Catalonia: Portrait of a federalist

Valentin Berthoux, translated by Joanna Davies
14 Janvier 2015

On the 9th November of this year, Catalans were called to vote in a referendum on the independence of their region. This referendum, without legal effect and forbidden by the central state, saw an excellent participation of more than 2 million people. The citizens had the choice between independence or status quo. A third way, corresponding to a federal system, was also proposed to them.

Catalonia: Portrait of a federalist
Le Journal International went to meet Javier Romero, a Catalan living in France who chose the option of the third way. He explains to us the reasons behind a choice which seems nevertheless to meet with little support, and the way in which he has experienced the process from abroad. 

Why did you choose federalism at the referendum of the 9th of novembre 2014?

I voted “yes-no” (the federal option, editors note) because I think that the Spanish government must change. Catalonia isn’t ready to be independent in the current socio-economic context in the world and in Europe. Europe isn’t ready to accept an independent Catalonia and therefore the choice “yes-no” is the best solution to change the relationship between Catalonia and Spain without forcing Europe to accept a new country. What’s more, what’s the point in being independent? We will always depend on other organisms. Today, it’s the Spanish state that protects us and it’s logical that it stays like that for as long as the European Union isn’t ready to accept a Europe of peoples rather than states. What we must try to improve is the relationship between Catalonia and Spain from within the Spanish state and not from outside. 

What would a federal system change? What does Catalonia lack?
The possibility to manage economic resources and Spain’s respect for a Catalan identity and nation. Today, the system of autonomous regions is a system of “café para todos” (a well-known expression in Spain which refers to the fact that the autonomous communities always demand more from the central state in order to achieve the same level as their neighbours, editors note) and as a consequence it doesn’t recognise their Catalan identity as a different identity. It’s a system that’s nearly federal without recognising this identity. This lack of recognition is a lack of respect from the Spanish state towards Catalonia. Federalism would imply that identity is recognised and that the competences in culture and education are not called into question.
Furthermore, it would give Catalonia the possibility to manage its money. That doesn’t necessarily mean to contribute less, but it would be a result of an agreement between Spain and Catalonia. Today, the Spanish state doesn’t respect the status of Catalonia in terms of financing. They unilaterally ignore this agreement. In a federal state, this couldn’t happen, because everything would have been negotiated and agreed. 

The federalist option won 11% of the referendum. Why did this option not meet with more success?
Because the people who didn’t go to vote were federalists and those of the ‘no’ vote. If there had been a legal vote, federalism would have seen more success. What’s more, lots of people knew that this consultation had been forbidden and would have no effect. Those who voted for independence have demonstrated a protest vote. Many people who voted “yes-yes” would have voted “yes-no” in a real referendum. 

But it is true that federalism isn’t the majority.
The problem is that nobody believes in it. The separatists don’t think it’s an action that Spain could take. As nobody believes in it, the society becomes radical. If there were a concrete and achievable solution in this sense, then I think that it would appeal to many people.

Why has separatism grown in Catalonia in the last 4 years?
Because the people who have become separatist think that because of Spain, Catalonia suffers more from the crisis. They think that in Spain things are managed badly and that it’s for this reason that the crisis has been so intense. Even so, there’s a lot of populism and demagoguery in these ideas. It’s not true that Spain is at the root of all these problems.
What is true is that Spain no longer invests in Catalonia so that it can recover from the crisis. Catalan money goes to Madrid, where it is distributed without taking into account the fact that today Catalonia is suffocated. We need investments in order to continue to be a driving force in the Spanish economy and for this reason we should be the priority. What’s more, today we are in a situation where, despite that fact that we have more fiscal resources, Catalonia offers less social services than the rest of the Spanish regions. This creates tension. 

What do you think of Catalan nationalism? In France being a nationalist is frowned upon; why is Catalan nationalism different?
It’s a nationalism from the left, which gives it more legitimacy than a nationalism from the right, which is fascist. In fact, it’s a bit contradictory - on the one hand Catalonia demands more resources, but on the other there is a movement from the left saying that it’s necessary to share more. 

What has your experience of the vote been from abroad? What do you think of the campaign led by the separatist associations internationally?
They did a really good job. Lots of articles were written on the subject in the international press. The Economist recently wrote an article calling for the Catalan right to vote. The Guardian and the Financial Times did the same. There was an international movement, above all in the press. However, as for the institutions and the state, their campaigns were hopeless. Artur Mas asked for support from several countries and received nothing. I don’t think anyone wanted to interfere in Spanish domestic problems. Another thing that has changed following this campaign is the fact that today the whole world knows about the Catalan problem. Four or five years ago, very few people know of the self-determining will of Catalonia.

So you think that, internationally, people understand the problem better now?
Yes, they are more aware. The world is more aware. Today if you ask: what are the regions or the peoples who want to to exercise the right to self-determination?  People will respond: Quebec, Scotland and Catalonia. Everyone knows Catalonia.

What will happen in the following months? Is there a solution?
I don’t know what’s going to happen. There will be elections in Catalonia and in Spain and we must hope that these elections take place as soon as possible. When it comes to Spain, there must be a change so that things advance. The only solution is that a new party takes power in Spain and that they are open to negotiating a different relationship with Catalonia. Unfortunately I don’t think that this will be possible, because Spain has, until now, closed all the doors. We are caught between a rock and a hard place!