BARCELONA — Colorful “Yes” posters still hang from balconies here, testimony to the drama of the referendum that has put Catalonia through an emotional wringer. “Welcome to Spain!” said my host with a significant smile. He was born and still lives in Catalonia, but mainly speaks Spanish; he sympathizes with the demands for independence, but fears an economic collapse.
He embodies the tangle of contradictions that hangs over Catalonia: It’s very wealthy, but complains of discrimination; its residents are citizens of Spain, which is now a lively democracy, but some talk about an “occupation”; it has both the authority and the budget to promote the Catalan language and culture, even though Catalan is the mother tongue of less than half the region’s inhabitants.
One can understand the Catalans’ national feelings; they suffered during Spain’s fascist era and also prior to it. And it would be nice if Catalonia could keep its income for itself instead of sharing it with poorer regions of Spain. But in actuality, what’s bad about the current situation?
Catalonia is a sought-after location, a magnet for culture, science and sport; it has everything. Its main complaint is about the flood of tourists – we should only be so lucky. Why rock this beautiful boat?
It has an autonomous government with the broadest powers of its kind in Europe, and if it were to become independent, its top goal would be to join the European Union – which it’s already part of now. As for the money problem, as a rich country, it would have to support other countries (including Spain) through the EU. So what’s the point of all this uproar? There’s no logic to it.
The Barcelona area is home to more than two-thirds of Catalonia’s residents. It’s one of the most flourishing districts not just in Spain but in all of Europe. Model urban development, creative architecture, sparkling restaurants – abundance spills forth from every corner. It’s a business nexus that’s developing at a rapid clip, and it’s also ranked among the top in the world for quality of life. It’s no wonder masses of people demonstrated in favor of remaining in Spain.
Of course this doesn’t justify the violence used by Spanish police against Catalans who wanted to vote in the referendum. What happened here was a grand march of folly. The Catalan government’s decision to hold the referendum was a serious mistake, Madrid’s order to forcibly prevent it was a wretched one, the decision of Catalonia's parliament to give the regional president “a mandate” to declare independence was meaningless and Spain’s issuance of an ultimatum in response was imbecilic.
Since the referendum, hundreds of companies, including banks, have fled the region. Now people are saying there aren’t enough ladders in all of Spain to help the regional and national leaders get down from the tall trees they climbed during this unnecessary crisis.
Some people on the Israeli right rejoiced at Spain’s distress, because Spain is “hostile” to Israel and supports the Palestinians, “and now they’ll see what this means.” This claim is ridiculous. It attests to ignorance at best and deliberate falsehood at worst.
By any parameter and in every walk of life, there’s an enormous difference between the Palestinians and the Catalans, or between them and the Basques, the Flemish or any other groups in wealthy regions of Western Europe: lack of basic rights, like freedom of movement, military occupation, violence, miserable social conditions and harsh oppression due to a national conflict. All these aren’t just a historical memory but a burning and bloodthirsty reality of daily life for both Jews and Arabs in Israel and the territories.
The test of aspirations for independence is first and foremost a test of human rights: Do members of the group have equal rights under the law, fair representation, the ability to vote for and be elected to all institutions and a social safety net? Do national rights, which are legitimate rights, receive suitable expression within the existing framework, or is it necessary to establish a new, sovereign framework?
Based on these tests, the Zionist struggle and the pre-state Jewish community’s demand for statehood were eminently just. And the Palestinian struggle to establish a state alongside Israel – not in place of it – is similarly legitimate and just.
And Catalonia? It will probably remain part of Spain and continue to flourish.
Published in Ha'aretz.