My friend and colleague, Dr Maarten Renes from Universitat de Barcelona, is guest columnist this week with this intriguing piece on the Catalonian struggle for autonomy as it is played out on the football fields of Spain.
Barcelona has turned into an attractive holiday destination for many Australians: its generally good weather, cultural amenities (Gaudí architecture, Picasso and Miró museums, Roman remains etc.), gastronomic wealth and intense beach and night life have forged its reputation as a hospitable town.
Many know that Barcelona is the second-largest city of Spain, but how many realise it is also the capital of Catalonia, a so-called ‘autonomous community’ or quasi-federal region within the larger political framework of the Spanish state?
To understand what is at stake in the war of politico-legal definitions surrounding the term, one only has to observe the intensely lived competition between the two major Spanish football teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, which neatly delineates the amount of feeling invested in state and regional nationalism—or ‘central’ and ‘marginal’ nationalism, españolismo and catalanisme, as they like to say here. At present, the score Madrid-Barcelona is five-nil in the political, but the reverse where football is concerned.
Indeed, Barça coach Pep Guardiola is the most popular expression of fer país or ‘making country’, an apt phrase denoting the forging of local identity coined by the conservative regional-nationalist and ex-president of the Catalan government, Jordi Pujol.
Guardiola’s project perfects the seeds sown by former Dutch international Johan Cruyff, who has made Catalonia his home and used to play for and later coach the Barça team which boosted Guardiola himself as an excellent midfield player.
Whereas Real Madrid spends huge amounts of money buying the best players on the market, creating some sort of a mercenary army unit (but no unity), Guardiola draws on the club’s young, upcoming players to build a competitive, synergetic team of ‘local lads’ who have imbued the club’s collective philosophy of playing football from an early age on.
To highlight the regional-nationalist importance of this, a similar strategy has been quite successfully followed by several professional Basque football clubs playing in the Spanish liga or premier league. That this strategy has been very effective in the case of Barça is shown in the team’s results and international recognition.
Pep Guardiola forges a sense of ‘country’ by appealing to solidarity, hard work and modesty as he likes to proclaim himself, and has come to represent a role model for current Catalan self-perception. As such, Barça articulates a claim for the political significance of the city (and region/country/nation) that hosts it, and is of capital importance in the economic, political, legal and cultural conflict that the town has been engaged in with Madrid ever since the advent of democracy in 1978.
Should it surprise anyone that when Barça’s last president, Joan Laporta, stepped down last year after serving his two statutory mandates, he took charge of a new independence party, Solidaritat, in the last Catalan elections, managed to obtain several seats in the Catalan parliament, and now considers running for mayor in Barcelona?
The Spanish Constitution of 1978 laid down the rules to play the political game in Spanish state territory, and attempted to accommodate the ‘historical nationalities’ of Galicia, The Basque Country, Navarra and Catalonia in a quasi-federal structure of ‘autonomous communities’ in which all Spanish regions were incorporated as equals—an arrangement now often disparagingly referred to as ‘café para todos’ or ‘coffee for all’, that is, all regions would be ‘served’ the same.
The historical nationalities’ distribution on the map actually reflects the way Christians organised themselves into kingdoms in the north of medieval Spain to fight back the Moorish occupants of the peninsula. Whereas Portugal remained its independency on the Atlantic fringe, all other regions were eventually brought under the control of the Castilian kings, although the other former kingdoms from the north of Spain would retain some rights of old and strong regional identities, despite the fragmentation of their territories under Spanish and French rule in modern times.
The most belligerent and successful of the historical nationalities has been The Basque Country, both because of its fully-recognised historical rights and its still-active terrorist movement ETA, which was actually founded in the Basque-speaking northern fringe of Navarra. Catalonia has played a slightly more accommodating role towards the central government; hampered by a more limited interpretation of its historical rights, it insistently complains about the lack of ‘completion’ of the 1978 Statute of Autonomy. It claims that the legal possibilities for Catalan self-government and self-management have still not been exhausted and need further filling out to reach a full-fledged federal make-up, comparable to the German Länder or the Australian states for that matter.
Voices for complete independence from Spain are also increasingly heard and represented in the Catalan Parliament.
The struggle for self-government ties in with wider objectives of economic reactivation and cultural survival. On the one hand it is often felt that there is a serious financial and economic drain-off towards Madrid, held in place by state control and plunging Catalonia back into ‘underdevelopment’. No doubt Catalonia, once a rich area of strong industrial development whose republican aspirations were thwarted by the fascist outcome of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), pays comparatively more taxes than most other autonomous regions and receives less money back from the central government.
Many Catalans feel this has been going on too long and has led to an unjustifiable disequilibrium with the rest of Spain—and especially Madrid, which has enjoyed spectacular economic growth hand in hand with the (post)Franco accumulation of political power.
On the other hand, cultural survival focuses on the Catalan language, theoretically spoken by six to seven million people but under constant threat by the legal and demographic pressure of Spanish, co-official and spoken by 46 million people in the peninsula alone and 500 millions worldwide. In Barcelona capital, with four million inhabitants if one includes its area of metropolitan influence, the languages often mix, and most immigrants, formerly from the south and west of Spain but nowadays often South-American, prefer to learn and/or speak Spanish over Catalan for reasons of convenience.
Although the vehicle language in official contexts, Catalan remains a minority language which also suffers from the onslaught of artificial fragmentation by its renaming in adjoining territories where local varieties are spoken. Thus, in Valencia people speak Spanish and ‘Valencian’, which is clearly distinguishable as a dialectal variant of Catalan but officially defined by its neo-con government as a different language.
The Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca etc.) are proud of their ‘Balearic’, a similar case in question. Neither should one forget the two varieties spoken in the Pyrenean valleys of Andorra and Aran, which also boast their linguistic ‘difference’. Last but not least, the presence of Catalan in the old Catalunya Nord, the area around Perpignan in the South of France, is more and more anecdotic and ‘folkloric’ everyday.
Unlike Canberra, which in theory is a physical and political space beyond local strife, Barcelona is capital territory in many other senses. It is (a) capital to visit as one of the major tourist towns in Europe—or at least of the Mediterranean—because of its attractive combination of good weather, a accessible beaches, attractive architecture, historical and cultural amenities going back 2,000 years, and round-the-clock bar, club and restaurant scene.
It is also the capital of the historical nationality of Catalonia, and offers a myriad of possibilities to get to know this culture forged as of the Middle Ages, both in town as well as outside—whether you go to other major cities such as Tarragona, Lleida or Girona; to the mountain resorts of Montserrat, Montseny or the Pyrenees; or the beach resorts of the Costa Daurada or the Costa Brava.
It is, next, a capital postcolonial space in which the ongoing politico-economic conflict between the centre and the margins is played out and marketed as antagonising nationalisms, and whose outcome remains unwritten, even more so in times of economic slump and general conservative European backlash against the celebration of cultural difference. It is, in this sense, one of the capital locations in the Old Continent where the configuration of a new Europeanness is torn between the narrow-mindedly provincial or broadmindedly cosmopolitan. It is, last but not least, a capital which I, though not from here, would like to keep calling my home.
Maarten Renes is an expatriate Dutchman who has lived and worked in Bacelona since 1987. He holds a PhD in English by the University of Barcelona and is assistant lecturer for the literature section of its Department of English. He is vice-director of the University of Barcelona’s interdisciplinary Observatory: Australian Studies Centre.
- Pep Guardiola signs Barcelona deal to stay until 2012 (usatoday.com)