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Catalonia, immigration and populism

The town of Vic has flirted with the idea of refusing to register undocumented immigrants, therefore denying them access to healthcare and education. The move could spell the beginning of immigration as a major political issue as elections approach.


The attorney general’s announcement on January 20 that plans by the Catalan town of Vic to stop registering undocumented immigrants on its census were unlawful appeared to bring the furore surrounding the case to a close.

After an outcry on the part of immigrant and human rights groups, Joaquin de Fuentes Bardají insisted that any immigrant should be able to register in their local municipality with just a passport (a visa or other documents being unnecessary) and therefore gain access to health and education services.

But while Vic now appears unlikely to push ahead with its controversial initiative, this town of less than 40,000, just under a quarter of whom are migrants, has managed to push the issue of immigration back to the forefront of Spanish politics, against a backdrop of economic malaise and approaching elections.

The controversial proposal came, perhaps surprisingly, not from a predominantly right-wing or far-right political group, but a local governing coalition of Catalan Socialists, leftist Catalan republicans (ERC) and the more conservative Catalan nationalists of the CiU. However, the real instigator behind this plan appears to have been Josep Anglada, the leader of Plataforma per Catalunya, a Catalan nationalist party that is openly hostile to immigration. Anglada and his small party are in opposition in Vic, yet this admirer of Jean Marie Le Pen and Jorg Haider has managed to influence the municipality’s policy on a highly sensitive issue.

Vic, which has seen its population swell by 30 percent in the last 10 years due to immigrant arrivals, is a microcosm of a Spain which has changed enormously in a decade. Between January 1999 and December 2008, 5.4 million foreigners arrived to live in Spain, according to the INE statistics institute. An estimated 200,000 do not have papers.

Hailing mainly from Ecuador, Romania and Morocco, but including people from an array of other Latin American, European and African countries, these new arrivals took jobs Spaniards did not want, or new jobs in the agricultural, construction and service sectors, helping sustain an economic boom fuelled by a housing bubble.

Successive Popular Party and Socialist governments acknowledged this situation by overseeing mass amnesties for undocumented migrants.

The economic crisis has seen the numbers of foreigners – legal and illegal – arriving in Spain plummet over the last couple of years, rendering, in a sense, the whole immigration debate redundant. But with Spain still mired in recession and unemployment hovering just below 20 percent, the presence of these migrants who were not so long ago crucial for the country’s development inevitably becomes more problematic.

It also becomes more susceptible to being used as a populist political tool. Vic’s willingness to be dragged to the right on this question could offer a timely lesson as immigration starts becoming, for the first time, a major political conundrum for Spain.

The Vic trick

For one thing, the responses it has drawn from political parties have been highly instructive.

“The country that I lead will not allow human beings to go without healthcare or not be able to go to school, just because of a trick by one municipality,” Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero told the European Parliament following Vic’s announcement of its plan not to register illegal immigrants.

Zapatero’s government has hardly been soft on immigration of late, slashing the number of working visas, tightening rules on family reunification and launching a largely unsuccessful programme to persuade jobless migrants to return to their home nations. However, the Vic “trick” was a step too far for this Socialist. Zapatero also reminded his listeners of a time when Spaniards themselves were forced to go abroad en masse to seek a more prosperous and dignified life.

The opposition Popular Party’s response has been more complex.

Party leader Mariano Rajoy initially appeared to have some sympathy for the Vic plan and called for the existing immigration law to be toughened. A week later, however, after being accused of xenophobia by other parties in Congress, he went to the other extreme. Rajoy bemused many observers by calling for the local registers to be ignored altogether and for health and education to be offered to all immigrants “due to the mere fact that they are human beings.”

Meanwhile, Alicia Camacho, head of the PP in Catalonia, uttered the ultimate in hard-line soundbites: “There’s not enough room for all of us.”

Historian Santos Juliá noted how the hostility of Camacho’s stance contrasted with the PP’s willingness to welcome migrants in the good times: “As long as there’s a margin for exploiting a cheap labour force, there’s enough room.”

Sarkozy or Berlusconi?

What all this has exposed is a lack of clarity and some outright divisions within the main opposition party on immigration, the kind of divisions that have dogged it on an array of issues ever since Rajoy became leader in 2003.

One Rajoy ally told the El País newspaper: “Our model is that of Sarkozy: the integration contract, the tough line on illegal immigration and defence of legal immigration. But some in our party go for more of a Berlusconi-type message. And that is what Rajoy has tried to stop.”

Unfortunately, he hasn’t tried hard enough. Typically, Rajoy has struggled to make his own stance clear, let alone impose it on an unruly party.

With Catalan elections approaching in the autumn and general elections in 2012, this issue is not going to fade away, even when the economy does finally turn around and start creating jobs again.

In the 2008 general elections, Catalonia was seen as a main reason for the PP’s loss. Having performed reasonably well across most of the rest of the country, the conservatives were roundly beaten in the region. Understandably, it is now a main electoral target for the party, which knows it must be seen as less “anti-Catalan” and more in touch with people’s day-to-day concerns.

In that campaign, Rajoy flirted with a hard line on immigration, a strategy that backfired. But while he seems to understand that outright intolerance will alienate more moderate voters, many in his party seem determined to stoke anti-immigrant fervour as a stepping stone to power. And as Vic has shown, under certain circumstances even moderates can be dragged to the extremes of the political spectrum.

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Published: Feb 5 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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6 Comments for “Catalonia, immigration and populism”

  1. […] kept to a minimum for fear of a voter backlash that could cost the governing Socialist Party dearly in regions such as Catalonia, where the Socialists lead a coalition government and elections are due this autumn. Zapatero also […]

  2. […] agreement would be the PP supporting Duran i Lleida’s party in a governing partnership following Catalan elections this autumn; CiU would reciprocate by supporting the PP in the wake of general […]

  3. "However, the real instigator behind this plan appears to have been Josep Anglada, the leader of Plataforma per Catalunya, a Catalan nationalist party that is openly hostile to immigration"

    Really? Could you please quote your sources for this rather bold statement?

    As far as I've been able to ascertain by perusing the Catalan media (in a variety of languages) Mr Anglada's anything but a Catalan nationalist. Prior to becoming the leader of his xenophobic gang he was for many years a junior leader of Fuerza Nueva, a neofascist party well known for championing an extreme brand of Spanish nationalism radically opposed to any -however symbolic- recognition of an independent Catalan cultural identity.

    As a matter of fact not so long ago there was a pitched battle in the main square of Vic involving members of Mr Anglada's gang challenged on their xenophobic policies by left-wing supporters of Catalan independence.

  4. I don't think that Catalan nationalism and xenophobia are necessarily mutually exclusive. As for my source for saying Plataforma per Catalunya is a Catalan nationalist party, I would say there is quite a large hint in the party's name. Beyond that, the party's website describes it as a group which "has its doctrinal pillars based on Catalan tradition…" Yes, it does seem to be a xenophobic party, as I mention in the article. It also presents itself as a nationalist one.

  5. […] come round to the idea that it must shake off its obsessively centrist, “anti-Catalan” image.  This autumn’s Catalan vote will be a barometer of its ability to do that in the next general elections. And it is the autumn […]

  6. […] The truth is probably more nuanced than that. Having never formally broken with the dictatorial regime that was so instrumental in its founding, the PP is inevitably vulnerable to “extremist” jibes. The likes of De la Riva merely reinforce the notion of an undemocratic party stuck in the past. So do others such as the PP’s Catalan leader Alicia Sánchez Camacho, who has cynically called for illegal immigrants to be struck off civil registers so they cannot receive basic health o… […]

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