Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Friday, 21 august 2009 | Financial Times


A Public Reply to the Financial Times (III) - long version

Dear Sirs,

Your latest report on Spain (Flimsier footings) offers a good account of the rumblings that are increasingly heard in Madrid about the need for the state to put an end to the devolution process. We shall venture to offer a few comments from the Catalan side.

Spain’s problem with its regions, which you aptly describe as an “unintended consequence of democracy”, is entirely of its own making. After Franco’s death, it was acknowledged by all democratic forces that the “historic regions” had a very strong claim to a form of self-government on historic, economic, cultural and social grounds. But in 1978, rather than taking the bull by the horns and recognizing a special status for those who demanded it –basically the Basque country and Catalonia– a vague form of autonomy was foisted on every territory that chose to call itself a community –seventeen in all, some of which hadn’t even known they existed before– all in an attempt to water down whatever Basques and Catalans had a right to expect from a genuine democratic order.

Now the central government is finding that, with seventeen regional governments around the table representing different and often conflicting interests, the state’s administration can be unmanageable. It is also said to be costly. The regions do “absorb about half of all public spending” [in fact it’s the regions and the local governments], but that’s mainly because regional governments now provide most public services that were previously in the hands of the central government – which, by the way, hasn’t been shrinking accordingly. The autonomic system may be expensive, but its usefulness should be gauged against the number and quality of the services provided in every case. Not all regions provide the same level of services and, more importantly, not all are equally efficient. Taking as a paradigm the size of the public administration, recent figures show that there are in Catalonia 40.1 civil servants for every 1,000 citizens. Compare the Spanish average (56.3 for every 1,000) or the figures for Extremadura (82.8 for every 1,000). Even if one thinks, as we do, that a public service representing 8% of the working population in Catalonia is far too bulky, it is still only about half the size of the Spanish average (15.5%). The real problem is obviously in places like Extremadura, where 23% of the working population gets a government paycheck. That on top of a 20.5% unemployment rate. In any case, those who should be worried about the cost are those paying the bill. Which brings us to a point that Col·lectiu Emma has had to raise several times already and will apparently need to be raising again until it is given serious consideration in reports such as the FT’s. Funds spent by the regions are meted out by the Spanish treasury according to various ever more complex formulas, but the important thing is that not all regions have contributed equally to the public purse. There are a few net contributors and several net beneficiaries. As we will never tire of stressing, Catalonia pays in taxes an amount representing around 10% of its GDP over and above what it gets back in services and investments. That explains, among other things, where the government of Extremadura finds the money to provide a personal computer for every two schoolchildren after taking care of its inflated public payroll and of its sempiternally unemployed population.

Catalans, who were never too pleased with the “coffee for all” solution to begin with, would be the first to support a process aiming to put a stop to the waste and the inefficiency, but whenever the regional question is brought up in Spain it is rarely to find a rational solution to very real problems and it usually ends up being a pretext for clipping the wings of those whose loyalty is questioned as a matter of course. It is rumored, for instance, that the long-awaited ruling by the constitutional court on the Catalan autonomy statute will be used to thwart any further advance in self-rule, not only for Catalans but for all the other regions that have taken the Catalan statute as a blueprint for their own.

Such an attempt to reimpose central authority across the board might help to curb the unwieldy multiplicity of administrations, but it won’t make the other more intractable problem go away – the one that created the need for the autonomic system in the first place. Catalans can never be comfortable in a centralized state, not because of the insatiable nature of their mean-spirited nationalism but mostly because it won’t recognize their separate identity and their need to apply their own solutions –and their own money– to their own particular problems.

Spanish nationalists stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that reality, and it could be precisely their voluntary blindness to it that is “laying the foundations for Catalonia to become an independent state within a few years”. In fact, they themselves give their game away when they unabashedly state their aim to “hispanify” Catalonia. That should tip one to the fact that Catalonia is not felt by them to be really Spanish, which, ironically, is what independentists have been claiming all along. In any case, there is nothing new in the attempt to impose uniformity. That process, in which more sticks than carrots have traditionally been used, started a long time ago and is well documented. Taking as an example the question of multilingualism, which is still so irksome to full-blooded Spaniards, one can find in official Spanish archives ample proof of the heavy-handed approach used by successive governments to thrust the Castilian language upon peoples that had never felt the need for it. The current policy seeking the “promotion of local languages [...] at the expense of Castilian” is understood by Catalans to be a mere exercise of normalization, and what your article calls “cultural separatism”, then, would be nothing other than a very reasonable opposition to a centuries-old policy of cultural uniformization at the expense, among other things, of the Catalan language.

On the political front, it is doubtful that in the two more contentious regions the tide will be turning “in favour of the Spanish unionists” any time soon. On the contrary, an alarm should ring somewhere when even the routinely meek Catalan socialists –not separatists by a long stretch– have found it necessary to inform their colleagues now running the show in Madrid that there is in Catalonia a growing disaffection with Spain. Indeed, recent figures show that the idea of independence is steadily gaining ground, especially among the younger and better educated groups and in business and professional circles. Clearly, Catalans aren’t happy with the current arrangement and even less with what looms on the horizon. If their fears prove to be right, one can expect even more of them to join the already substantial number of those who “regard Madrid as a colonial power and are waging peaceful campaigns for greater autonomy or, occasionally, independence”.

Finally, we would like to underline that everything that has been argued above can be substantiated by statistical data and historical records which we would be happy to provide.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia

Col·lectiu Emma is a network of Catalans and non-Catalans living in different countries who have made it their job to track and review news reports about Catalonia in the international media. Our goal is to ensure that the world's public opinion gets a fair picture of the country's reality today and in history.

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Col·lectiu Emma - Explaining Catalonia