MG in-depth



Why the Catalan question won’t end any time soon.

1. Spain versus Catalonia; a state of too many nations against a divided nation, half of which in search of a State. A constitutional monarchy experiencing a crisis of legitimacy and determined to defend its democratic order against a would-be secessionist republic, in which the defenders of the anti-Spanish revolution, self-portrayed as libertarian and non-violent, oppose unionist of various degrees and colours. It is an existential conflict with ancient roots and new forms in which Madrid now prevails, thanks to temporary (?) direct rule over the rebel community. However, what is at stake is so important and the reciprocal intolerance so visceral, that there cannot be any solution, however unstable it may be, without going into pretty rough extra time.    

For the Kingdom of Spain, based on Castilian centrality, the objective consists in affirming a shared identity superior to the various nationalities that, alongside traditional particularisms, unsettle the country with astonishing frequency. This would file away for good the poisonous sentence passed by José Ortega y Gasset, the philosopher from Madrid, who a century ago labelled the county España invertebrada (1), comparing it to “the immense giddy skeleton of an organism that has vanished, which stands up only by virtue of the equilibrium of its bulk, in the same way as they say elephants stay standing up after they die.” (2)

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This thesis still remains supported by a number of clues. Official Spain is unable to put words to its national anthem, the glorious but wordless Marcha Real which, according to legend, was composed by Frederick the Great of Prussia. As far as the 1978 democratic constitution is concerned, the “nation” is evoked in the preamble, while later on the reference is to the “all the peoples of Spain”, compressed in Article 1 into the “Spanish people” to whom “sovereignty” is assigned. It then returns (in Article 2) to the improbable semantic-geopolitical coexistence between the “Spanish Nation, the common and indivisible homeland of all Spaniards” and “the right to self-government of the nationalities (our Italics, Editor’s note) and regions of which it is composed” (3)      

If the concept of nation is lacking in the Kingdom of Spain because there are too many, the dream of nationalist Catalonia, which after Franco equipped itself with the autonómico status of a semi-state, is to style itself as an independent state in the form of a republic. A double breakaway, from Spain and from its monarchy. The proclamation of the Catalan Republic by a small majority of the regional parliament (October 27th, 2017), self-legitimised by the so far unverified result of the October 1st pro-independence referendum in which a minority of voters decreed the republic (90.18% of the 43.03% who cast their vote) (4), resulted in direct rule of the rebel community.

This was followed by charges brought against some of its leaders following the arrest of the first sovereignist “martyrs”, Jordi Sánchez and Jordi Cuixart, and in the not exclusively legal conflict that has arisen. All this while awaiting the outcome of regional elections scheduled by Madrid for December 21st.   

For now the proclamation of the Catalan Republic remains theoretical, suspended as a precaution by the Constitutional Court. Independentism, however, has not been tamed, with extremist fringes attracted by the idea of violent resistance. As far as the Kingdom of Spain as we have known it since Franco is concerned, it is at a crossroads between federalism, a medium-term option since it would involve constitutional reform, and a quick recovery of ancient but extremely lively centralist inclinations, exhibited in the direct rule imposed on the rebel region.

All this within a context of a serious delegitimisation of political parties, the monarchy’s modest authoritativeness and a tangible decelerating of the very recent economic revival.     

The duel between Spain and Catalonia is already changing the nature of these two subjects, the nature of their relations and the coexistence of all the peoples that compose the heterogeneous peninsular mosaic.   

Should Madrid manage to normalise Barcelona, with the power of the law or with the laws of power, this would not mean that Spain would have mended the regional and (sub)national rifts that are its historical trademark. The Basques and perhaps also the Galicians and other peninsular (sub)nationalisms are studying the duellists in order to understand when and how they might take advantage of the clash, or protect themselves from the breakdown of their shared home. Within the deep apparatuses of the Spanish state, where even when fully immersed in a democratic regime the Castilian-centric authoritarian tradition is passed down almost by bloodlines and where Francoist limpieza excites more than one of those suffering from nostalgia, they are instead confident that the lesson will be a permanent one. Hence, those responsible for this “inadmissible disloyalty to the power of the state,” annihilated by King Philip VI (5) in the televised ex cathedra bull on October 3rd, will answer in court.

And even if one day Barcelona were to manage to transform its autonomous community into a real independent republic, it is unlikely that the significant half of the population intending to remain united with the rest of the country would adapt serenely to the new regime. All this without taking into account the extremely large financial bill that all Spaniards, but above all the Catalans, are only just beginning to pay in order to defend their opposed inalienable rights.

2. The abyss that the clash between the government in Madrid and the Generalitat of Catalonia is quickly digging in the heart of Spain, is of an unpredictable size and destined to affect the rest of Europe in various ways, even beyond our continent. In geology it would be comparable to landslides caused by lateral expansion, the result of friction between rigid overlying materials (Kingdom of Spain) with the flow of plastic underground ones (Catalanists and other explicit or latent nationalists). Hence the fracture in the overlying structure.

More specifically in this case, the landslide mechanism affects Catalonia with its seven and a half million inhabitants, of which a little under five million were born there. As far as ethnicity is concerned, 60% of them identify firstly as being Catalans, although many of them to not speak català, but mainly speak Castilian in a nation that considers its own idiom as the supreme identifying trademark (6).

If established as a national state, Catalonia could reveal itself as too rigid for its plastic internal communities, among them an impressive number of “differently Spanish” citizens or foreigners – 49,000 Italians counted, of which 25,000 live in Barcelona. Furthermore, the middle class-bourgeois centre of the capital metropolis is firmly anti-Castilian, far less so the multi-ethnic suburbs filled with immigrants from the kingdom’s poorer regions, as well as having widespread unionist feelings be they out of interest, fear or persuasion.

Such friction is also visible in the interior of Catalonia, which on average is more secessionist, as well as in the colourful foreign European, African, Asian, Middle Eastern communities that have settled in the region. Not to mention the small Aranese enclave, whose Occitan dialect is even acknowledged by the Catalan Statute and where support for the secessionists was rather disappointing in the October 1st referendum.  

As if this were not enough, among many Catalans, especially left-wing nationalists, the geopolitical representation of the Pi de les Tres Branques, the (geo)graphical trademark of “Catalan countries” (“països catalans”) still lives on, and embroidered on their respective standards and flags with heraldic variations of the senyera real, the flag of the kings of Aragon and counts of Barcelona.

The “three-branch pine tree” – although ramification is far thicker – includes the historical Principality of Barcelona, consisting of the autonomous Community of Catalonia (self-proclaimed republic), almost the whole of the French department of the Eastern Pyrenees (North Catalonia for Catalanists), the Balearic Islands and the Valencian Community, as well as La Franja; the independent Principality of Andorra; El Carxe, in the Murcia Region and Alguer, our own Alghero, where there is a detachment of the Generalitat.

 Spain, France, Andorra and Italy. Four European states are involved in reborn pan-Catalanism, and not just spiritually. A group of pro-Catalan Sardinians have landed in Barcelona to assist their brothers. The north-Catalanists in Perpignan, after having printed millions of referendum ballot cards and secretly moved them across the Pyrenees, have unsuccessfully offered a magnificent villa to any eventual “government in exile”, a refuge for “their” president, Carles Puigdemont.

Nor will it have escaped the attention of the French authorities how, during the October 26th clashes that accompanied Emmanuel Macron’s visit to a French Guyana in turmoil, a number of Franco-Amazonian autonomists were waving the Catalan flag in Cayenne. The wonders of no-global interconnectivity, all too often downgraded to folklore, only to then be surprised by its eruptions.

The seismic wave, however, goes well beyond Spain and its neighbours. The effect on the European Union has been profound and immediate with discordant EU and government statements and its inactive or active separatisms. In perspective, it has even affected the Eurozone’s stability.  For now the European chancelleries have rallied round Madrid. There have been a few flat notes (Belgium, where Prime Minister Charles Michel criticised the Spanish police’s violence during the referendum, while Flemish separatists are cheering on the Catalan Republic) internal cacophonies (Edinburgh “respects” Barcelona, London condemns it without reservation) and hidden dissonances (Slovenia, where someone confused Spain with Yugoslavia).

All member states exclude that an eventual Republic of Catalonia could remain in the EU and have warned that once gone it could not re-join, due not only to Spain’s predictable refusal. It is also excluded that an independent Catalonia could stand by Spain within NATO, given Washington’s support for Madrid, not to mention the United Nations in which all members of the Security Council, with the possible exception of Russia – where no one despairs about secessions in the euro-Atlantic context – would vote against Catalonia’s vain ambitions.

3. At a first glance, the head-on Madrid-Barcelona clash appears irrational, almost inexplicable, if not perhaps resorting to the Don Quixote-like stereotypes on the hidalguía, not easily applicable however to lacklustre protagonists such as Mariano Rajoy and Carles Puigdemont.

Why did such a significant clash and one with such ancient origins find Spain, not to mention we other Europeans, unprepared? How could it have happened that the government in Madrid branded as a “farce” the more- than-announced October 1st independentist referendum, later declared “null and void”, but treated as sedition with the Spanish police attacking with their truncheons unarmed civilians queueing for the vote/carnival and resulting in a globally catastrophic image, all to the advantage of Catalanists? And why impose direct rule on the for-now theoretical Republic of Catalonia, resorting to the “atomic option” engraved in Article 155 of the constitution, written to not be applied as decreed by the doctrine of nuclear deterrence?

All the more so in a region immune to the Estado (derogatory synonym for España), where the Spanish apparatuses are historically little more than a hologram, and therefore, if extended over time and stricter in its methods, direct rule would assume the characteristics of a reconquista? In what way, on the opposite front, can Catalan independentists – united in refusing to belong to Spain but divided on everything else – seriously create the republic they have invented? It would need to be sovereign not only in words, but through control over the territory, with a monopoly on violence, the availability of credible and loyal armed forces, the legitimacy and efficiency of courts and bureaucracies that distinguishes real states from banana republics.

If one analyses the matter in depth, the clash is less irrational than it seems. Madrid and Barcelona are disguising the geopolitical clash as a legal dispute, intentionally confusing the face with the mask.

As far as the Spanish constitution is concerned, Rajoy is right; the referendum and declaration of independence are a crime. Puigdemont’s counter arguments, suggested by pettifogging lawyers who amuse themselves with ius gentium, seem weak. But we are not in court here, nor are the contenders’ lawyers standing in front of a judge qualified to settle the controversy. This is an attempted geopolitical revolution masked as a legal conflict. For now this trick has been in the best interests of both parties.  

It works for the government in Madrid, supported by the anything-but-apolitical Constitutional Court, to corroborate its own inflexibility and prevent the internationalisation of the case, reduced to being the competence of Spanish authorities within the framework of their interpretation of domestic law. It also helps put the heterogeneous independentist coalition with its back to the wall, the Junts pel Sí, which supports the now dissolved Generalit.

All this in the hope that divisions will explode both between the centrists of the Catholic-liberal Catalan European Democratic Party – led by the hesitant Puigdemont, ready up to the very last second to accept a compromise that would guarantee him immunity and exempt him from immediately declaring independence – as well as between members of the historical republican Left (Esquerra) spearheaded by Vice President Oriol Junqueras. Divisions are hoped for above all among those organised in the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) and their tactical allies, a conglomeration of communists, neo-Bolivarists, radical environmentalists and social-grass roots supporters (catalibani).

It was also useful to the Generalitat, later placed under direct rule, which with one hand agitated the secessionist masses, while under the table – thanks to Basque leaders and other hidden “facilitators”, among them Merkel and Tusk – held out the other to the government, to the apparatuses and to political parties in Madrid, trying to oppose the inflexibility of the People’s Party and the Ciudadanos with the less intransigent managers of Podemos and a few residual unhappy party members.

Perhaps unaware, however, that the tardofranquist Right inside and outside Rajoy’s party did not intend to miss an opportunity to cut off the head of the separatist Hydra, liquidating Catalan secessionism and teaching other (sub)nationalists a lesson.

If Puigdemont found himself riding the wave of a non-violent and unarmed revolution without wishing to proclaim it as such, were it only due to the asymmetry of the forces fielded, Rajoy was manoeuvring a formally legal counter-revolution, with significantly persuasive economic and police power in his backpack and military power in the backdrop. He thereby proved that he understands the nature of the conflict, able to assess the parallelogram of the forces fielded.

The secession of a territory from another, however peaceful intentions but not necessarily the consequences may be, is an act that is subversive of constituted geopolitical order. Catalonia cannot envisage a quiet divorce from Spain without its consent. It can only do so using or threatening to use force, which it does not have. Appealing to the legality of the constitution and statute it contributed to writing, reinterpreting it to its own advantage to try and leave – hence violate it – is logical, strategic and geopolitical nonsense.     

It is the state that founds the constitution, not the constitution that founds the state. All laws are by definition suspended during a revolution. It will then be the seal of victory or defeat. Should the insurgents prevail they will state their own laws, otherwise the victorious defenders of the regime will heighten to its own advantage its nature, spirit and/or letter of the law. If over the coming months Madrid manages to tame Barcelona with the help of local unionists, and if the Right maintains leadership of the national government, the thermometer that measures power in Spain will indicate a peak in Castilian-centric fever.        

The Catalan sovereigntists’ appeal to international law is pathetic; an admirable and equally anachronistic theatre presented at the end of the 19th century by European colonialists to cover with cosmo-political humanism their own superiority complex and the civilising mission that derived from it. History teaches us how such a very peculiar “right” is able to be manipulated in deference to power relations between formal and informal geopolitical subjects, which, usually immune to rules, are played out in the world’s arenas.

The Catalanist idea of legitimising secession from Spain as “therapeutic”, in other words protection against “the serious violation of human rights” advanced in internationalist (Western) circles to provide juridical foundations to Kosovo’s independence, is not only abstruse but unintentionally comical, seeing it was used against a state that refused to acknowledge as sovereign the former Serb province.   

For the moment Puigdemont and his followers have failed the revolution test. Only one option remains - the theorem of the “sovereignist process” (procés soviranista), to motivate and perhaps, over time, redeem this decision. It is a decision matured for decades in the shadow of the historical leader of Catalan autonomism, Jordi Pujol, overwhelmed by allegations of corruption, and that of his still active successor Artur. Politically moderate Catalanism perceives autonomy as entelechy.

Within the autonomist idea and practice there is inscribed the final goal of independence. It is a mountain to be climbed in stages. Starting from the base camp – the stentorian “Ja sóc aquí” pronounced on the return to Barcelona on October 23rd, 1977, of the exiled president of the Generalitat, Josep Tarradellas – to await increasingly greater heights, thanks to progressively more radical autonomist laws and customs, hoping for a federal or perhaps confederal outcome, before crossing the finishing line of democratic sovereignty.

According to this strategy, thanks to the controlled succession of peripheral provocations and centrist over-reactions (model October 1st) the Catalan victim complex becomes consolidated, Castilian authoritarianism is exposed, the sympathy of international public opinion is won, especially among neighbouring Europeans. Spanish legitimacy is eroded by Catalan legitimisation. The kingdom’s legitimacy is eroded by Catalan legitimisation. The kingdom’s authority is reduced by stages, until it evaporates, generating at last the Catalan Republic, with a painless birth, in peace and with celebrations. Real independence.  

If that was and remains the medium-term project of most Catalan secessionists, held back by the foolishness of the now-evicted Generalitat and the vagueness of Puigdemont – not the ideal kind of revolutionary – when and how will it be able to be brought back to life? So as to venture an answer, we will be assisted by a glance at the peculiar twist of history, law and geopolitics that distinguishes the dispute between Madrid and Barcelona. More in general, between the Spanish state and its nations or aspiring nations. Welcome to the labyrinth of crisscrossed particularisms, both central and peripheral.

4. Spain suffers from hyper-historicism. No other great European nation torments itself so intensely about its past. It is not just an academic debate, although august professors participate with a passion, cumira et studio. It is the never-ending, exhausting search for the Golden Fleece that can cure the wounds of a country with formidable linguistic and cultural radiation, the now peninsular heir to a transcontinental empire that in the 16th – 17thsiglo de oro raised itself to become a proud hegemon and was admired across most of the planet, but that for three hundred years has withdrawn to feverishly study the causes of its decline.

This same academic historiography is divided between the Castilian school, which tends to identify the state with its founding centre, and differently nationalistic currents devoted to their homelands and opposed to the Estado. Not to mention the mainly pro-Spain educational handbook, while in Catalonia they are oriented more at forming specific identity-related sentiments, depicting a sequence of fair claims and dark repressions rather than providing information about Spain. It is the apotheosis of differentialism..

One should neglect the fact that the unification of imperial Spain was not the result of a merging of Iberian entities just thanks Castilian impetus. The España una was born as a project combining Madrid’s European and African geopolitics with Catalan-Aragonese Mediterranean expansion, to then expand across the oceans to the Americas and Asia. Spain made sense as an empire, and once lost, it is difficult to recompose a plurinational or Castilian-centric state on the mere basis of an Iberian substructure.  

The contrastive hermeneutics of the past are the foundations of the current geopolitical controversies. The present tense and the imperative tense. The tournament involving these opposing mythographies became part of post-Franco Spain’s constitution with full rights. This has caused permanent friction between Spanish democracy and the historical rights of its unequally autonomous members. It is a dispute implicit in the first additional provisions to the 1978 Charter; “

The Constitution protects and respects the historic rights of the territories with traditional charts (fueros)” (official translation for “territorios forales”). (7) All in all, the constitution shows traces of the intention that prevailed among the constituents to emphasise the newness of the democratic state as respectful of nationalities and local traditions, especially the Catalan, Basque and Galician requests.

The Castilian historian Luis González Antón therefore decries the “historicist penetration” generated by “peripheral minority nationalisms” (8) and condemns “neoromantic historicism, especially the worrying temptation to resort to the past as a source of legitimisation superior to the constitution”. (9) It is thus that Basque nationalists lay claim to an alleged “earlier sovereignty” dating back to 1839 or state that the “fueros are our constitution”. At the same time there is a Castilian particularism, already worn down by Ortega y Gasset – “Castile made Spain and Castile dismantled it” – which disdainfully observes the “peripheries” so reluctant to subject themselves to the Bourbon monarchy. (10)

However, it is in Catalonia that the historicist path to national identity has marked the independentist process, there where nationalism is styled as anti-ethnicist and according to Jordi Pujol’s formula – “those who live or work in Catalonia are Catalans as are those who want to be” (11) – a sort of ius soli cubed. It is well worth revisiting some of its more revealing characteristics.

5. Catalanism associates the creation of a national history, distinct from Spain’s, in addition to the cult of its own language, as a mark of identity, protected from the penetration of Castilian, the community’s co-official language. Modern Catalan nationalism is determined by the negation of Castilian dominion and it is thus that Catalan history is always contemporary and often self-pitying. Every September 11th, National Day – Diada – celebrates the defeat in the year of Our Lord 1714 of pro-Hapsburg Barcelona by the troops of Philip V of Bourbon (omitting the fact that they included various Catalans).

But Catalonia’s roots supposedly date back to the Early Middle Ages, crowned in 1137 by the betrothal of Petronilla, heir to the Kingdom of Aragon, and Ramon Berenguer IV Count of Barcelona, forging a Catalan-Aragonese union. This was then projected towards the Mediterranean, to conquer Sicily (1282), Sardinia (1323-26) and Naples (1442), as well as the Duchies of Athens and Neopatras and other late-Byzantine shores (map 3).

In Catalan pedagogy, the origins of the Catalan state are ancient, noble and well-distinct from those of the Castilian parabola. In brief, the compendium of Catalan history, written by the famous academic Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó, starts in the Dark Ages. It informs readers that the most ancient human remains found in Catalonia date back 450,000 years and were found in the Cova de l’Aragó, in Talteüll, in the Rossiglione area “now under French administration.” (12) Homo catalanus would therefore reawaken in the Grande Nation. Sobrequés seems to attribute to him a proto-irredentist conscience.   

Confirming that in Catalonia too historical legitimacy takes precedence over that of the constitution – in this case over the Statute of Autonomy – the contemporary Generalitat considers itself as the direct heir to the one founded in 1359. The Very Honourable Gentleman Carles Puigdemont i Casamajó is (was) therefore its 130th president (CXXX in heraldic numerals), along the “dynastic” line inaugurated by Berenguer de Cruïlles, Bishop of Girona (Puigdemont was its mayor from 2011 to 2016), his first predecessor until 1362.

Finally, how could one forget the manifesto signed by Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona soccer team’s charismatic coach – the most global of all Catalan brand names – together with the tenor Jose Carreras and other famous fellow countrymen to support the 2014 consultative referendum, in which he compared the resistance fighters of the Diada to the rebels of the Boston Tea Party, both considered equal to the Catalans struggling for “dignity” and “democracy”? (13)         

All this as a reminder for those who insist on only seeing purely economic origins in Catalan secessionism. Of course, the relatively populated and wealthy Catalonia is worth one fifth of Spain’s GDP and one fourth of its exports. Catalonia also complains about a rather disadvantageous tax system, especially when compared to its Basque “cousins” resulting in slogans aimed at “thieving Madrid” (“Espanya ens roba”).

It is also true that modern Catalan nationalism of bourgeois and mercantile origin emerged after the 1898 catastrophe, when its last overseas territories – Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines – were lost to the United States after having had to abandon its immense American colonies between the early and mid-19th century. Markets and strategic trafficking, in which the Catalans’ vocation for trade  distinguished itself with profit and pride, had been lost because of inept Spain.

At the origins of Catalanism – initially regionalist, then federalist, confederalist or secessionist – there remains however a resentment linked to identity, born witness to in the second half of the 19th century by the emergence of institutions and publications aimed at safeguarding regional identity, the codification of grammar and the portrayal of an “organic” Catalonia against an “artificial” Spain. As in the Compendi de doctrina catalanista by Prat de la Riba and Pere Muntanyola (1894), in the form of a catechism, one reads, “Question: What is this element that is Catalonia’s enemy and that distorts its nature? Answer.

The Spanish state”.  It is an identity-linked particularism initially expressed by middle and upper classes as well as intellectuals – philologists, authors, historians, artists – extended later to progressive and even subversive currents that would experience its definitive baptism of fire in the Spanish Civil War, with Barcelona as the Republic’s extreme stronghold. Before any political consideration, what pushed Franco to rebel was the geopolitical will to squash all nascent republican autonomisms, correctly seeing them as an existential threat to the Estado.

The thirty-six years of his dictatorship were marked by a coherent strategy aimed at the eradication of the Catalan language, culture and identity. As confirmed by slogans used in the large independentist protests of recent years, memories of that oppression are passed down from father to son, at times exasperated to the point of equating some of democratic Spain’s current leaders to the Generalissimo and to his Falangists.

The past does not pass. It is therefore easy for diehard Spanish nationalists to argue that by continuing down the slippery slope of autonomy, perhaps conceding grandiose fiscal benefits and encouraging investments in Catalonia, one is under the illusion that the insatiable monster is being satiated. According to this thesis, Catalan secessionism cannot be sedated with large tips, seeing that it is founded on inveterate essentialism in which the rauxa prevails over the seny, a Catalan antonym between an unadvised impulse and rational patience.            

For as long as the identity fixation is not diluted in the pragmatism à la Pujol, the dream of a Catalan Republic will remain such. And then, how can one expect the culturally Christian Democrat leaders, often raised by Opus Dei and socially more than well-off, to successfully dress-up as professional revolutionaries? This was seen after 2010, when, attempting to try and resolve the combined effect of the dual economic and political crisis, as well as react to the scandals that undermined the credibility of the largest Catalanist political party of Catholic origin (Convergència i Unió), first Mas and then Puigdemont discovered they were without doubt independentist, siding with the republican Left.

They assumed this stand in opposition to the pro-Spain leaders in charge in Madrid, both in the Constitutional Court and in the government, who had significantly watered-down the new Statute of Autonomy approved with the 2006 referendum. It was thus that over a seven-year period, between 2006 and 2013, consensus for independence almost tripled, rising from 14 to 49%, while their opposite pro-Madrid supporters (those in favour of reducing Catalonia to simply yet another of the kingdom’s regions) confirmed their residual value, falling from 8% to 5% over the same period of time. (15) The secessionist strategy was therefore to move the advocates of Catalonia towards independentism; “A federal state within Spain” – almost confederalism – fluctuating at around about one third in terms of voter support.

In order to preserve a parliamentary majority after the 2015 elections, the centre-right and centre-left republican alliance had been obliged to include the extremists of the CUP, alien to the art of compromise. This until the ill-considered referendum, which was meant to persuade Madrid to turn to federalism, but was increasingly unbalanced in favour of Barcelona. Rajoy’s intransigence – supported by the king and the apparatuses – as well as his centre-right (Ciudadanos) and centre-left (PSOE) allies, alongside the need to not divide his front, obliged Puigdemont to make his clearly unsustainable declaration of independence. This included an extreme attempt to internationalise the Catalan cause, at least within the European context.                  

6. In order to spread the Catalanist word in the world, the Generalitat has created twelve delegations abroad, de facto embassies, from Berlin to Paris, from Brussels to Washington, flanked by the trade agency Acció, with dozens of offices on the five continents. Results have been disappointing so far and even counterproductive, as Nicolás Maduro’s support is in fact not appreciated by euro-Atlantic chancelleries, especially following the pained but ultimately decisive no from the U.S. administration effectively run by a triptych of generals (James Mattis, John Kelly, Herbert McMaster), after Catalan lobbyists had won over a few members of Congress. All hope is now concentrated in Europe.

Catalonia has gained influence in Europe that over the past twenty years due to two factors. One was the regionalist wave in the second half of the nineties, when Euro-regional projects blossomed inspired above all by Germany (Bavarian) and Mitteleuropa. This geopolitical ideology with its initially significant ambitions, is codified in the Committee of the Regions created by the Maastricht Treaty (1993). At that time Catalonia qualified alongside Baden-Württemberg, Lombardy and the Rhône-Alpes as “Europe’s four driving forces” thanks to its high level of industrialisation.

This was a foursome formalised with the Stuttgart Memorandum (September 9th, 1998), which established special relations between the members. The geopolitical backdrop for this special Europeanism envisaged a EU based on regions, in line with the process involving the delegitimisation if national states that was fashionable among the noble fathers of the pan-European ideal. Independentist Catalans hoping to join the EU skipping Spain – as do Basque and Galicians nationalists – and therefore exhibit the European flag next to the senyera blava, would be enthusiastic.

Perhaps they are not sufficiently aware of the curious effects caused by waving the colourful insignia of a state wishing to be a nation, but (still) not one, next to the flag of a quarrelsome family of states that do not wish to unite and become a nation. It is not therefore a geopolitical subject. This estrangement effect was emphasised by the trip to Belgium undertaken by deposed President Puigdemont, “because Brussels is the capital of Europe.” A geographical hallucination. A mistake in geopolitics marked in blue ink.  

It certainly will not be by pressing the spectral Commission in Brussels, conquering a few MEPs, urging Slovenian, Flemish or Scottish friends or refreshing brotherhoods with “Catalan countries” that the independentists in Barcelona will find support in Europe. On the contrary. In the governments that matter, starting with Berlin, they are abruptly avoided. After contributing seriously to direct the fall of Francoism towards non-communist shores, Germany has invested in Spain as a model for other Latin countries, Italy above all, in a desperate alchemy that would like us to transubstantiate into austere northerners.

Although weakened, dealing with the troubled creation of a varied coalition, Merkel is fighting those threatening Spain’s stability. All the more so now that Bavarian separatism shows signs of reawakening, as shown by a July survey in which 32% of the Free State’s citizens would like to separate from the Bundesrepublik. (16) Unlike the Spanish constitution, the unilateral secession of a Land, and one having the historical rank of state such as Bavaria, is not specifically forbidden by the constitution and hence the Constitutional Court decided to interpret it by establishing that such an hypothesis is incompatible with current law.  

As far as Macron is concerned, a Europeanist with symphonic urges but a cold nationalist in his geopolitical-administrative approach, there are no concessions made to the independence wishes of his albeit Francophile neighbours, all the more so as they consider the department of the Eastern Pyrenees an unredeemed province of the “Catalan countries.”

All this is happening just before the local elections of December 3rd – 10th in Corsica, in which nationalist, independentists and autonomists are presenting a common list and hope for a possible landslide victory decreeing separation from the Hexagon within ten years (many French citizens would be secretly relieved). Furthermore, next autumn Paris risks losing a piece of Oceanic France should the independence referendum in New Caledonia be won by the supporters of divorce, determined to rename it the Republic of Kanaky.

Finally there is also Italy. It would not be wise to downgrade to a minor Commedia dell’Arte the Venetian referendum on autonomy, with its high turnout and won hands down by the supporters of a region with a special statute. Such imprudence does not suit a state so weakly legitimised, in which the rush to follow the federalist wave, aroused in its day by the Northern League, has already resulted in the disastrous reform of Title V of the constitution.

Imitating the hyper-autonomism of others is not to be recommended in this Italy, which to remain standing would need to recentralise and hold responsible state powers, rather than allocate then to further opaque bureaucracies or abandon them to organised crime. Rome appears to be aware of this and our government was one of the first to side unequivocally with Madrid.

The Spanish-Catalan duel will not even end with the December 21st vote, whatever the result may be. Catalonia is not Italy’s Padania or any other invention of bored politicians. Spain is no marginal state to be amputated, damaging only itself.

We remain, however, optimistic. We are in Europe, the geopolitics of unreality. In this space of illusions we make room for conjuring acts.

Here we could re-propose a sketch which, thanks to a brilliant anonymous creator, appeared for the first time on October 23rd, 1892, in the German magazine Fliegende Blätter.

Duck or rabbit? The American psychologist Joseph Jastrow drew on it to write a pensive paper on optical illusions. Famous epistemologists such as Ludwig Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn dedicated erudite dissertations to the subject. There are some who swear that at Easter time it is more likely that one will see a rabbit, while in October a duck is more clearly visible (17).

In the homeland of the maestro of illusions Cervantes, will those pro-Madrid and the Catalanists decide to agree on a sufficiently polysemous compromise so as to allow each to see what they choose, the duck or the rabbit? 

(Translated by Francesca Simmons)


  1. ORTEGA Y GASSET, España invertebrada, Madrid 1922, Calpe, pdf in
  2. in L. GARRUCCIO, Spagna senza miti, Turin 1968, U. Mursia & C., p. 20, da J. ORTEGA Y GASSET, Vieja y nueva politica, Madrid 1911, Renacimiento.
  3. Costituzione Spagnola, December 27th 1978, original from the Congreso de los diputados website, p. 3,
  4. Generalitat de Catalunya, “Referèndum d’autodeterminació de Catalunya. Resultats definitius”,
  5. FELIPE VI, “Mensaje de Su Majestad el Rey”, Casa de Su Majestad el Rey, 3.10.2017,
  6. Cfr. H. ZUBER, “V for Victoria: Catalonia wants Independence too”, 10.9.2014,
  7. The Spanish Constitution, Additional Provisions, Fisrt, op. cit. p.55.
  8. L. GONZÁLEZ ANTÓN, España y las Españas, Madrid 1997, Historia Alianza Editorial, p. 646.
  9. Ibidem.
  10. J. ORTEGA Y GASSET, op. cit., p. 38.
  11. Quoted in A. MAS, “Spirito catalano”, la Repubblica, 18.1.2014.
  12. J. SOBREQUÉS i CALLICÓ, Història de Catalunya, Barcelona 2012, Editorial Base, p. 13.
  13. “Give Catalonia its freedom to vote – by Pep Guardiola, Josep Carreras and other leading Catalans”, The Independent, 10.10.2014.
  14. Cfr. il testo di E. PRAT de la RIBA – P. MUNTANYOLA, Compendi de la doctrina catalanista, Barcelona 1894, pdf in
  15. Real Instituto Elcano, “El proceso independentista catalán: como hemos llegado hasta aquì? Cual es su dimensión europea? Y qué puede ocurrir?”, 23.10.2017, p. 10.
  16. “Jeder dritte Bayer für Unabhängigkeit von Deutschland”, DPA, 17.7.2017.
  17. C. FARAND, “Duck or rabbit? The 100-year-old optical illusion that could tell you how creative you are”, The Independent Online, 14.2.2016.