done in Catalan and also in Spanish? Just look at how Portugal fits into the Iberian corporate model of many multinationals to find the answers to those questions. Basically, what I'm saying is - there's no guarantee the region could sustain its current income level as an independent state but there is a possibility it could see a decline and that doesn't even take into account the probable brain drain as Spaniards (i.e. those not from Catalunya) decide perhaps Madrid or Valencia is a better option since they can feel free to speak their native tongue there. Ditto for the thousands of Latin and South American immigrants living here.

I don't mean to come across as anti-Catalan or against the right for someone to identify themselves as such. I think previous posts will show I have a tremendous amount of affinity and respect for the people here. You can feel anyway you want and I appreciate that. I personally don't feel very American having lived most of my life outside the US, but it doesn't change the fact that's what I am in the eyes of everyone who meets me, just as it doesn't change the fact that you are Spanish even if you were born in Barcelona to most of the world.  Now you can get angry and tell me how wrong I am with that statement but it's the truth and to say otherwise is to deny reality. Of course, the healthy thing to do is not waste time debating if you're a nation or not but fix the systematic problems of the region, laying the groundwork for a free Catalunya, making the point moot, but that requires doing something other than pontificating and blaming Madrid. It means serious, objective analysis and hard choices. Also, as the saying goes and the evidence shows - be careful what you wish for; it probably won't be the elixir you expect.

Anyway, I've said my peace and I promise to leave it at that.  If you have any problems with the points I've made, feel free to say so and if you want to counter them fine, but show me you've thought about it and explain why I'm wrong; don't just tell me or spout some party line. It really is a tiresome issue and one that I think prevents the Spanish people, whether they were born in Barcelona or Oviedo, from uniting to right this country by exaggerating the few differences while downplaying the many more similarities, which is why the next post will be on something almost all Spaniards agree on: namely, the deliciousness of jamon iberico.


  1. Wow, that was deep inside the issue man. It couldn't be explained better. I think this should be quoted everywhere.

  2. In 2005 Catalonia had a "fiscal deficit" of €1094 per capita (See BBVA study ).

    If Catalonia were a separate country, it would have a per capita GDP about the same as the UK or Austria.

    Due to the EU budget, this means that the country of Catalonia would need to pay about €937-€1024 more per capita into the EU budget than it would receive.

  3. Couldn't agree more.. I live in the Basque Country and hear most of the same circular, pointless and self-defeating arguments here on the questions of identity and independence... and on top of that we have that charming little band of freedom fighters with a taste for blowing things up to add to the mix as well... we tend to talk more about oppression from the spanish state rather than lazy andalucians, but the result is the same: a lot of sweeping generalisations and pie in the sky fantasies and very little thinking about the hard economic and structural realities of becoming a free nation. And if you're having a hard time imagining and independent Cataluña being invited into the EU with open arms, imagine the welcoming committee for the Basque Country!