Over the centuries since Catalonia lost its independence, Catalans have been on the receiving end more than most. Is that what 'belonging' to Spain amounts to?
For over 350 years the troops of the kingdom of Castile have bombarded, besieged and ravaged Catalonia's cities. French armies, in the name of their King and then for the Republic, have annexed large tracts of their land north of the Pyrenees, and have burnt down, among many other monuments, one of the greatest libraries in Europe. The armies of rival Spanish dynastic pretenders have wreaked havoc in our towns and villages. Germans, for their Fuhrer, and Italians, for their Duce, have tried out their military developments and weapons on civilian urban targets. An unholy alliance of Spanish monarchists, fascists and army officers, - with the help of Moorish troops and the support of Catholic Church leaders- have fought for control with defenders of a Republican model of Spain, while the Soviets waged their own war in the streets of Barcelona-, driving thousands of Catalans, including their political, social and scientific elites, into exile over the mountains to avoid still-unpunished bloodbaths and acrid vengeance.
For some, the miracle is that despite all this, the Catalans still exist as a vibrant people, with a living language, a creative culture and an unflagging will to look to the future.
What a rapidly growing number doesn't understand, however, is why Catalonia is not, like most other European nations, a free country in its own right.
All the more so when in the past year every single opinion poll has shown that those saying they would vote for independence in a referendum outnumber those that say they would vote against, in several recent cases by around twenty percentage points.
The Catalans' resilience is in part due to their traditional posture in the face of - always - far more powerful forces than their own. Theirs is a culture of passive, 'back-office' defiance rather than face-to-face assertiveness. Each time Catalan has been banned in schools, clandestine groups have gathered to share literacy classes, to read literature, to hold secrete poetry competitions. When Catalan (or Valencian, or Majorcan) singers' lyrics have been politically censored they have found subtle euphemisms to talk about dictatorships and the lack of freedom ('the aging mountain', 'the post'...), or have been forced to earn their living abroad. When publishers were forbidden to print works in Catalan other than those of classical authors (and in archaic spelling), they tricked the system in various ways; one printed the work of a (living!) Classics teacher.
All this, it may be said, belongs to the past. But Catalonia still belongs to Spain, whose elites have for centuries shared a national project in which Catalonia as a differentiated people with a language, a culture, a history, and institutions going back even more centuries has had no place.
It is the past that explains this present European anomaly.
And it is the present that explains why the largest demonstration in the recent history of the continent took place in Barcelona, on July 10 2010, after what many regard as the ultimate attempt, by the main Spanish parties and the Constitutional Court, to humiliate the Catalans and cut back their claims to (greater) autonomy. And why hundreds of grass-root organisations across the country have since held local referenda - with no official sponsorship or public funding whatsoever, but exquisitely organised - on Catalonia's independence. And why the last of them, held on April 10th last year in Barcelona, almost doubled the turnout of a previous popular consultation (on a different issue) organised by the City Council with the backing of a massive budget.
Yet despite the title of this article, the press is full of the opposite message: that Catalonia feels it is getting less than its fair share. And this is also true, and is helping to fuel the flames. Catalonia's economy is being choked by the lack of central government investment. Official statistics show that in 2005 (the last time the figure has been calculated) fiscal spoliation amounted to almost 9% of Catalonia's GDP. Longterm milking of the Catalan economy is exacting a crippling toll, as Catalan firms pay the price in terms of lost competitiveness. What used to be Spain's power-house is scarcely allowed to have intercontinental flights (when, for that matter, did anyone last see an Iberia plane at a Catalan airport?). Work on essential European-gauge railway infrastructures needed to allow the port of Barcelona (and Tarragona... and Valencia and Alicante) to act as the natural nodes of Europe's trade with the Middle and Far Eastern markets is being held up by the Spanish government, which keeps hinting it would prefer to bore a pharaonic tunnel through the Central Pyrenees, even though the French seem unwilling to take on their (monumental) share of the project on the other side.
It can be argued that it is fitting that richer regions pay more and poorer regions receive more. True and reasonable. But not to such a degree (more than twice the upper limit allowed in Federal Germany, for instance), not if this means Catalonia is actually being overtaken by less wealthy regions. And not if two wealthy regions do not pay such contributions at all (and whose inter-regional fiscal deficit as a result is under 3%!).
It is in this context that thousands of Catalan citizens (by no means all Catalan-born and bred; all segments of society are suffering in the crisis because of Catalonia's current status as a region of Spain with very limited powers to overcome) are joining the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (http://www.assemblea.cat) which will hold its first General Assembly on March 10th. This grass-roots organisation already has over 200 local assemblies across the country and aims by democratic means to consolidate the social majority in favour of independence, and to put pressure on the political parties a majority of whose voters support this noble objective to include (in some cases, for the first time) their commitment to independence through a referendum or a plebiscite in their 2014 election manifesto.
Noone hides the gravity of the challenges ahead. On the international front, the precedents are there for all to see. Ruthless Spanish diplomatic pressure on national sports federations around the world, to prevent Catalan federations joining their international sports federations is a good example (a notorious case in point being the International Roller Sports Federation, of which Scotland is a member). It is hard to believe that fully twenty Catalan federations are indeed recognised! Nor are some other countries sympathetic: French courts have blocked the Catalan Rugby Federation, a founder-member of the International Amateur Rugby Federation in 1934, and its attempts to reverse its expulsion in 1941, when the Pétain and the Franco régimes were in power.
Yet the Catalans are learning the virtues of being ambitious. How else could they have achieved a unique internet top-level domain for .CAT, covering the whole Catalan(-speaking) community?
March 10 may prove to be a crucial stepping-stone in the Catalans' steadfast march along the Road Map towards what, after all, is no less (and no more) than what most European peoples have achieved, though often at the expense of tragically shedding blood. It is my heartfelt hope that Europe will endorse, and indeed encourage, the use of democratic means to allow the Catalans to forge their own place in the world and make their contribution to a more just, sustainable and prosperous planet.