Catalonia’s Road to Secession: Why it could mean the end of the European Union

A writer who lived in Spain during the 1960s explains what Catalonia’s drive for independence could mean for Spain—and Europe.

Barry Casselman | October 5, 2017

A writer who lived in Spain during the 1960s explains what Catalonia’s drive for independence could mean for Spain—and Europe.
Catalonia’s Road to Secession: Why it could mean the end of the European Union

For about a year, in the period 1966-67, I lived in Spain while it was still under the Franco dictatorship. I arrived in August 1966 and enrolled in the University of Madrid. The falangista (extreme right wing) government had been in power for 30 years, and were celebrating the anniversary under the slogan “treinta anos de paz” (30 years of peace), but those three decades had come at a great cost following the bitter Spanish Civil War (1936-39).

The dictator Francisco Franco, known as “el caudillo” (the leader) was an admirer and ally of Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. Although no fighting took place in Spain during that war, it sent a “Blue Brigade” of Spanish soldiers to fight with the Nazi armies on the Russian front. After the war, Spain was politically shunned by its European neighbors and by the United States. Only Argentina, led by right wing dictator Juan Peron, sent economic aid during and after the war.

By the mid-1960s, however, Spain was moving towards an economic reawakening. An aging Franco decided to make his successor the grandson of the last Spanish king, Alfonso XIII. This young man, Juan Carlos, had been brought from exile with his father (the presumptive but uncrowned king) in Portugal to be educated at the University of Madrid where I was enrolled.

On Dec. 14, 1966, at the Spanish parliament (El Cortes), Franco personally brought his new Organic Law for rubber-stamp approval. There was much pomp, music and ceremony. I was there in the front row at the steps of the Cortes taking photos and absorbing the colorful pageantry.

It was thrilling until the moment when Franco arrived in his black limousine, and stepped out at the base of the Cortes steps. As he did, virtually everyone in the crowd of about 30,000 made the Nazi one-arm salute and began singing the fascist anthem. My mood of excitement instantly was chilled by this live image of a Nazi rally that had existed for me only as documentary footage from before when I was born.

Madrid in 1966 was very oppressive. The creative arts and political free speech were cruelly repressed. Unrest at the University resulted in extended periods of no classes. I then decided to transfer to the University of Barcelona where I was told there was a a better environment. In February 1967, I moved to the Catalan capital.

As promised, it was a very different circumstance.

A small region in northeastern Spain on the Pyrenees French border, Catalunya was almost a thousand years old as a distinct country, spoke its own language (as old as Castillian Spanish or French), and had its own cultural identity.

Merged with Spain in the 1500s, it was the commercial and industrial hub of the Iberian Peninsula. A late holdout of the brief democratic Spanish republic (1931-39), it fell near the end of the civil war---with many of its anti-Franco citizens fleeing to southern France.

After World War II, the Catalan people felt increasingly repressed by the Franco government in Madrid. The Catalan language was publicly prohibited. As in Madrid, the arts, especially new literature, were heavily censored. Spaniards across the country who openly criticized the regime were arrested and tortured. By the time I had arrived in Barcelona, the city seemed in a state of siege.

But, unlike in Madrid, there was a much greater resistance to the Franco regime in Barcelona. In private, most Catalans spoke to each other in their own tongue. An underground bookstore existed where you could purchase banned books.

I befriended an older muralist, Guillermo Soler, who was part of a secret group of prominent Catalan painters, musicians and writers called Estudi that met clandestinely for discussions and concerts, some of which I attended with him. He introduced me to Aurora Bertrana, then the gran dama of Catalan poetry and pioneer feminist, when we met at Oro de Rhin, a famous coffeehouse and artist hangout on the Plaza de Catalunya.

Sr. Soler told me of his support for the Republic during the civil war, and his flight to France after it was over. He then, he said, returned to Barcelona to rejoin his family and continue his career as a painter and muralist. I also met, at the U.S. consulate in the city, a young Catalan woman who, on learning I was an American poet (I was then on a sabbatical abroad from my studies at the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa), told me she was the proprietor of a clandestine bookshop in Barcelona where I could buy most of the banned American and European books. Every night at the pension where I was living, the Catalan innkeeper stopped outside my room and said “Bona nit tingui! (“Have a good night!”).

I felt part of the siege.

 

 

That was, of course, then. In 1975, Franco died, and the young prince became King Juan Carlos. In 1981, the falangistas staged a desperate, brief and unsuccessful coup. The king bravely led an effort to put down the insurrection.

The new democratic Spain rose quickly economically, and became part of the European Union. Regional tensions in Spain remained, however.

Modern Spain is really made of distinct historic regions. In addition to Catalunya, the neighboring Basque region also has its own non-Indo European language and culture. To the northwest, Galicia has its on history, and had a language related to Portuguese. The region in the south around Sevilla, Cordoba and Granada, still has a distinct Moorish influence from its period when the Arabs from North Africa ruled it. To the southeast, another distinct region existed. In the center of the peninsula was Castille where from Toledo, and later, Madrid, the feudal Spanish kings conquered and reconquered the country.

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella not only sent a Genoan ship captain, Christopher Columbus, with three ships to discover a western passage to the Indies (and we all now know what he did discover), but also inaugurated the infamous Inquisition that forced conversion, death or exile of Spain’s large and important Jewish community.

From that period until the beginning of the 19th century, Spain played a major role in Europe and in global colonization. By the mid-1800s, however, Spain declined as it lost its North and South American colonies, and Europe’s empires and monarchies faded into popular unrest and revolution.

After liberalizing its society until World War I, Spain had a brief dictatorship until a republic was established in 1931. As fascism and communism arose in Europe in the 1930s, Spain became a rehearsal for World War II, with the far right brutally excising the far left. Dictator Franco then ruled for more than three decades.

The new Spanish constitutional monarchy system has made great strides. Parties of the center right and center left have governed for its entire history. After centuries of top-down rule, the nation has enjoys a healthy representative government. Regional nationalism has continued, but the central government has granted levels of autonomy to them, especially to the Basque region which can levy its own taxes, and to Catalunya which has its own prime minister, parliament, and local laws.

Catalan is the de facto language of the region. The main sticking pint is that this prosperous region complains that it cannot levy its own taxes, and that it contributes more in taxes to Madrid than it receives in return.

As someone who knows the history of Catalunya, the sufferings it has endured, the great industrial and cultural life its people have built and maintained, and the beauty of its landscape and cities, I have much empathy for the Catalan sense of identity and pride in its character.

In the not-so-distant past, Catalan independence might have been a no-brainer. But today Spain is essentially a nation of cooperating regions with a federal central government. Should Catalunya (aka Catalonia) become independent, the Basque region would almost surely follow suit.

Economic chaos might well follow, as the European Union to which Spain belongs is not likely to support or include a break-away state. This nationalistic tension exists throughout Europe, and if secession took place everywhere its impulse exists—from the Flemish in Belgium to the Corsicans in France and beyond—the EU would almost surely collapse.

King Felipe VI is now the Spanish head of state, but has no real power. He spoke to the nation, calling for a unified democratic Spain, and he denounced the separatists. Prime Minister Rajoy is no Abraham Lincoln, but he faces the same dilemma confronting the American president in 1860, an illegal disunion (the Spanish constitution speaks to “the indissoluble unity of the Spanish Nation.”)

Several years ago, the artificial nation of Czechoslovakia split into two sovereign states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The process was voluntary and legal on all sides. It created economic problems, especially for Slovakia, but it was done within a democratic and legal framework.

Sympathy and empathy for my Catalan friends aside, Barcelona and Madrid need to come up with a far better solution than the one now facing this historic and important people.

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[Image Credit: By Ivan McClellan (Flickr: Catalan National Day) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

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