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By Jack Wright
Photos: J. Wright unless stated otherwise
Photos: J. Wright unless stated otherwise

The Clásico, played between Spain’s legendary football clubs Real Madrid and FC Barcelona last 7 October 2012, could have brought the victory that Catalonia failed to achieve against Philip V three hundred years ago. But Barça’s showing, brilliant as it was, wasn’t good enough to have seriously jeopardized the integrity of the solid kingdom of Spain.

Here’s the story

It was the first “world war”. The Great Powers of Europe — the only powers that counted in the world — were aligned into two belligerent camps around the ticklish issue of who should sit on the vacant throne of Spain. The sickly Charles II, who died childless, willed it to the Duke of Anjou, grandson of Charles’ half-sister Maria Theresa of Spain and the all-powerful Louis XIV of France. He was crowned Philip V of Spain on 1 November 1700 to the delight of Louis XIV. “The Pyrenees are no more,” he exclaimed.  He could just see France, Europe’s greatest land power, united with imperial Spain in whose vast dominion the sun never set, under one Bourbon king.

Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles (Photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist, Creative-Commons Attribution-Share Alike.)

But there was a counterclaimant on the scene, Archduke Charles of Austria, on the grounds that he was the rightful heir to the throne, being the grandson of Archduchess Mariana of Austria, Queen Consort of Philip IV of Spain.

The War of Spanish Succession

Europe’s other Great Powers weren’t going to just sit there while Louis went to work on his tantalizing vision either. That would have well and truly shot the precarious European balance of power to pieces. And so true to form, before the wind could entirely dissipate the smoke from the guns of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), warmongering Europe was back on the battlefield. The Grand Alliance of England and the Netherlands attacked Spain from Portugal to dislodge Philip V from his throne and replace him with Archduke Charles. Thus was the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714).

The invaders were thwarted in Madrid but they captured Catalonia whose natives ended up rallying behind the Archduke. And that wasn’t out of some sense of loyalty; they figured their fueros (local rights gained over time and providing the framework for regional autonomy) were safer with the Habsburgs than with the Bourbons who

The Plaza Mayor, an architectural testimony to Philip II’s tranfer of the capital of his kingdom to Madrid. (Photo by Sebastian Dubiel, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike .)

were wont to centralize their rule from the capital.

Unfortunately, before the war could drag on ad infinitum England and the Dutch Republic signed a peace accord with France whereby they accepted the reign of Philip V in exchange for Louis XIV’s promise that France and Spain would never be united under a single monarch. The Treaty of Utrecht  (April 1713) all but ended the War of Spanish Succession. (Britain got to keep Gibraltar and Menorca at the expense of Spain.)

Archduke Charles himself hightailed it to Vienna, leaving the Coronela of Barcelona, a +4000-strong militia who fought alongside the Allies and the Austrian forces, in the lurch. But the Catalans continued to fight anyway, for “privilegis o mort (liberty or death),” until they were defeated on 11 September 1714 by Philip V’s army and the reinforcement from France at the Siege of Barcelona.

The Battlecry

Philip, the first Bourbon to wear the Spanish crown, modernized Spain by giving the de facto unified kingdom a de jure framework for a centralized one. The process naturally entailed the abolition of regional parliaments and the abrogation of the fueros — against which, at 17 minutes and 14 seconds of the game on 7 October 2012, the “separatists” who swamped Futbol Club Barcelona’s stadium Camp Nou shouted “Independence!” It was a call to arms against that fateful day in 1714 that brought the Catalan region under the rigid control of the centralized government in Madrid.

There’s hardly a soul in Spain who doesn’t know that the event that lent itself to the well-orchestrated secessionist declaration was the football match in the Spanish League (La Liga) between Spain’s (and the world’s) two best and richest clubs, Fotbul Club Barcelona (“Barça”) and Real Madrid. This derby which is held twice a year and is called el Clásico is watched by hundreds of millions of avid fans not only at home but also in other footballing countries around the world. On October the 7th the count was 400 million.

The expectations were unusually high. Sport commentators touted it as not just a face-off for the Liga title but also for the Ballon d’Or. Others saw the integrity of the Spanish territory hang on the final score, and that’s not being excessively hyperbolic. Though he had had to retract it later, a Barça footballer actually said this particular Clásico was about Catalonia and Spain.

The Clásico landed on the front page of every self-respecting newspaper.

A few days earlier the Catalan regional government (Generalitat de Catalunya) changed radically, from pushing for greater autonomy to going for outright independence from Spain. And it wasn’t about to squander the godsend opportunity provided by el Clásico of letting the world know that there was no holding Catalonia back.

The gigantic mosaic of the Catalan colors around the 90,000-seater stadium was in itself a graphic declaration of independence. Telling anybody who would listen what a pain in the neck Spain is, the separatist Catalans were so sure Barça would trash Real Madrid. Their football superiority, as was about to be demonstrated in el Clásico, was going to be one more reason for seceding from Spain. They’re too good to belong to a country that can’t match them in the football arena.

The volatile atmosphere was fraught with danger that at any time during and/or after the match an unbridled surge of exaltation or anger could lead to all hell breaking loose. No less than the president of the Generalitat, Artur Mas, who until recently aimed only for a “pacto fiscal” with the central government, which in itself was quite a lot, has become more papist than the Pope, so to speak. Without actually saying the word he can’t talk of anything else but Catalan independence after the massive demonstration on the Catalan national day, la Diada. Organized by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana under the boldly separatist slogan “Catalonia, a new state in Europe” — on 11 September, of course — a purported 1.5 million Catalans joined the march.

The Convert

Critics say Mas’ radical conversion is a smokescreen to hide his failure to address adequately the severe economic and financial crisis in Catalonia. It doesn’t matter much, really, whether this is true or false. What does is that, given the enormity of the crisis, Catalonia can apply for a bailout. In fact it has asked for it from the Fondo de Liquidez Autonómico, the liquidity fund set up by Madrid for autonomous regions in dire straits. (Right

Catalonia is hot topic these days and will be so for many months.

now that’s Catalonia, Valencia, Murcia, the Canary and Balearic Islands, Andalusia and Asturias.) However, having done so, it’s hard to present a seamless image of Catalonia especially outside Spain where the Catalans have embarked on an offensive in English and other major languages, presenting Catalonia as an admirably viable independent state.

Mas insists that he isn’t accepting any political strings that the central government would predictably attach to the bailout because what he’s asking for is Catalan money. It’s what Catalonia calls “fiscal deficit,” the result of Catalan taxpayers’ contributing more to the communal tax pot than what Spain invests in Catalonia.

Mas places the “deficit” at several thousand millions of euros.

So far the offensive hasn’t worked. Standard & Poor’s has slashed Catalan debt to junk bond status. Just three days after asking Madrid  for a bailout of €5,000 million, of which it has received more than €1,000 million in mid-October, the credit rating agency said: “In our opinion, Catalonia continues to display a weak individual credit profile, with deteriorated liquidity position and high reliance on smooth central government support  for debt payment purposes.”

This means that Catalonia can raise money from foreign sources only at prohibitively high-risk premiums, a situation that will send the breakaway region deeper into the financial quagmire unless its credibility improves and along with it its credit rating.

But Catalonia isn’t down and out. Nationalist fervor is a powerful stimulant. Flushed with the success of the massive Diada rally the President of the Generalitat met up with Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to demand that Catalonia be granted a fiscal pact that would allow it to levy its own taxes, spend most of it as it pleases, and be da_ned with the communal tax pot out of which the central government redistributes tax revenues from the rich to the poor regions. Rajoy argued that such a pact was “not compatible with the constitution.” And ironically it seemed that that was exactly the response Mas wanted to get from him though he probably wouldn’t have minded either if combative Rajoy said “yes”.

La Diada, seen in Barcelona’s Via Laietana. (Photo by Lohen 11, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike.)

As it is, Mas was able to present himself as a patriotic leader who has the misfortune of dealing with an obtuse government in faraway Madrid. He then dissolved the regional parliament and scheduled a snap election for 25 November of this year. He also threatened that if he won the coming elections a referendum on the independence of Catalonia will be held “sí o sí.”

One of the most important arguments being brandished by Catalan leaders to entice the people to their side is that economically Catalonia is better off outside than in Spain — a deliberate fallacy of the first order. Admittedly, Catalonia is one of Spain’s most industrialized regions. And when Mas went to Congress (the Cortes in Madrid)  he proudly told the deputies in the Chamber and those watching him on TV that right bang in the middle of a double-dip recession Catalonia’s exports have increased at an admirable annual rate of 10% and that 53% of these exports are now being sold in foreign markets, as compared to the 47% in the rest of Spain. Mas wouldn’t say it but consumption of almost any product anywhere in Spain has taken a sharp if transitory fall. That explains why Catalonia is selling more abroad.

Mas’ figures are impressive. But records of the Ministry of Commerce show that the rate of growth of Catalan exports is actually contracting! In 2010 its exports grew 17.9%, in 2011 14.3%, and in the first half of 2012, the growth is down to 7.4%. What’s worse is that the growth rate of Catalan exports in 2011 — 2012 isn’t being considered inasmuch as the year isn’t over yet — is below the Spanish overall average of 15.4% and that compared to other regions its performance is dismal. Andalusia’s 2011 export growth rate was 23%, the Canary Islands’ 22.3%, Castilla-La Mancha’s 22%, the Basque Country’s 20.1% and Madrid’s 17.2%

Park in Barcelona

Mas told Congress that Catalonia as an independent state will rank among the top 50 exporting countries, with a .4% share of world trade. So who needs Spain? Who indeed! Let loose from Spain, Catalonia will be somewhere between the 42nd and 50th position, ranking with Algeria, Argentina, Israel, Kazakhstan and the like. Spain without Catalonia will drop from 18th place to 25th, according to the World Trade Organization.

The underlying message of the Catalan politician’s stump speeches is clear: If there’s anybody needing anybody it’s Spain needing Catalonia. So better give in.

Then came the much vaunted el Clásico. The media were told in advance that at exactly 17 minutes and 14 seconds into the match Camp Nou would rumble with shouts of “Independence!” But something went very wrong. Midway in the first part of the derby Cristiano Ronaldo, the great Real Madrid midfielder, scored a goal thereby literally stealing the thunder from 17/14.

Catalonia really wants to go?

It would take much more than thousands of Senyeras and several massive Diada rallies to secede successfully. If the Franco dictatorship that brutally suppressed Catalan language and culture failed to drive Catalonia away from Spain, it’s probably because the secession isn’t as inevitable as the pro-independence activists would have the world believe.

Awesome Montserrat outside Barcelona

Persecution and the feeling of “them against us” which fortify national identities and go a long way toward secession reached a new historical high during the Franco regime (1936-1975). One would therefore have thought the Catalans would seize the opportunity to break away from Spain as soon as Franco died. Instead, they participated actively in drafting and approving the Spanish Consitution of 1978 that established Spain as a constitutional monarchy, the political system that restored the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish throne.

One of the seven so-called Padres de la Constitución (Fathers of the Constitution) was Miguel Roca of the center-right Convergència i Unióm, the same political party to which Artur Mas belongs. Article 2 of that constitution states that “the Constitution is based on the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, the common and indivisible homeland  of all Spaniards.” At the same time, the Constitution “recognizes and guarantees the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which [the Spanish nation] is composed and the solidarity among them all.

Miguel Roca, Catalan Father of the Spanish Consitution. (Photo by Kippelboy, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike)

It seems obvious that the Constitution favors decentralization as a vindication of the autonomy that some Spanish regions had enjoyed historically but which Franco had wiped out. But in no way does the Constitution allow dismemberment — even in the name of democratic self-determination, the euphemism that the separatist Catalans employ for illegal secession.

The reigning Bourbon King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, who’s done so much for the country and will predictably continue to do so well beyond the outer limits of noblesse oblige, has had to tell off the Catalans: “The worst we can do [in these difficult times] is to divide our strength, foment dissension, chase wild and unrealistic dreams [chimeras], deepen wounds.”

Back in Camp Nou, the equally great Lionel Messi of Barça scored a goal just minutes after Cristiano Ronaldo did. The final Clásico score was a 2-2 draw. Barça, which has become an integral part and the pride of Catalan identity, and had an 8-point lead over Real Madrid in the Liga, hoped to widen the gap to 11 points. The failure

King Juan Carlos I at a technology and innovation conference. (Photo: M. Silver)

to achieve it in the Clásico took much of the wind from the Catalan sail. I didn’t help that on the occasion Cristiano became the first player to score in six consecutive Clásicos.

What might the thousands of euphoric fans in the stadium have done if Barça had trashed Real Madrid? Would the secessionist Catalan leaders have been so emboldened by the fresh supply of nationalistic pride that they would not be content with anything less than an early unilateral proclamation of an independent Catalan state? What if it was Real Madrid who gave Barça a good thrashing. Would the Catalans have been so infuriated they’d have gone on a rampage even before the referee blew the final whistle on the derby?

The kingdom that Philip V centralized and strengthened after Spain became decadent in the last years of Habsburg rule did not lose a region on the night of  17/14 just as it didn’t in 1714. It probably won’t for a long long time, if ever.  Hopefully. The Catalan leaders are too smart to know which side of their bread is buttered and blow it. So they’ll stay — despite all that rattling of their secessionist sabers. In spite, too, of the absolute majority that the p0lls are predicting Artur Mas’ party might win come 25 November. Both sides — Spain and Catalonia — will lose a lot if they lose each other.

Think of Spain sometimes
Philip V of Spain - copia

Philip V of Spain (Portrait photographed by Louis-Michel van Loo. PD via Wikipedia)

Sadly, while the separatist Catalans and a central government armed to the teeth with catechetical españolismo engage each other in an escalating brinksmanship, Spain (and that includes Catalonia) continues to suffer from social, political, financial and economic catastrophes. The Spaniards (including the Catalans) don’t deserve this!

Minister of Education, Culture and Sport José Ignacio Wert, to the right, proposed to “españolizar” (Spanish-ize) Catalan students and make them into proud Spaniards. The Catalans were deeply offended by his insensitivity.