Catalan separatism revives a long-dormant Spanish nationalism

09 10 17

For years, people considered him a right-wing extremist for wearing the Spanish flag on a bracelet, explained Angel Muñoz, a 62-year-old chauffeur, standing in central Madrid.

But not anymore, he said, pointing out dozens of Spanish flags outside the apartments around him. Most of them have appeared in recent weeks.

“Now with this thing happening in Catalonia, perhaps they feel a bit prouder to show the flag,” Muñoz said, referring to the northeastern region’s push for a separate state. That is what the Catalans “have achieved with this referendum,” he added. “Somehow now the rest of Spain feels more united.”

Nationalism has always been a tricky thing for Spain. The dictator, Gen. Francisco Franco, died in 1975. Only three years afterward did the country embrace a democratic constitution.

In this Oct. 2 file photo, women with

But nationalism is still associated with Franco, whose authoritarian rule centralized Spain after a bloody civil war that was one of the defining ideological conflicts in 20th-century Europe.

Today, as Europe approaches the third decade of a new millennium, nationalism is back, for better or worse — with its warm cloak of identity as well as its concomitant dangers.

Whether this wave of nationalism will awaken old demons in Spain is an open question, and one that has suddenly become more urgent with Catalonia’s push for independence.

Equally dangerous, in the eyes of many Spaniards, is Catalonia’s threat to tear apart a country that is a composite of regional identities and languages — including Basque and Galician as well as Catalan — a reality the government and the country have never truly found a comfortable way to digest.

“In America people are proud to be patriots, whereas in Spain if you say that you’re proud of your country, they say you’re a fascist,” said Carlotta Carro, a 24-year-old lawyer who supported the Spanish police crackdown on the Catalan referendum. “But now people have a reason to go out into the streets to proudly show their flag.”

Indeed, the Spanish flag has become more visible in Madrid and other cities, as people have responded to the conservative government’s call to stop Catalan separatism in its tracks with their own displays of flag-waving.

“It’s finally a symbol for everyone,” said Lucrecia Fernández, a 50-year-old business administrator, who hung 11 Spanish flags from her apartment three days before the referendum Sunday.

But the clashes between Catalans and the Spanish national police have lent the nationalist resurgence — on both sides — a suddenly volatile dimension.

Before the referendum, Catalans watched online videos of Spanish police officers leaving for Catalonia to enforce Madrid’s order to close polling stations, encouraged by residents shouting “go for them.”

After the vote, Spanish television broadcast images of some of the same police officers, their hotels surrounded by crowds shouting abuse and calling for them to leave.

“Nationalist movements need to feed off each other,” said Joan B. Culla, a Catalan historian. “It’s both unfortunate and normal that the escalation of Catalan nationalism, particularly in recent days, will fuel a Spanish nationalism that already existed, even if it seemed to many to have been kept underground.”

That latent nationalism has also begun to resurface outside Spain. One of the ideas behind a European Union, in addition to economics, was always to absorb and dilute the nationalist impulses that had fueled the cataclysmic destruction of the Continent in two world wars.

Increasingly, that rationale is being challenged by right-wing, populist and nationalist movements across Europe. Britain voted last year to leave the bloc. In France, the far-right National Front entered the final round of the presidential election this year.

A far-right party even gained enough votes in September to join parliament in Germany, a country that, like Spain, has long treated nationalism warily because of its fascist history.

In Spain, the Catalan crisis has emboldened, in isolated pockets, some neo-fascist groups, which have seen cause to protest publicly in Catalonia and elsewhere, even as they remain an unwelcome fringe.

Yet the displays of Spanish nationalism should not necessarily be taken as increased support for the far right, said Sebastian Balfour, a specialist in Spanish nationalism and an emeritus professor at the London School of Economics.

He and others pointed out that Spain, unusual among European countries, has no far-right party. Instead, Balfour said, the governing conservative Popular Party has managed to retain the support of most parts of the right-wing spectrum.

In Germany, by contrast, the far-right Alternative for Germany emerged after Chancellor Angela Merkel moved her conservative party to the center.

In Spain, “We’re not seeing a populist right in the way that we’ve seen elsewhere,” Balfour said. “And that’s quite exceptional in a European context.”

But in a country that has seen two new parties, Podemos and Ciudadanos, enter parliament in two years, no one will rule out the emergence of a far-right party or of a brand of nationalism that is likely to make many Spaniards and their European Union neighbors uncomfortable.

Much would depend on how Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responds to the Catalan question, said Antonio Roldán, a lawmaker for Ciudadanos, a party that was founded in opposition to Catalan secessionism.

If the response is perceived to be too meek, “there is definitely more probability of a party appearing from the extreme right that defends far-right nationalism,” he said.

Political nationalism developed in Spain in the late 19th century, mainly in the Basque and Catalan regions that spearheaded the country’s industrial revolution and shifted financial power away from Madrid and the country’s administrative center. The tension surrounding Catalan autonomy was one factor that pushed Spain into civil war in the 1930s.

After winning the war, Franco wiped out regional languages and cultural diversity. Instead, he unified Spain around nationalism and Catholicism, complicating the transition after his death to a pluralistic democracy.

Culla, the historian, argued that Spain’s new Socialist establishment, which governed Spain for most of the 1980s and 1990s, “missed the opportunity to create a new concept of Spanish identity, without risking being labeled as heirs of Franco.”

“The substantial problem comes from Spain’s political culture, whether on the right or left, which has never worked to develop pluralism and has treated as a traitor anybody who feels more strongly about a regional hymn than a Spanish national anthem that doesn’t even have lyrics,” he added.

Catalan separatism has been fueled by economic complaints. But Catalan grievances also touch on Spain’s relative suppression of regional diversity, such as rules that prohibit lawmakers from speaking in their own languages in the Spanish parliament.

The sense of rejection has helped fuel Catalonia’s independence drive, even as the rejection of Spain has, in turn, revived interest in a Spanish identity.

“When I saw that they wanted to leave, my identity started to feel more Spanish,” said María García, the 60-year-old caretaker of a Madrid apartment block festooned with several large flags. “I felt upset and hurt that they wanted to leave.”

While some are reveling in their Spanishness, others are searching for a singular national identity that nonetheless embraces regional differences.

“Spain is more than the interpretation of the right wing,” said Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos, whose left-wing vision of a pluralistic Spain would also involve the abolition of the monarchy.

“Spain has different identities,” Iglesias said. “It’s more than the Spanish flag. Spain is the Spanish people, and the Spanish people are very plural and very diverse.”

On Sunday, the day of the Catalan referendum, a group of right-wingers waved Spanish flags in Puerta del Sol, a main square in Madrid. But they were outnumbered by a far larger group that sought to simultaneously condemn the assault on Catalan voters and express support for a unified Spain.

Unlike the hard-line nationalists, this larger group carried flags from different regions. At one point, they even chanted in Catalan to show that they supported Catalonia’s right to self-determination, even as they hoped the Catalans would decide to remain.

In the process, some attendees said they were trying to break the right-wing monopoly on patriotism — building on ideas promoted by Podemos.

“Currently the idea of a patriot is someone who says that Spanish is the only language we can use,” said José Antonio Bautista, an editor at La Marea, a left-wing political magazine. He said that Spaniards needed to understand that “diversity is strength.”

SOURCE:  Pittsburg Post-Gazette



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