OPINION
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To Felipe González... and to Spaniards

Catalan political leader Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida responds to the former Spanish PM’s open letter on regional independence published in EL PAÍS

Nicolás Aznárez

On Sunday, August 30, former Spanish prime minister Felipe González published an open letter in EL PAÍS titled “To the Catalans.” I feel a personal affection for González, and have always been thankful for his respectful, attentive attitude.

Logically, we cannot agree on everything. For instance, I feel that he should have left out the reference to 1930s Germany and Italy in his article. Besides making himself an easy target for criticism and allowing people to focus on the finger of blame rather than the issue at hand, González’s remark hurt a lot of people’s feelings, including my own.

Incidentally, less than a month ago a member of Catalan premier Artur Mas’s government likened Spain to old Communist Germany, and nobody criticized that remark.

But the former statesman’s positions and ideas still count for something in Spain, Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world. Thus the relevance of his views on the delicate situation in Catalonia, where part of the population supports severing all ties with Spain.

That is why I propose to comment on some of his thoughts while reminding readers about my own political genetics. The stature of Felipe González makes it unnecessary to remind anyone about his own political beliefs.

I am, above and beyond any other circumstance, a person grounded in the ideas of community personalism. There is no nation without people. I put people, personal dignity and collective raison d’être ahead of everything else. From this starting point, I feel moderately proud of having contributed, if minimally, to the economic, political and social progress of Catalonia and all of Spain.

Unfortunately, pitting Catalonia against Spain and vice versa is a good way of getting votes

True, I would like this Spain to be different in many ways. Among other things, I would like to see the acknowledgment of diversity as a shared asset – which González’s article mentions – paving the way for a true expression of the country’s national, cultural and linguistic diversity.

The European project flows through my political veins, and while I was never pro-independence, with every passing day I am increasingly aware of the inter-dependence that Catalonia must adapt to, considering the connections imposed by globalization.

Finally, but no less importantly, I have tried to make dialogue the main currency of politics. In his article, Felipe González talks about understanding one another. This has always been necessary, but more so now than ever. Dialogue, pacts and deals. Were we not able to reach agreements following Franco’s death? Is our current starting point worse now than it was then? Honestly, I think not.

For years I added my voice to the long-ruling coalition that was Convergència i Unió (CiU) to underscore that, thanks to the Spanish Constitution of 1978 and our first regional autonomy charter, Catalonia has experienced more progress in terms of economy, social issues and self-rule than at any other time in its thousand-year existence. I never once regretted having defended and voted for this institutional framework.

The only way forward is a negotiated deal on reforms that will guarantee Catalonia’s uniqueness

Have there been any significant changes since then? Yes, there have. More than a few mistakes by everyone involved have altered the situation notably. Realities have changed and so have perceptions, which are often guided by feelings rather than reason.

I have always said that we made a mistake with the new regional charter, the Estatuto. We didn’t do a good job here in Catalonia. It was a mistake to do it in agreement with just one part of Spain. The Socialist Party made a mistake, too. But we had already made a serious mistake before that, by securing support for former Catalan premier Jordi Pujol’s last term in office from the Popular Party (PP), when the latter had an absolute majority in Congress.

The worst mistake of all, however, is attributable to the PP and its campaign against the Catalan charter. A series of errors climaxed with a ruling by the Constitutional Court, where a comedic situation ensued in which the renewal of sitting justices was blocked by political action. In Catalonia, what remains of all that in the collective imagination is the text of the ruling, which most people have not read, but which is held up as evidence of the region’s exclusion and the breakup of the constitutional framework.

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From this viewpoint, there is some sense to the dialectical question of who abandoned whom: did the Constitution abandon Catalonia or did Catalonia abandon the Constitution? This feeling has been reinforced over the last four years by laws such as the one drafted by former education minister José Ignacio Wert, by recentralizing processes, by discrimination in investment, and by an unfair financing system.

Most recently, the fast-track reform awarding the Constitutional Court the ability to dole out sanctions is not going to resolve the underlying problem. It deeply pains those of us who defend dialogue to hear the PP candidate say that “the joke is over.” My God, we’re not in a Wild West saloon waiting to see who shouts the loudest!

That is why I cannot remain unmoved when I see praise of González’s article expressed by those who practice the kind of intransigent politics that his article attacks, and who rush to the courts with appeals as though ignorant of the fact that piling up the court rulings is not an effective way of doing politics.

In his letter-article, the former prime minister warns about the risks and costs of independence. It is advisable to stress – contrary to those who use unity and secession in a partisan way, only recognizing drawbacks for the opponent – that independence is negative for everyone. Is it bad for Catalonia? Yes. For Spain? Also, of course! And even for the European Union!

Did the Constitution abandon Catalonia or did Catalonia abandon the Constitution?

I have spent the last three years seeking the Spanish prime minister’s attention in Congress, warning that the day would come when we would see a unilateral declaration of independence. Such a move will have no legal effects at the European and international level, but it will certainly have economic and social effects for everyone involved. Or does a rising risk premium affect Catalans alone? All Spaniards should demand dialogue from their elected officials, which is what Felipe González means when he talks about mutual understanding.

Just a few months back, pro-independence campaigners applauded a declaration on Catalonia made by the Danish parliament. All this body said was that the governments of Catalonia and the Spanish state should talk democratically and reach an agreement. And that is the only way forward: a negotiated deal on reforms that will guarantee Catalonia’s uniqueness.

Felipe González does not believe in the breakup of Spain. I don’t believe Catalonia will break away either. But I am worried about the split within either one, and between both. We need a critical mass that will push into insignificance those in Spain who irresponsibly ask for Catalans to leave once and for all, and those in Catalonia who look at everyone else with contempt.

All Spaniards should demand dialogue from their elected officials

The breakup of the moderate catalanism once represented by Convergencia i Unió is bad news for all of Spain. That is why some of us are rowing against the tide in a bid to reduce the effects as much as possible.

Unfortunately, pitting Catalonia against Spain and vice versa is a good way of getting votes. I only see one way forward, and that is overcoming the ignorance that fuels this debate. Ignorance is not about not knowing things: the kind of ignorance that brings in the votes involves refusing to know things. And it is up to Felipe González and all Spaniards to put an end to it.

Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida is the leader of the Democratic Union of Catalonia (UDC) party, a member of Congress and a former official in the Catalan government

Translation by Susana Urra.

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