Catalan language pride fuels independence debate


Catalonia may be home to Spain’s second city, Barcelona, and one of its most prestigious football clubs, but there is evidence that support for pro-independence parties is on the rise ahead of regional parliamentary elections on 25 November.

The perception that Madrid is threatening Catalan language policy has fuelled separatist sentiment, with recent polls showing that more than half of Catalans want to break away from Spain, the highest level in history.

If the pro-independence CiU party of incumbent Artur Mas is re-elected by more than 50% of the vote, it would give him a mandate to try to push for the Spanish government to allow a referendum on independence, which the central government says is anti-constitutional.

Catalonia already has a strained relationship with Madrid over perceptions of unfair treatment at a time of economic crisis. Any sign of fresh moves to "hispanicise" the region – such as when Education Minister Jose Ignacio Wert said recently he would push for more Spanish in schools – sparks more outrage.

"We have nothing against the Spanish. But when someone bullies you, your instinct is to fight back," said Ricard Domingo, a literary agent and member of a Barcelona public school board.

Language stew

Catalonia's laws require the use of Catalan by teachers, doctors and public sector workers. All primary and secondary education is given in Catalan, and Spanish is taught as a separate subject. Businesses face fines if they do not label products and post signs in Catalan.

Anyone who speaks in Spanish will be answered in Spanish, but foreigners who settle in Catalonia say they need to learn the local language to socialise. English is increasingly spoken well by Catalan politicians and businessmen, who credit their bilingual backgrounds for their fluency.

Madrid says it fears younger generations are losing touch with the Spanish language, which Catalans deny.

"Bilingualism is so much a part of our guts that Spanish would never disappear even if we did become independent," said Raul Leon, a 39-year-old doctor who was educated during the 1980s Catalan immersion plan in public schools, and who writes medical prescriptions in both languages.

Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia, which has the fourth highest circulation in Spain, started printing a Catalan edition last year, but Spanish remains the dominant language of newsstands, bookstores and most television stations.

The president of Barcelona Football Club, Sandro Rosell, took to the streets alongside 1.5 million protestors to mark Catalonia’s national day, La Diada, earlier this year to push for greater political and financial autonomy from Madrid, wrote Newsweek?, a US political magazine.

Many of those demonstrating that day were pushing for a full-scale secession.

The growth of ‘Barça’, as it is affectionately known the world over, as a major sporting club has been a strong source of Catalan pride as well as expression of human rights. 

Repressed during the Franco years, the club became a vehicle for a powerful ethos and a nationalist Catalan edge.

Rosell has so far resisted the temptation to throw his club behind the separatist bandwagon, preferring to keep it an international symbol rather than an outlet for tribal loyalties.

But Rosell told fans following La Diada: "Barça will abide by what a majority in Catalonia decides."

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said in response to a question related to Scottish independence: "A new state, if it wants to join the European Union, has to apply to become a member of the European Union like any state".

Catalan, a romance language similar to Spanish and French, was banned for almost 40 years during the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco, and only used secretly, in the home.

Since the return to democracy in the 1970s, Catalan people, who are mostly bilingual in Spanish and Catalan, have poured money and time into protecting the centuries-old language for fear it could die out.

There is evidence that separatist sentiment is on the rise, thanks largely to the economic and financial crisis, with heads of government in the United Kingdom recently agreeing to hold a referendum on Scottish independence. The debate has also been fanned in Belgium, with a separatist party (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie) scoring major victories in municipal elections in October.

  • 25 November: Catalan Regional Parliamentary Elections

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