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What Happens Next?
Some years ago I was staying for a few days in a small, family-owned hotel in Barcelona, just around the corner from the Plaza de Cataluña. My command of Spanish was far more shaky in those days but I felt it was important to make as much use as I could of what I had. And so, each evening I would ask the lady on Reception for my room key in Spanish. On one particular day, however, it was the owner of the hotel manning the desk on my return, and so I asked him in Spanish for my key. He said something in return which I did not catch, so I asked him - in Spanish - to repeat it. Again, I failed to understand, so apologetically told him that I only spoke a little Spanish. “It’s not Spanish,” he replied, in English. “It’s Catalan.” “Oh,” I said, relieved, “I don’t speak Catalan.” “And I’m not Spanish!”, came his response.
I am reminded of this episode because today is potentially a very important day for Spain. The Catalans go to the polls to elect a new generalitat. Following the death of Franco in 1975, a new constitution was drawn up which came into effect in 1977. The various regions of Spain were divided up into seventeen autonomous communities (communidades autónomas), each with its own governing body. Cataluña has the Generalitat, Andalucía, the Junta, and so on. Whilst the seat of national government remained in Madrid, substantial powers were delegated to this second tier of government with below them, first of all the provincias and then the ayuntamientos (city or town councils).
Most people outside Spain are aware that there is a nationalist movement in the Basque Country, the best-known manifestation being the terrorist movement ETA. The nationalist aspirations, however, are at least as strong, though without the violence, in Cataluña. Historically, and like the Basques, the Catalans straddled the Pyrenees, and indeed the French city of Perpignan boasts a rugby league team, the Catalan Dragons. In addition, both have been much more developed industrially and economically than the rest of Spain.
The consequence has been that, almost from day one of the new constitution, Cataluña has been pressing for a greater and greater degree of autonomy, and has largely succeeded in carving out for itself a list of concessions which are the envy (and the despair) of the other communidades. However, the present governing party, the CiU, now wants to go forward to actual secession from the Spanish state; today’s election, which comes only two years after the last one, is being held with the intention of winning from Catalan voters a mandate for the CiU to move to a referendum on secession. The vote is today. When we know the outcome, I will return to this topic.