Catalonia vs Spain: The roots of the conflict. By Joan Fonollosa
In our meetings with people from various European countries, we have realised that, quite often, there is a misunderstanding of the current conflict between Catalonia and Spain, which makes it very difficult for them to understand the deep and real nature of the problem and, consequently, its causes and the timeliness of any proposed solution. This document is an attempt to help resolve this misunderstanding.
The root of the conflict is much more than a mere set of cultural, economic or social differences. There is a complex set of causes that have risen since the beginning of the history of Catalonia and Castile, derived mainly from geographical conditions, which could be described as telluric. And these telluric questions produce an essential difference of mentality, a different Weltanschauung that often manifests itself in a deep mutual incomprehension between Catalonia and Spain, but also between the rest of Europe and Spain.
The first issue is geographical position. Catalonia is a Mediterranean country, which has been inhabited and in contact with many cultures since long before the Roman Empire. However, Castile is an isolated plain, very sparsely inhabited before the 3rd century B.C. This creates a radical difference: Catalonia is a culturally open country, accustomed to accepting different ideas that, over time, have been incorporated into its own culture. On the contrary, Castile is a closed-minded region, which must preserve its culture against any “foreign invader”. Simply put —but not entirely false— Catalonia is said to be a land of merchants and sailors, while Castile is a land of warriors and shepherds.
This produces very different views on many issues, including the way they deal with conflicts. For a trader, negotiation is the natural way of dealing, but it is not the case for a warrior. A warrior may win or lose, but never negotiate, especially before a battle, when only cowards or traitors do. Negotiation is only possible —not obligatory— after defeat, never before. Therefore, the Catalan people’s permanent willingness to negotiate is often seen as a sign of weakness.
A second difference is the way both nations were born. Catalonia was born from the Marca Hispánica, a set of counties created by King Charlemagne. The great distance from the Kingdom meant that these counties became independent in practice through time, first de facto and then de iure. This forced the Counts to relate to each other, and as a natural consequence they produced a kind of “confederal” idea —bearing in mind the “utopic” connotations of the concept . For this reason, Catalonia has never had a king of its own, but a princeps, the principal (first in time or order) among equals.
On the other hand, Castile was born as a county dependent on the Kingdom of León. The Counts soon became an independent kingdom, and fought for centuries against their “father kingdom” for hegemony until its definitive absorption in the 13th century.
This means that Catalonia is a Carolingian country —where the current European institutions were born— and Castile is not. And that is why Catalonia has been an enthusiastic European country from the beginning, and Spain has not.
Another consequence of these varied origins is their very different role in the History of Europe: Catalonia was looking to the north and east, and Castile to the south; therefore, Catalonia was an important player in medieval Europe, while Castile was dedicated to “liberating” the peninsula from the Islamic infidels of the south. The territorial expansion through the South was (and still is) seen as a “Reconquest” to re-establish the mythical —but not real— unity obtained by the Gothic kings after the fall of the Roman Empire.
It’s time to talk about the links between the names of Castile and Spain. The word Spain derives from Hispania, the Latin name for the Peninsula. For the Romans, it was merely a geographical name, and never had an administrative or political meaning: first, the Romans divided the peninsula into two provinces (Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior) and then into three: Tarraconense, Betica and Lusitania.
However, Castile soon used this as a kind of “divine design”: it’s a regular portion of land, almost completely surrounded by sea and, to clearly mark the boundary, The Lord placed a line of high mountains where it comes into contact with other lands. Thus, the translation of all this into a political, national and religious unity is a kind of obligation, a “manifested destiny” summed up in the motto of José Antonio (a fascist leader of the 1930s) that Spain is “una unidad de destino en lo universal” (a unity of destiny in the universal). This has been translated into a secular work to unify Spain, that is, the land that God had destined for Castile. And this unification must be both political and cultural — including the Catholic religion and the Castilian language, which was renamed Spanish.
This almost metaphysical idea produces a series of effects that are difficult to explain. So, for example, people with a prestigious intellectual curriculum are able to say without blushing that Spain is the oldest nation in Europe and are even able to say that it is 3,000 years old. Or that the defenders of Numantia against the Roman legions (143 B.C.) were already Spaniards who resisted foreign invaders: of course they resisted the invaders, but they were not Spaniards!
This promoted idea is behind all episodes of Spain’s medieval history, including all kinds of conflicts, wars and marriage policies. Over time, León, Aragón and obviously the Arab kingdoms were defeated; even today many people still think that the Portuguese are a kind of “mistaken Spaniards” who at some point will realise their misconception; and this is also the basic reason to consider that Gibraltar is so important despite its small importance in territorial, economic and demographic terms. In this framework, only the Catalans are a real threat to this unifying project (there is also a very special relationship with the Basques, which we will not discuss here).
Following this idea, the measures aimed at destroying Catalan culture in any form, adopted after the military victories of 1714 and 1939, are, from the Spanish point of view, completely logical. It is the fulfilment of a duty.
According to this, Spain is a State in the broadest sense of the word, more than a people. Spain is a structure of legal, military and economic power, directly descended from the Castilian feudal structure of the Middle Ages. And, according to this, the traditional characteristics of a feudal social organisation are still present —updated to the new times— as structural issues: authoritarian hierarchy and corruption. This led to a profound misunderstanding of the basic concepts of democracy on the part of most people and, what is worse, of almost all members of the ruling class, until now.
In this context, the Franco regime is no exception in history. It is simply the specific form that traditional Spain took in a specific moment in time. And when it was necessary —because of international needs— to reform the state after Franco’s death, democracy was never a real change in the structure of the state or in the minds of the political class: it was only a “minor change “. However, we must accept that today, after 40 years of formal democracy and 30 years in the European institutions, some of the new generations are genuinely democratic.
The federal tradition of Catalonia led, on the other hand, to the creation of the Crown of Aragón, where two mutually independent countries coexisted, with the only nexus that the same person would hold simultaneously the two titles of sovereignty. This system was later extended with the Kingdom of Valencia and, with some variations, with the Kingdom of Mallorca. From this point of view, the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs in the 15th century was only an extension of the model that would include Castile as an additional partner. Unfortunately, the traditions and viewpoints so differing between the two countries made it impossible for the Castilians to understand them —in fact, they had already experienced some episodes in this sense before— and it was the Castilians, and not the Catalans, who finally adopted the system.
Another essential misunderstanding between Catalonia and Spain is their different conception of law, its nature and its effects. In the case of Catalonia, the law is the result of an agreement, a wise expression of the Law, previously sanctioned by custom. Therefore, if reality does not agree with the law, the priority is not compliance with it, but the right; it is a conception of law that is very close to, and with clear historical connections to, the British concept of the “rule of law”.
By contrast, the Spanish conception of law is completely different. The law is the set of instructions that the commander gives to those who are commanded: “The law is what the King says”. So, for example, when the Spanish authorities today say that the independence of Catalonia is impossible because it is not allowed by the Constitution, they really believe that this is a valid argument. And, of course, while the one who commands (Spain) does not change the law, the commanded one (Catalonia) is powerless to do so.
Here we are at the heart of the current problem. According to the right to self-determination and the democratic principle, this conception is unacceptable, of course, but it must be taken into account that the unity of Spain is a higher, much higher value.
Now let us put together all the elements of the Spanish conception: It is a land of warriors, a hierarchical structure of power, the law is what the commander says, and the unity of Spain is a superior value. The cocktail is very harsh and dangerous: Spain’s unity is non-negotiable. The independence of Catalonia goes against the divine will, it is only possible through a military defeat. This concept produced, for example, the “Espartero’s doctrine”: Barcelona must be bombarded every 50 years. As this solution is not possible today, Spain simply applies the same doctrine with non-military but judicial weapons. This is the real core of the problem.
Constituïm (http://constituim.cat) is a group that has drawn up a Constitution proposal for the Catalan Republic from more than 3,500 popular proposals as a tool for debate and reflection
Published on February 2nd 2019
- Constituïm presenta la seva proposta de constitució per la República a l’Espai VilaWeb – https://www.vilaweb.cat/noticies/constituim-presenta-la-seva-proposta-de-constitucio-per-la-republica-a-lespai-vilaweb/
- Projecte constitució.cat – http://www.constitucio.cat/
- Entrevista al Vilaweb a Jordi Domingo, impulsor de Constituïm – https://canalrepublica.cat/2018/08/30/entrevista-al-vilaweb-a-jordi-domingo-impulsor-de-constituim/