Opinion

Catalonia and Europe

Jordi Pujol
2009-02-03

The upcoming European elections and the visit by the EU President have brought European and EU issues to the fore. This renewed interest is most welcome.

It is most welcome because Europe, Europeanism and the EU have always been Catalonia’s key reference points. Both for Catalonia and for Catalan nationalism.

Let us first go over the history in parts and by periods, and then examine present circumstances.

1. The birth of Catalonia as a nation is already linked to Europe. More precisely, from the start we had close ties to the Carolingian Empire, the Europe of the time. In her infancy, Catalonia was the bulwark of southern Europe. And we continued to be bound as much politically as legally and culturally to the people, issues and ideas to the North of the Pyrenees.

2. During the medieval period of splendour, Catalonia was no small country tucked in a corner of the world; rather it was a European power. Catalonia was the political, economic and even the ideological driving force behind what was known as the Kingdom of Aragon. With a presence and sway throughout the Mediterranean, at odds with France and often at odds with a Papacy that was usually pro-French, and with ties to the whole of Europe. Always, of course, with a dangerous Castilian pressure on its flank.

3. After this period of splendour, all our wars to defend our political and economic power had a strong European component. Such was the case of the war against King Juan II, in the late fifteenth century (with a civil war component on account of the redemption issue), the war of 1640 and, above all, the war of 1705-1714, in which Catalonia was pawn in a European game of chess, but also an active figure on the European political stage.

4. This European component in these three wars, and especially in the Spanish War of Succession, was not merely tactical or prompted by the need for allies. It was also had to do with the choice of political, social and economic model. In these three conflicts, the Catalans had the united provinces of the Netherlands – namely, Holland – as their point of reference, though less so during the war against Juan II. A reference point from the heart of Europe and opposed to Castilian ideology – indeed, to the Spanish Monarchy –, which was already politically and ideologically isolated on the European periphery.

This explains the Catalan preference for the Austrian pretender. The Catalans embraced the Anglo-Dutch mercantile and productivity model combined with the relatively decentralized and tolerant Austrian attitude towards the nationalities, as opposed to the politically centralized and economically Colbertian - interventionist- French model.
In sum, a very European game.

5. The slow Catalan recovery that extended from 1714 to the second half of the 19th century had its gaze firmly fixed on the North. Not merely the geographical north, but also in terms of the industrial and mercantile North, the cultural and ideological North, once the recovery allowed the country to broaden its horizons. Showing as much admiration for English industry as for German literature, philosophy and music.

6. This became ever more evident with Modernisme, the first great intellectual and artistic movement with a clearly nationalist traits, which was closely associated with the culture and ideology of Central and Northern Europe. It was also evident in the movement that followed shortly afterwards ; Noucentisme, not a local movement by any means, but one of European inspiration. It focused on everything Mediterranean, Latin and, above all, French. And it was staunchly Europeanist. It is not by chance that Coudenhove-Karlegi, who introduced Catalonia to 20th century Europeanism, was as steadfast a noucentista as Estelrich, then Cambó’s closest collaborator.

7. Throughout this historical journey, we have seen that in contrast to successive European influences – and Catalan influence in Europe- there was little contact with the rest of Spain. Very little. All the great cultural, economic, social, and ideological movements from that long period came out of Catalonia, with diverse European influences and practically nothing from Spain.

8. Francosim gave way to a radically anti-Catalan, anti-Europeanist and anti-democratic climate. More than ever, therefore, Catalonia looked to Europe for her salvation and for a model to follow. Catalonia did not merely seek to maintain her traditional relationship with Europe, but soon felt enticed by the idea of the European Union. They were interested in the EU long before and with greater zeal than the rest of Spain for two reasons. First, since outside of Catalonia many conservative sectors sympathetic to Franco were clearly opposed to the European political, social and economic model and to its principles. And second, because a part of the anti-Francoist left, for ideological reasons, adopted a reticent and hostile stance towards the European democratic model and its project for unification. During the years of the Franco regime, Catalonia led Spain in its struggle for the European model, - namely, democracy, economic growth and the welfare state - and spearheaded the struggle for the recognition of the Spanish nationalists and autonomy. Since the dawn of the transition to democracy to the present day, Catalonia has lent her unwavering support to Europeanist initiatives of the various Spanish governments. Above all, when the Catalan nationalist members of Parliament were decisive and Spanish governability was particularaly fragile.

9. Moreover, Catalonia has played as direct and active a role in European politics as her political status has allowed, participating in many cultural and economic initiatives. On more than one occasion playing a leading role, such as in the Assembly of the European Regions or in the Committee of the Regions. Or by pressuring the Spanish government to set up the Conference of Barcelona that set in motion the Barcelona Process, an initiative that President Sarkozy is continuing today.

10. It should be noted that many people in Catalonia believed that the EU would pave the way for changes in the structure of the States, which in Spain should benefit Catalan nationalist aspirations. Not so much with regard to independence, but instead to help ease and broaden autonomy in political, institutional, linguistic and cultural terms. On the one hand, this was a spontaneous and grassroots sentiment. Now, some Catalan parties and the Generalitat itself have advocated a European Union held up by three pillars: the current States as a central pivot but with a greater transfer of power in two directions: externally towards the European Commission and the European Parliament, and internally to strengthen and set apart the autonomous regions for historical, cultural and political reasons. This was always a tricky and perhaps naive proposal, but for some time progress was made in this direction (in the late 1980s and early 1990s). Yet the reaction of the States was devastating. The European countries halted regionalism in its tracks while adopting a more nation state stance with respect to the Union. This brings us to the present.

11. The recognition of the Catalan language, for example, has been given far less attention than many Catalans had expected. It has always been clear that Catalan would not be an official European language. It would have been wishful thinking to believe otherwise. Yet we expected better treatment from Brussels (and more understanding). And greater recognition. Although it is fair to say that regarding our language a greater and more loyal commitment from the Spanish governments would have helped this question along.

12. We are where we are. What can be done and what needs to be done?

Let’s start with the language issue. The political parties must think about this and act. And the Generalitat even more so. Realistically. Clearly identifying objectives. Coordinating efforts well. Conveying seriousness. Without a doubt, by doing things well, we can achieve more than we have thusfar. Because it is only fair.

And evidently there is no sense in saying that we shouldn’t waste time going to Brussels with our problems as Catalans. We would be the only ones in the whole of Europe not to do so. It would be admitting defeat. It would be absurd, but key is to do it properly.

But language is not everything. The government of the Generalitat, our political forces, and our European Parliament members in Brussels need to defend many other issues. Because we are pro-Europeans and because we are Catalans. In other words, because we seek European as well as Catalan progress at all levels.

Namely, in Brussels we must defend our identity, our economy, our infrastructures, etc. And European progress overall, the bolstering of its role in the world, the quality of European democracy and welfare, etc. It is what a country that has defended its Catalan way of life and remained loyal to its Europeist commitment for centuries, from time immemorial, should do. An example of this is the high-speed TGV rail link with France and the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona.

13. We also need to remember that our efforts in Brussels – from the TGV to the Catalan language or the support for Mediterranean policy- will not be successful if the government in Madrid doesn’t help us. Or if they place obstacles the way of the Catalan language, as it has so often done in the past. This is another front that we cannot forget about.

Jordi Pujol served as president of the Catalan Generalitat and party leader of the nationalist coalition Convergència i Unió (CiU) from 1980 to 2003. He was consecutively re-elected in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1995 and 1999. At the first, fifth and sixth legislatures CiU won the parliamentary elections with a relative majority, and at the second, third and fourth, by an absolute majority.