Friday, September 13, 2013

Weakening The Links In The Chain: Catalonia

José Manuel García Margallo is not Britain's favourite Spanish politician. He is not the favourite Spanish politician of the people of Gibraltar. He is, you may know, the Spanish minister for foreign affairs. It was he, among the Spanish Government, who really kicked things off in Gibraltar.

Margallo, so suggests the newspaper "El País", is the least diplomatic of all the ministers in the Spanish Government. Diplomacy, you might have thought, would be useful for a foreign minister, but Margallo, where Gibraltar was concerned, went tramping in with heavy and distinctly undiplomatic boots. The government's boot boy, putting an end to the party on the Peñón.

A line of argument that has been used against Margallo is that Spain has its own territorial issues, not simply those in Africa but also in Spain itself. One of them is Catalonia, and there have been many Catalan voices raised in support of Gibraltar's rejection of Spanish claims to the rock.

On Wednesday, Catalonia celebrated its national day. Describing this as "national" is somewhat misleading. There is no Catalonian nation, only that which exists as an abstract concept and an ideal for many a Catalonian who has learned from history that there once used to be something approximating a Catalonian nation. Many Catalonians, at least 400,000, joined a human chain that stretched some 400 kilometres from the French border to Tarragona. This was the highlight of the day's celebration. Its purpose? To demonstrate solidarity with the call for Catalonian independence.

It was a hugely impressive display, reminiscent of the chain formed by people in the Baltic states who demanded independence from the Soviet Union in 1989. You cannot simply ignore 400,000 people. Margallo, to his credit, hasn't ignored them. Indeed, Margallo, perhaps because he is undiplomatic, has been honest about the demonstration. He was worried and saddened by it, but he has admitted that it was a success in terms of its organisation, logistics and communication. In other words, he has appreciated that the people of Catalonia can be mobilised to show their support for independence.

The figure of 400,000 may well have been considerably higher, but then these figures are always open to question, but if one accepts the 400,000, it was actually lower than the lowest figure given for the national day demonstration in Barcelona last year. That was 600,000, though it was probably (and reasonably accurately) around one million.

So in fact, one could argue that there has been a fall in support for independence. Measured in terms of actual bodies, maybe, but the figures may not reflect sentiment as a whole. Which is something to which government vice-president Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría has alluded. The government will listen to everyone, including the silent majority. She has implied, therefore, that the weight of support for independence as shown on the streets is not matched off of the streets.

After last year's demonstration Mariano Rajoy's reaction was to blather on about the constitution and to seemingly pay no attention to the masses protesting. Santamaría has at least acknowledged their presence on the streets this year, but Margallo, undiplomatic Margallo, has gone very much further. The people on the streets have to be listened to, and he has proposed that there be a reflection not just about the situation in Catalonia but about territorial organisation in Spain as a whole. It is an extraordinary suggestion for a Partido Popular politician to make, as it implies a diminution of nationalism, and the PP has always been wedded to the notion of the Spanish nation without exception.

In addition to recognising Catalonia's language and culture, Margallo has indicated he would be in favour of changes to Catalonia's financing, which was really the cause of the recent clamour for a referendum on independence. He has also suggested that there be fewer limits on responsibilities of regional administrations, so not just Catalonia's. He has, in one intervention, turned PP attitudes towards the regions on their head.

The question is does he speak for the government or is he just wildly off-message? If it's the former, then something truly remarkable is going on, and it may be that something is going on. Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia, wants to put back any referendum to 2016. It had been promised for next year. It is still, strictly speaking, illegal to hold a referendum, but Mas has been talking with Rajoy. His delay of the referendum has been greeted with disgust by the left who keep him in power, but it could just be that a major reform of the state's relationship with Catalonia and the other regions is on the cards; a reform that would, it might be hoped, kill off calls for independence.

Any comments to please.

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