La consulta d’Arenys de Munt al Financial Times

Catalonia pays homage to independence

By Victor Mallet in Arenys de Munt

Published: October 6 2009 17:00 | Last updated: October 6 2009 17:00

A quiet country town, with an unpaved main street that doubles as a river bed for flash floods from the hills, Arenys de Munt seems an unlikely starting point for a revolution.

But when the town north of Barcelona held a referendum last month and voted overwhelmingly in favour of Catalonia’s secession from Spain (with 96 per cent of the 2,671 who voted saying Yes to independence) it spawned dozens of copycat referendum plans across the region.

A few fascist falangistas arrived in Arenys that day to demonstrate in favour of Spanish unity and damp the festive atmosphere, while moderate unionists stayed away – limiting the turnout to 41 per cent – and called the vote a flawed publicity exercise with no constitutional force.


Spanish riot police try to control pro-independence demonstrators
Spanish riot police try to control pro-independence demonstrators in Arenys de Munt on the day of the referendum

The vote, however, reflects long frustration among Catalonia’s 7.4m inhabitants with the way their autonomous region is treated by Madrid – and growing excitement among a passionate minority that independence is a real possibility, whether by referendum or a unilateral declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament. 

“I think in 2010 independence can peacefully be fulfilled,” says Carles Móra i Tuxans, the mayor, arguing that wavering Catalans (latest opinion polls show only 19 per cent want full independence) can be persuaded to support secession if only they understand how much they would benefit financially.

“Spain has limited us and marginalised us,” agrees Carolina Moya, a shopkeeper who runs a household goods store in the town. “Now the government knows what all the Catalans think.”

Like many Catalans, she believes that Spain takes more budget money from prosperous Catalonia than it puts in (true) and that other Spaniards enjoy special privileges (false). “We have to pay very high taxes. If you go to the rest of Spain, you don’t pay motorway tolls and houses are cheaper,” she says. “All this comes from the Middle Ages. But now it’s worse.”

For a supposed nation in waiting, surprisingly little is known abroad about Catalonia or its history as a Mediterranean power absorbed by Spain.

George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is neither a homage nor about Catalonia, but a mixture of reportage and analysis of the Spanish civil war. Among the few Catalan nationalists whose names might mean something to foreigners today is Joan Laporta, chairman of the Barcelona football club.

It was the global crisis that poked into flames a Catalan nationalism already smouldering with resentments about language, culture and a strong work ethic compared unfavourably by Catalans with the languor of Castilians and Andalucians.

catalonia-(map).jpgMr Móra, the mayor, says his town and half the Catalan municipalities are financially “ruined”, in part because the central government is not paying its share of the bills and in part because local tax income has collapsed along with the property market.

With the €60m ($88m, £55m) transferred each day to the rest of Spain, Catalonia could build 12 schools or eight homes for the elderly, he says. “It’s brutal; they are bleeding us … Now it’s not about language and literature. This is what annoys Spain. For the first time in its history, the independence movement is coming via people’s purses.”

For Diego Sánchez Simón, local head of the Spanish unionist Popular party, that is exactly the point. Politicians such as Mr Móra, he says, seek to distract attention from the near-bankruptcy of their fiefs and the decline of public services by shouting about Catalan nationalism, a phenomenon that is made worse by the approach of Catalan regional elections next year.

Mr Sánchez calls himself a proud Catalan, but says Catalans “have this mania for being victims, for saying that we’re being robbed or despoiled”.

One of the extraordinary aspects of modern Catalan nationalism is how little it has to do with ethnicity. More than a third of the inhabitants were born outside the region, and many eager nationalists (including Ms Moya) have roots in Andalucia in southern Spain, or as far away as north Africa or northern Europe.

Still, the numerical weight of politically moderate cities such as Barcelona means Catalan independence will be a long time coming, if it comes at all.

Even in Arenys, not everyone thinks secession is a good idea. “It’s all nonsense and it won’t go anywhere,” says José López, a garage mechanic. “I’m Spanish.”

And even nationalists know it will not be easy. “It would be a good idea, but we’ll never see it,” says Ms Moya. “Spain will never let go, because Catalonia brings in lots of money that helps the other regions.”


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