Living in Spain proves difficult once again. It’s not like last year when my landlord was a conniving scumbag, one of my daughter’s teachers was a proselytizing creationist, and I couldn’t understand a damn word being spoken to me at the grocery store. Hell, I haven’t even been robbed this week. This year should be smooth sailing. But the main problem now with living in Spain is that where I live in Spain might not be in Spain much longer.
I’m in Barcelona, which is in the autonomous community of Catalonia. Autonomous communities (or “AC’s”) are like states in the United States. And these days the good people of Catalonia have secession on the brain.
Pro-independence flags and banners are hanging from half the balconies in the city. Pro-independence politicians have been spouting off in front of any microphone within reach. And on September 11 (National Catalonia Day,) 500,000 Catalans from all over the region gathered in Barcelona, held hands, marched through the city, sang songs, and collectively told the Spanish government in Madrid to go eat a dick.
There are many reasons behind this separatist movement. For starters, Catalonia used to be its very own country (albeit in a 1,000-year-old “kingdom” kind of way.) But in 1714, King Phillip V of Spain put an end to that when his army curb-stomped all the Catalans in Barcelona, bulldozed 10% of the city, and moved all of his own furniture into the place.
But why now exactly? Why all the fuss after 301 years? (Granted, those are European metric years. Three hundred years here is like two-and-a-half weeks back in the States.) As I mentioned, Catalonia used to have its own gig going. There’s precedent. And while that was quite awhile ago, the Catalans also suffered significantly and much more recently under the Franco dictatorship that lasted until the 1970s. Franco completely outlawed the Catalan language. You couldn’t speak it in public. No books were printed in Catalan. Catalan holidays and festivals were banned. You couldn’t even give your newborn child a Catalan name.
The Catalans have definitely been kicked around a bit. But if you talk to them long enough (and usually that means no more than ten seconds) you get to their real sticking point. And, lo and behold, it’s money.
Catalonia pays a lot more in taxes to Madrid than it gets back. The exact numbers are hard to pin down, but most people put the difference at around $15 billion a year. That’s a lot of tapas.
You can dig around and find all kinds of similar statistics that drive Catalans crazy. They make up 16% of the population but account for 20% of the tax revenue. They have the highest income tax rates in Spain. Even their toll roads are more expensive than the rest of the country’s. There’s a fine line between taking one for the team and taking one in the ass, and the Catalans feel they crossed that line quite some time ago.
“In 2012, Catalonia collected 118.6% of the national average of taxes per capita, putting it in third out of 15 regions. But after redistribution, its resources fell to 99.5%, putting it in 11th place. At the other extreme, the region of Extremadura collected 76.6% of the average in taxes, putting it in 14th place, but after redistribution it ended up with 111.8%, putting it in third.”
So it’s not just that the suits in Madrid are telling the Catalans to forego the optional 400-watt, eight-speaker stereo in their brand new Mercedes just so some guy in Extremadura can buy an extra liter of diesel for his shitty 1984 Renault. Madrid is basically telling them to swap keys.
Then again, Catalonia’s situation isn’t unique in the world. There are plenty of states in the U.S. that give way more to the feds than they get back. Even in Spain there are other ACs that give more than they get back, and in some cases their numbers are strikingly similar to those of Catalonia.
As much as I enjoy marching through streets and screaming about the government, we decided to skip the September 11 march here in Barcelona and head north that weekend to a little town called Ripoll. There are plenty of Independence flags draping Barcelona, but Ripoll is in the true guts of separatist country. It’s a small city tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The public schools there are taught exclusively in Catalan except for the actual Spanish language classes, and those are essentially treated like study halls.
“What’s that, Jordi? You didn’t do your Spanish homework today either? Well, I’m going to let it go this time. And the next time, and the next…”
The street signs in Ripoll are all in Catalan, as is most literature you’ll come across whether it’s a train schedule or the local newspaper.
There was a rally in that morning in the village square. Anyone who knew how to make a square knot was wearing an independence flag tied around his neck like a cape. Music blared. Speeches were made. I didn’t understand much of it, but any time the words “independéncia” or “revolució” were mentioned the whole crowd erupted with cheers.
We celebrated the most revered Catalan holiday at a fancy restaurant we’d read about online. Reservations are hard to come by at this place, but they happened to have a table available at 8:00pm (when they open) so we pounced on it. As one would expect from a restaurant of this caliber, our waiter oozed with disdain. He handed us menus all in Catalan, let loose with some Catalan gibberish, then walked off.
We sat there trying to decipher the appetizers for a few minutes when our waiter returned.
Pam smiled innocently and asked, “Do you have any menus in Spanish?”
I almost spit my water across the table. Rae and her friend who was joining us for the weekend slowly sank into their seats.
The waiter stared at Pam for about five seconds before saying–in English–, “Nooo.”
The food was delicious. My cream of semen soup was fantastic, and the mucus-glazed sea bass was out of this world.
Two weeks later, the Catalans held parliamentary elections. A few different separatist parties had candidates running. It was expected to be a litmus test for the strength of the movement. If the separatists won enough seats, they were going to use it as a de facto referendum on independence and move forward with secession regardless of what Madrid said.
When the dust settled after the election, it turned out that the separatist parties had won a majority of seats.
“Awesome, Nick! So you’ll be showing us your new Catalonia driver’s license when you get back, right?”
The independence candidates only received 48% of the total vote, which means more than half the Catalans think secession is for the birds.
And because this whole event wouldn’t be truly Catalan if it wasn’t as fucked up and convoluted as humanly possible, the two main separatist parties hate each other and can’t even get on the same page in order to gang up on Madrid.
The whole thing is a festering mess. I’ve spent a month digging through newspapers–and Google translations of newspapers–to see if I can get any real sense of what’s going on here. So far I’ve figured out two things for certain: 1. My head hurts. 2. The two major players involved both seem to be halfwits.
Let’s start with Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister. He has done absolutely nothing to help the situation. The Catalans have genuine beefs. Their tax situation sucks, and other ACs with gripes similar to Catalonia’s have received help in the past. The Basque nation keeps much more of its money than Catalonia does. But when it comes to Catalonia, Rajoy has never extended any type of olive branch unless it was to stick it into Catalonia’s eye.
Last year, the Catalans went to the polls and voted on two questions: “Do you want Catalonia to be a state?” and “Do you want this state to be independent?”
But the vote was completely non-binding. If you voted “yes,” it didn’t mean you were going to load your musket and march to Madrid the following day with blood in your eyes. It was strictly a poll in the truest sense of the word. Catalonia was simply taking the temperature of the region when it comes to secession. Sure, if the results were strong enough the separatists were going to use them to rattle a few cages in Madrid. But no action was going to come directly from this vote.
But Rajoy and the Spanish Supreme Court decided that just holding this simple vote was against the law. Allowing Catalonia to simply ask a yes or no question was too much for them. It’s like the F.B.I. arresting the entire Quinnipiac University student body any time they ask some goober in Iowa if they think a Muslim should be allowed to become president. (Too late, redneck!) It seems so laughably stupid that I have to be missing something, which is always a safe bet. If there’s some Rajoy fanboy out there who can correct me, please do.
But I’ll tell you who’s not laughing: President of Catalonia Artur Mas. He’s is currently on trial and facing 12 months in jail for organizing the vote. Mas has been the ringleader of the independence movement. But while we all love to root for the underdog, Mas makes it a bit difficult.
First off, his party is currently buried underneath a mountain of corruption charges. This is by no means astounding news. Tipping may not be the norm in Spanish restaurants, but in the halls of parliament it’s a completely different story. Kickbacks in Spanish politics are so common they’re almost not even worth paying attention to. Everyone is on the dole. (My personal favorite is Carlos Estrada, a member of the majority party here in Spain and the former mayor of a town near Madrid. He’s facing corruption charges after it was discovered that he was running a racket involving an organization that was collecting used clothing for needy households.)
Mas is also sort of a dick. Here’s his recent quote where he’s thumbing his nose at Madrid (Junts pel Sí is the name of the coalition of independence parties:)
“Big chiefs come to Catalan reserve to tell natives what is good to vote. Natives give a big finger and say victory to Junts pel Sí, which they will not like at all.”
Mas casting himself as the native in this game of cowboys and Indians leads me to believe he hasn’t spent much time on the Navajo Nation recently.
So everyone here is pissed off. The separatist Catalans hate the dark overlords in the Spanish government. The non-separatist Catalans hate the separatist rabble rousers. The rest of Spain hates all the Catalans and wishes they’d just shut up and pay up. And the guy in Extremadura hates everybody because they’re always making fun of his shitty Renault.
Jesus, where are the aspirin?
And this is just the beginning. I can’t even begin to understand all the details of what would actually happen if Catalonia declares independence. Will they be able to join the EU or won’t they? Will anybody in their right mind loan money to a brand new country that may or may not be cut off from the rest of Europe? What about the 48% of Catalans who want Catalonia to stay in Spain? Are they going to make a mass exodus to other parts of Spain? Or to other parts of Europe?
Maybe I’m just being short-sighted. If Catalonia splits off, things will be a nightmare. But for how long? Catalonia has one of the stronger economies in Spain (granted, that’s not saying much.) As far as population goes, Catalonia is about the same size as Switzerland. It’s certainly not inconceivable that Catalonia could make it work. After all, during Rae’s spring vacation next year we’re going to Croatia.
Of course, there is one obvious scenario that I haven’t talked about yet. This whole thing could just be a game of chicken that Catalonia is playing in order to force Madrid into making some heavy duty tax concessions. Sure, having your own country would be a sweet deal. It would be a huge boon to the Catalan map-making industry. The Catalan bobsled team could finally get their own room in the Olympic Village and wouldn’t have to keep sharing one with those filthy Valencian speed skaters. And without Madrid nagging them all the time, the Catalans could stay up as late as they wanted to, not that Catalans ever go to bed before 3:00am anyway. But giving Catalonia some tax breaks and keeping it in Spain would be the easiest way to make the greatest number of people happy.
I’m hoping that’s where this all ends up, because, honestly, the hardline Catalan separatists remind me of the little kid who decides to run away from home after having a fight with his folks. He packs a suitcase and makes it as far as the end of the driveway before realizing he has no idea where the bus station is.
The separatists aren’t quite that bad. They have a rough idea where the bus station is.
What they don’t realize is that the only bus leaving town is probably headed straight to Detroit.