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The solution to the Catalan problem?

A possible pact involving fiscal controls and use of the Spanish language in schools might just soothe tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.


Could a deal on language and money resolve Catalonia's differences with Madrid?

Catalan separatism has two anchor points, the traditional one is of a cultural nature (with the Catalan language at its core), the other one, of more recent creation and which has built up a new group of pragmatic followers making inroads even among Spanish speakers, is based on money: the fiscal deficit of Catalonia with the central state has over the past year or so evolved into the main argument for secession.

This makes one feel that to get rid of the problem of Catalan separatism, Madrid only has to throw money at the region. And that it had better do, because this new group has the potential to grow into a serious problem, unlike the ethnocentrists, whose numbers remain basically the same.

A confirmation of sorts that a deal touching on both culture and money is finally in the pipeline between Barcelona and Madrid came from El Mundo editor Pedro J. Ramírez on Wednesday.

Pedrojota  is a long-time insider of Spanish politics and has been critical of Popular Party (PP) leader Mariano Rajoy in the past, and even more so of Catalan nationalism. He combines insight with the right amount of vanity to speak publicly about what is cooking behind the scenes. Ramírez has highlighted the advantages of a possible future deal between Rajoy, most likely the next Spanish prime minister, and Catalan premier Artur Mas, of the moderate nationalist CiU. This suggests that the hard-core right-wingers of the PP, Rajoy’s internal opposition with whom Ramírez has been known to collude, are fine with it. And the other regions? Almost all have been in the hands of the PP since this year’s spring local elections.

Says Ramírez: “Yesterday I had an interesting supper with politicians from all Catalan parties and up came the subject (of a new fiscal pact). I think this is very important to Catalonia but, well, a fiscal pact like the one the Basque country has is completely unfeasible, although I believe that there is some margin to do things, under the condition that Catalan nationalists also make concessions in other fields… for example concerning the issue of linguistic immersion. I don’t think you can ask the Catalan nationalists to make a u-turn, but I do believe that they have to be less rigid in some ways, and guarantee to citizens that their constitutional rights are being respected, concerning the official use of the Spanish language.”

The language issue and the money issue

The central word here is “constitutional”, i.e. legality. But first let’s observe that however much Catalan nationalist politicians have spoken of a casus belli should Madrid insist on changing the monolingual immersion system in Catalan schools in favour of Catalan-Spanish bilingualism, the issue Mas will bring before Madrid after the elections is money. It’s the new fiscal pact he is aiming for, not the conservation of privileges of Catalan cultural supremacy – which are legally untenable.

On the one hand there is the legal imperative to allow for Spanish as a classroom language, on the other hand there is no legal imperative for Madrid to lower Catalonia’s fiscal deficit. Mas and Rajoy will not be meeting on a level playing field.

Mas has been doing some grandstanding over the past months but neither that nor his own regional government’s opinion polls fool anyone. He has been provocative at times, but the Socialists and PP didn’t respond in kind. In hindsight, that now makes sense. All nationalist and separatist Catalan parties combined will, once again, not even come close to winning the majority of the 47 seats allotted to Catalonia in the Spanish parliament. On the contrary, in Catalonia the PP now has a chance to overtake Mas’s CiU nationalists and come in second after the Socialists.

Indeed, a PP government in Madrid would be strong and confident enough not only to not give the Catalans a single extra cent, but also to make them finally respect the Constitution. But that would spell total confrontation. Better to split the Catalan separatist troops in two by appeasing the pragmatists with a fairer fiscal deal and leave the old-fashioned ethnocentrists out in the rain; effectively solving the problem of Catalan separatism and winning huge bonus points in the rest of Spain.

That tricky deficit…

The trick here is that Mas relies on the same, fragile culture-and-money coalition. He knows he has no allodium to question the unity of Spain. Instead of becoming the Father of Independence he has to look after his constituency like any off-the-shelf politician who wants to get re-elected. His core constituency are middle-class conservatives.

Mas will be extremely lucky to negotiate a new fiscal pact with Madrid that lowers the deficit from 8 percent to 5 percent of Catalan GDP and have its effects show on the ground in time for the next Catalan elections. If it is true what some observers in Madrid say, that the net deficit is closer to 6 percent, both Madrid and Barcelona might win a lot by simply agreeing on the math.

There will be a tug-of-war about one percentage point less here and two more hours of schooling in Spanish there, but the general necessity for both sides to reach common ground through a tit-for-tat deal seems to be there.

Both sides should be able to reap the profits, but Rajoy looks more likely to come out on top than Mas, who will be facing an ethnocentrist opposition that has grown both in opinion polls and decibels. No headache anymore for Spain, but enough of one to make Mas’s life miserable right on his home turf. He will have to throw some money their way.

And if Madrid worries about leaving Mas in a precarious position in Catalonia, it can still pre-emptively sugar-coat The Deal somehow to let him appear as the winner to his own voters.

Mas’s love-and-hate relationship with the radical fringe could thus enjoy a happy ending. And yet, he would know, and be held accountable for the fact, that it was he who sealed the integration of Catalonia into the Kingdom of Spain.

He’d hate to go down in history like that.

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Published: Nov 11 2011
Category: Politics, Featured, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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19 Comments for “The solution to the Catalan problem?”

  1. Interesting article, however just for you to know the Catalan immersion language education law was declared constitutional by the Spanish constitutional court years ago, there have been lower courts that issued contradictory statements but hopefully they’ll be revoked once they scale up.

    Anyways these Catalan cultural supremacy privileges are unknown to me having lived in Catalonia my whole life, the only privileges I can’t think about is that in school non-language subjects are taught in Catalan which is the only way all of us have the chance to learn the language. At the end we end school knowing as much Spanish as any other Spanish citizen plus another language, why is that so evil?

    Parties like partido popular would like an education law like the one they have in Valencia, where usage of their language is rapidly dwindling because of this. We all know that their dream is a Spain which is one, great and free like they used to say in Franco times, and obviously that “one” means one language and one central identity. Paradoxically, this same desire they’ve been pushing has the motivation for the many different identities in Spain to feel distant, and it is the main reason why independentist feeling is steadily growing in Catalonia.
    Leaving apart the money issue if we had a more respectful society like Switzerland, a confederacy of many historic backgrounds in where even Romansh a language only spoken by less than 40000 speakers appears in their money bills and is recognized as an official language, indenpendentism in Catalonia would almost be non-existent.

    • There are laws like 7/1983 of the Generalitat that have indeed passed the test of the Spanish Constitutional Court (CC). However, the CC’s two rulings that apply here, STC 337/94 and STC 31/2010, have made it clear that Spanish cannot be excluded as classroom language. (For the sake of clarity I only refer to the issue of language immersion in the public education system of Catalonia, but there are other similar issues still pending decision by the CC).

      This means that even though a law like 7/1983 is constitutional, its implementation might lead to a situation contrary to the constitutional rights of the citizens. Which is why end of last year the Spanish Supreme Court (SC), based on the rulings of the CC, has ended a legal battle over three separate, but similar cases that had gone up though all lower levels of jurisdiction. There will be no more “scaling up”, but the implementation of the courts’ rulings will now have to follow.

      In consequence, the highest Catalan court, the TSJC, has asked the Catalan government to make the necessary adjustments.

    • I respect they way that you’ve stated your stance (in a respectful manner). There is, indeed, nothing wrong with wanting to learn your own language (your mother tongue). Hence, nothing evil in that at all. However, you are probably forgetting about the days in which a balanced education was offered in both languages equally, and students came out with as strong a level in Spanish as in Catalan.

      The difference between Catalunya and Switzerland, is that in Switzerland you come out speaking four or five different languages. In Catalunya, the stance is to exclude the others. Let me ask you, what benefit does it serve to limit one’s citizens by force to one language (educationally) if not to keep them within it’s borders and limit their movement? It is ridiculous that I have had to translate for Catalan speakers in Chicago at conventions where they were to speak to Spanish audiences. Yes, I have met Catalans in Chicago who cannot speak Spanish.

      I myself speak four languages. I am not Catalan, but I grew up in Barcelona and love Catalunya as if I were Catalan. However, one must admit the down sides to such a low level of English that is imparted in the public schools (I teach the students in after-school tutoring) and the lack of serious Spanish literature education, which is a pity given the tremendous breadth or rich literature in Spanish worldwide.

      Let’s look at the big picture. Let’s keep our culture. Let’s celebrate our liberty and cultivate our language, but let’s enrich future generations with greater breadth of knowledge in as more (not less) languages.

      I understand that emotions run high on the topic, but I do believe it would benefit all of our children to have more hours taught in Spanish versus Catalan, as citizens of the world (not just Catalunya).

      • What you are in effect saying, Natasha, is that there would be no downside for Catalonia in such a deal as discussed in the article, but that Catalonia could only win, keeping more taxes at home and improving education.

        This is an interesting angle. In consequence I realise that the article might be excessively focussed on the political players. Thanks.

        • Yes, Candide. That is exactly what my comment implies. It is definitely a win win situation for Catalunya and, emotional issues aside, should really be a “no-brainer.” However, I would sternly caution Catalonians that this time is no time to be emotional. In the current economic climate, where emigration is often necessary in order to find employment (as it has been, historically, in past crises), we must prepare our children to be competitive worldwide and not lose sight of the big picture. I work with people every day who are seeking employment but cannot find it in their area, so I keep encouraging them to look outside of Spain as well. Their limitation? English, of course. Not only should Spanish be given a stronger emphasis in Catalonia, but the quality of English teaching should be brought up to the level taught in Germany and Holland. My husband works completely in English every day for an Austrian company here in Barcelona and he was asked to teach his latest on-line university course at the UPC completely in English. This is the kind of immersion the educational system should be preparing our children for. It should be more inclusive and less exclusive (of other languages), both in theory and in practice.

          I supposed I have reiterated much of the same thoughts, which were originally intended as a reply to Toni’s comment.

          On a side note, I have found it quite difficult to access this page, as it takes an extraordinary time to load. Also, it would be beneficial for replies to appear beneath and a bit indented to the right of each post one is replying to (in a hierarchical fashion), in order to avoid confusion.

          • I’m glad to see that I didn’t do injustice to your comment by interpreting it. As to your fear of being repetitive, your’re not, I think it’s good when points of view are being illustrated with real-life experiences.

      • Thanks Natasha for your comment but I don’t share your views. I don’t remember any time when both languages were taught equally, maybe it was between Franco’s death and the new law in the early eighties? Anyways I have never ever met any Catalan who cannot speak Spanish or even doesn’t feel confident speaking it. If there is any it would not be at all because of the education law. I’ve grown up in a Catalan speaking family and I have gone to school in Catalan public schools and I never felt any difficulty with Spanish. Also I’m pretty content with the many good Spanish literature I had to read during my time at school and I don’t think we had more literature lessons in Catalan than in Spanish.

        About Switzerland if they speak so many languages it might be because they might teach foreign languages better than here not because half of their non-language subjects are taught in Spanish.

        Candide about the rulings you tell me about thanks for all those details, I had heard the government here had some other options and I guessed that the ruling would scale up to higher courts if that isn’t so, I hope they really had another option, if not all that I can say is that i’m sad about those rulings.

        • Also as a side note I’m totally in favor of having more English and other languages at school here in Catalonia, and having most of university lessons in English and having more undubbed movies in TV and cinemas and many other things.

          The point that I wanted to make in my previous comments was that many of the people that ask for more Spanish in Catalan schools and having “equality” for both languages in my opinion it’s them that take this as an emotional issue.

          I have good friends from many different political views, and some of them would prefer having more Spanish in school just like Valencia, some of them overly state they dislike such an obscure and useless language to continue to be in a relatively good shape, they just feel it’s a waste of time for their children and they’d really like it to have it completely out of school. So for me it’s not that they are worried their children won’t learn Spanish properly it’s just they are disgusted their children actually will learn Catalan. Sure there might also be people that are just worried about the level of Spanish teaching in schools but as I already said knowing the educational system first hand I can attest the Spanish teaching is good and even probably a lot better than other parts of Spain, and anyways it won’t improve at all having more non-language subjects in Spanish.

          Anyways most of the people that I know, Spanish or Catalan speaking families, are happy that at school their children learn both languages and aren’t worried about the quality of Spanish teaching.

          • I find your points interesting, Toni, but new questions arise. What you say about children being perfectly bilingual when they finish school would also be true for the inverse situation, taking Spanish as the language of instruction and using Catalan only in Catalan language classes.

          • Hello Toni. Once again, I appreciate the respectfulness of your tone. Regarding the 50/50 bilingualism in education I referred to, I was referring to personal experience here in Catalonia, as I went to school here for a number of years. Back in 1986, I remember attending Sant Lluis Bosch in Begues (on the outskirts of Barcelona) and having half of our courses taught in Spanish and half in Catalan. I praised the Catalan for being open-minded whilst protecting their culture. Who wouldn’t? I was shocked to find that they now only offer everything in Catalan and that my son currently has no option for what I consider an intellectually balanced exposure to Spanish (not just conversational) at any school nearby. We are seriously considering moving to Madrid or elsewhere by the time my son is 7 or 8 unless things change.

            My criticism regarding lack of exposure to Spanish literature aims at going beyond the content typically limited to authors from Spain. It was not until I spent 10 years in the United States that I was finally exposed within a university context to other great authors of the Spanish speaking world such as Borges, Rómulo Gallegos, Manuel Puig, Julio Cortázar, Mario Benedetti, Isabel Allende, among many others. Furthermore, I had never been exposed (in Spain) to Spanish authors of the caliber of Benito Perez Galdos. There are many more I am sure, that are missing, as these authors’ books comprised the content of only one single class of Spanish literature during one college semester. I cannot dare to imagine how much could be covered if a fair selection of Spanish and Hispanic literature were to be adequately incorporated into Catalonian classrooms. Why deprive our children of such enriching knowledge and culture?

            Furthermore, there is a clear distinction between spoken and written language. I have witnessed severe spelling problems among children and adolescents not only in English but also in Spanish. There seems to be terrible confusion between Spanish and Catalan, and not enough emphasis is being put on proper spelling in Spanish. Speaking a language alone does not fulfill the requirements the current labor market places squarely on the shoulders of job seekers these days. One must be able to write properly as well in order to be considered literate and be intellectually advanced enough to stay competitive in the job market for skilled labor.

            Lastly, I stand by my statement that I have personally met educated adults who cannot speak Spanish at all. I have also met those who, due to their high level of education and specialization (from Catalan-speaking universities) find it difficult enough to switch to Spanish so as to hire a translator rather than give their own speeches in Spanish. This is no invention of mine and it serves to prove the point.

            If Spain (not just Catalonia) truly wanted to surprise the world and get rid of its current reputation for sloppy English speakers, it would incorporate a number of classes in English starting in elementary school. In Catalonia, I guess this would look like one third in Catalan, one third in Spanish and one third in English. I do not expect this to happen, but the least I can hope for is for greater exposure to Spanish in the classrooms, for my son’s sake.

          • Candide about having all subjects in Spanish and only one in Catalan I don’t see how it would work. Many people from the rest of Spain and other countries decide to come to live in Catalonia, for instance a big part of my family comes from Aragon and many other parts of Spain, and school is an important part of the exposure to the language that new Catalans get. Spanish is in most of the media and everywhere, and Catalan even though it might be getting better still has a lot to do. If there was only a subject in Catalan many of us would never end up learning the language, and it would result in a steady way to the disappearance of our language in not many generations.

          • Hello Natasha, thanks for exposing your views so well, and I have to say that as I read your post I got to understand more when some people ask for more Spanish in Catalan schools.

            I too feel disappointed with our education system, but I don’t think it has much to do with teaching more subjects in Spanish. I have lived in the Canary Islands and I have many friends from other parts of Spain and latin America, and even though they have received a mono-lingual Spanish education some of them don’t write any better than some of the children I had to give after-school review lessons in my first job as a teenager here in Catalonia.

            About my experience at school regarding Spanish literature I remember having to read two (maybe three) books a trimester and being exposed to many different authors, maybe more time could be dedicated to this, but from my point of view for instance it is a lot more important to have school have more time dedicated to maths, our maths level in schools is so bad…

            Ok I trust your word about people that doesn’t feel confident speaking Spanish, but I still think this is not at all the rule, and I honestly can tell you I haven’t met anyone with this problem.

            Finally, I too would like to have more English at schools and we need to teach English to our teachers, even at universities some of them have such a really low level, some of the subjects I had at university in English were imparted by teachers who couldn’t speak very well and it was really tough for us students in those lessons…

            So to sum up, yes the education in Catalonia and in Spain, has to improve in many ways, but it is my view that blaming it to the amount of Catalan used in Catalan public schools it’s completely missing the point.

          • Natasha and Toni, your discussion of monolingual vs bilingual education is very important. You seem to be resuming the points that are generally being made on the issue, thereby granting the reader insight into a significant part of the public debate that is taking place in Catalonia.

            However, for the sake of precision I have to make a point that comes in two parts. One is that your discussion, although it is very welcome, is outside of the scope of this article.

            The other part is that there is a third side to the issue. It is the legal side, which is the one the article tries to reflect upon, thus imposing a limitation that has two reasons, one being clarity and the other that indeed Mr Mas has set his priority on finances, and therefore it has to be expected that finances will be the central issue of debate between him and Mr Rajoy.

            Many other articles can (and indeed have been) written on the Catalan education system as such. This article is not one of them.

      • With all my respects, you might have been living there but you obviously don’t know anything at all about this subject.
        It’s easy to talk about citizens of the world when your customs, language, laws and identity have not been prosecuted for hundreds of years.

        • This is a reply for Toni, who has always been very polite.

          This will probably be my last post, but this has been an interesting and polite conversation (I never got a chance to send this, which I wrote quite some time ago).
          Responding to your last post to me, “… if there was only [one] subject in Catalan many of us would never end up learning the language, and it would result in a steady way to the disappearance of our language in not many generations,” I’d like to mention that I fully understand your point of view. Conversely, I am sure that is why you will understand we have the very same concern regarding the level of Spanish. The language itself would obviously not disappear, but one single subject is not enough to provide sufficient coverage of an important a language as Spanish. It is not the same to have one language class in a particular language as it is to take a class in that language. Passing English, for instance, is not at all the same as passing Math or History in English. Spanish is obviously an easier class to pass due to its similarity to Catalan, but the comparison still stands. Furthermore, based on when I went to school, when subjects were taught 50/50, I spoke and wrote Catalan just perfectly. In fact, even to this day, when I am speaking Catalan nobody knows that I am American. I received all As in my Catalan content courses and even after 10 years of having lived in the U.S. away from Catalan, I have tested into the very last level of Catalan (right before level C). This goes to prove that a 50/50 combination would not endanger the Catalan language at all, but would rather provide a fairer, more intellectually balanced representation of both languages in our classrooms. Furthermore, many job openings still require level C, so this measure and others would still serve to preserve Catalan. My experience is not the only one that supports this fact. I know at least 10 people who have lived away from Catalunya for an extended period of time who have returned and have had no problem with the language, except to have realized its relative importance at a worldwide level. Given these observations, which are based on fact (not emotion), I would simply reiterate that it is truly a win win situation for Catalonia. Based on the political argument of this article when it was written, you could pretend to be giving up something in exchange for keeping more taxes at home while actually gaining a more balanced education and no sacrifice in terms of actual preservation of the beautiful language that is Catalan. Meanwhile, many families who consider themselves truly international will be happier to stay in Barcelona and the surrounding area, as they will not fear for their children’s education. People such as my husband and I are constantly getting approached by headhunters on a weekly basis, and we often wonder whether we should stay. Catalonians are going at this the wrong way. It’s not Catalonia versus Spain. It’s Catalonia versus the world. Do you want to project an open, international mentality? Maybe you should defy Spain by improving the level not only of Spanish but of English, by making a serious push for improvement by incorporating at least one course in English (not just English as a language). This would give Catalan citizens a competitive edge versus the rest of Spain. Our town’s Catalan schools have already been pioneers in the area of technology, so why not tackle the language issue as well?

          Regarding your comment on Math, I fully share the importance of this subject. My major is in the field of economics, so you are preaching to the choir. If you will allow me, improving language standards and mathematics levels are not mutually exclusive goals.

          I write this with deep respect as I know this is your land and your language, but I’m coming at it from a pragmatic angle. I wish only the very best for Catalunya, which is why my husband and I are committed to try to stay here and make it here, even volunteering when needed at the schools and in other community programs. The challenges facing us at present, though, are obviously far greater than the issue of language, although I don’t mean to belittle the importance of the topic with that comment.

          Peace be with you all. It is important to keep peace and respect in these discussions.



  2. Your deep seeded antipathy is revealed in the article title. Having framed your article thus, necessarily Mas must be the legacy-obsessed neurotic. What if the framing is, “The Solution to the Spain problem?” Many Catalans have worked through to that solution and state it succinctly, “Adéu siau!”

  3. Mr Mathison, even though you have replied to yourself ipso facto let me point out that both Spain and its parts, such as Catalonia, exist based on the Constitution.

    Therefore, any problem that may affect the Constitution is a problem for both Spain and its parts, such as Catalonia. Which in turn means that I did indeed “frame” this article taking into account all necessary sides.

  4. I’ve been living in Catalonia for twenty years and I have both positive and negative points about living here. I don’t think the education system in Catalonia is quite fair regarding Spanish. Spanish is relegated to “foreign language” status like English and in my opinion Catalonia is shooting itself in the foot. One of the many things I have done here is taught English and if anyone says that people in this region speak both Spanish and Catalan at the same level have got it pretty wrong.

    I have met countless student who have difficulty not only writing in Spanish but speaking it, too.If you go into the darkest depths of Catalonia this problem is far greater.

    I’m not against learning Catalan – the more languages the better I say. But when a region relegates the main language to second or third place, there is something drastically wrong. Lest we forget that Catalan outside Catalonia serves little purpose.

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