Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Catalans’ English skills on an upward trend – still behind Spaniards and European leaders

Barcelona (ACN). - In 2012, 26.5% of the Catalan population could have a conversation with someone in English, according to the most recent survey on foreign languages issued by the Catalan Institute of Statistics (IDESCAT). The survey also revealed that the youngest population was the most skilled, with 50.8% of teenagers aged 15-19 having a good knowledge of English. According to EU studies on bilingualism and foreign language acquisition, Catalonia should offer a more positive context for English learning, due to having two main official languages, Catalan and Castilian (referred to as Spanish abroad). But quite ironically, despite the improvement on previous figures, dating back to 2008, the Catalans’ skills in English remain slightly lower than the Spanish average. Furthermore, according to the latest English Proficiency report on European countries and cities, Barcelona has gained much ground on Madrid but is still outdistanced by the Scandinavian leaders. Nevertheless, the latest data points towards a positive change in trend, sparked by a school system that fosters bilingualism. Catalan and Castilian have traditionally coexisted in a peaceful manner in Catalonia, with the majority of the population understanding both languages. However, it is interesting to note that Catalan has become and still is the minority language, following successive waves of immigration from other regions in Spain and Franco’s political and cultural repression. As a consequence, many households are Spanish monolingual families and while all residents can understand Castilian, the same cannot be said of Catalan. Besides, in spite of the growing number of Catalan speakers, Castilian remains predominant in specific contexts such as the workplace, particularly in large-sized companies.

A higher percentage of Catalans know English, highest figures for the youngest population

The latest survey on the population’s English skills, issued by the Catalan Institute of Statistics (IDESCAT) in 2012, has shown that the number of Catalans with a good knowledge of English has increased since 2008. In 2012, 1.7 million people aged 14 and over (26.5% of Catalonia's 7.5 million population) could have a conversation with someone in English, while 23.2% could write in the language. According to data from 2008, only 1.4 million people met the minimum requirements for all four language skills (reading, writing, speaking, and understanding).

Furthermore, according to the 2012 survey, there are significant discrepancies in language skills according to age. Indeed, the younger the population, the more skilled in English they are: in 2012, 50.8% of teenagers aged 15-19 years old had a good level of English, 28 points above the average for the total population of Catalonia. Such a figure dropped mildly to 44.2% for people aged 20-24 years old and further decreased to 35.5% for people aged 25-29 years old. The lowest percentage was registered by the elderly population, aged 65 and over, out of which only 3.9% knew the language. Such figures suggest that the English level of Catalans has gradually been improving. Interestingly, the growing abilities in the language mirror the growing number of Catalan speakers in Catalonia.

Bilingualism tends to benefit the acquisition of a 3rd language

One of the conclusions drawn by the European Union survey on language competences is that “the earlier the onset of language learning, the higher the attained language proficiency”. They have also stressed that bilingualism, that is to say, dealing with two different languages from a very young age, generally favours third language acquisition. In 2004, a survey conducted by the Catalan Government to assess the English level of pupils ('La situació de la llengua anglesa al batxillerat a Catalunya 2000-2004'), also came to the conclusion that “the fact the pupil spoke Catalan regularly, implying a higher level of bilingualism, facilitated the acquisition of a 3rd language, in this case, English”. However, the fact bilingual households are a minority in Catalonia can account for rather low English-proficiency figures: according to the survey, only 14.9% of the pupils assessed were from bilingual households, while 91.7% claimed to speak Castilian and 67.5% Catalan. Furthermore, in more general terms, only a minority of the residents of Catalonia claim to be equally at ease with Catalan and Castilian.

Nevertheless, according to a survey on the languages spoken in Catalonia, issued by the Catalan Government in 2012, Catalan, while remaining the minority language, has increasingly been used in households between 2007 and 2012. The use of other languages has also increased but to a lesser extent and Spanish has notably remained stable. Generally, Catalan homes have become more and more bilingual. In 2012, 36.9% of the population (almost 2.4 million people) used Catalan as their initial language, that is to say the first language spoken in the family, while the number of people who used Castilian as their first language stabilised at 54% (almost 3.5 million).

According to the survey, in 2012, 100% of the adult population understood Spanish, 99.8% could speak it, while 99.3% had good written skills in the language. Catalan has drawn nearer to such figures: 97.1% of the adult population could understand it, 84.3% could speak it while 70.1% could write in the language. The number of residents using Catalan as their language continued to increase between 2007 and 2012, with 500,000 additional Catalan speakers. Therefore, the total number of Catalan speakers in Catatonia reached around 6.4 million people two years ago.

Castilian had gained much ground during Franco’s Dictatorship

While the number of Catalan speakers in Catalonia is currently on a rising trend, in the second half of the 20th century, the situation was quite the opposite. Indeed, in such times, the linguistic landscape in Catalonia evolved considerably in favour of the Castilian language. The percentage of Catalan speakers decreased from 75% in 1940, after the Spanish Civil War, to 60% in 1975, the year Franco died. This was due both to Franco’s cultural and linguistic repression and to successive waves of migrants who came from other regions in Spain, looking for new job opportunities in Catalonia, and who only spoke Castilian. Instead of blending in the local community and learning the Catalan language, Franco authorities encouraged these migrants to continue speaking in Spanish. In addition, the arrivals of people from other parts of Spain were so substantial that entire neighbourhoods were built,to welcome them, As a result, the overwhelming majority of these new inhabitants lived close together, used Spanish as their only language and were not exposed to Catalan.

Therefore it was the Catalan natives who became used to addressing the newcomers in Castilian, which became the dominant language on the streets, since Catalonia almost doubled its population in such years. In addition, the political and cultural repression against Catalan during Franco’s Regime but also during the Primo de Rivera Dictatorship (1923-1930) and many other decades in the early 20th 19th and 18th centuries, gradually led to the tradition to use Spanish in the most formal of contexts, particularly when addressing administrative authorities. Furthermore, these factors, combined with the commercial exchanges with the rest of Spain, have progressively made Spanish the predominant language in the workplace, particularly in large-sized companies and factories, which hired a considerable number of Spanish migrants. For these historical reasons, nowadays, Spanish is still the most frequently used language in many large-sized corporations. However, according to 2012 figures, Catalan has gained much ground on Castilian in such respect, with the two languages used by respectively 70.4% and 78.6% of workers in Catalonia.

Strengthening Catalan presence and fostering true bilingualism through schools

After the end of Franco’s Regime first emerged the idea that the Catalan language had to be promoted within Catalonia. In the 1980s, the Catalan Government launched a linguistic normalization policy, founding the Service of Linguistic Policy (Direcció general de política lingüística) and implementing the Catalan Normalization Law. Such measures were aimed at ensuring the survival of the Catalan language by spreading its knowledge and use. One of the main objectives was strengthening Catalan presence in the public sphere. Media in Catalan were thereby founded while the education also became a priority sector: Catalan was officially declared the language of instruction in all Catalan schools. Prior to the 1980s, Castilian had been the only official language of instruction and Catalan was not even taught as a subject.

For the past 35 years, in Catalonia, classes have been taught in Catalan while Spanish was used both for language and literature lessons. However, the system includes several flexibility measures and a few schools have chosen to offer additional subjects in Spanish, taking into account specific socio-cultural environments and their own education project. The overall system is based on the linguistic immersion principle, ensuring that both the children coming from Spanish-speaking families - who tend to be barely exposed to Catalan - and the pupils coming from Catalan-speaking families master the two languages by the end of their studies. This guarantees equal opportunities and avoids creating two separate language communities. Such a system has been praised by the UNESCO and the European Commission for its efficiency in fostering true bilingualism: in recent years, Catalan pupils have obtained similar or superior results in Spanish than their counterparts in other Autonomous Communities in Spain. However, in the current political situation, the Spanish Government is aiming to change the system to make Spanish a language of instruction as well. Besides, in the last decades, the presence of English in Catalan schools has significantly increased in order to put an end to the traditionally poor knowledge in the language among a majority of the population. 

Spaniards' English-skills slightly superior, showing similar trends

At Spanish level, 42% of the population claimed to have basic skills in English, according to figures released by the European Institute of Statistics (EUROSTAT) on the European Day of Languages in September 2013. Only 19% of the population had a superior level. While the Spanish figures are superior to the Catalan ones, they reveal similar trends. Firstly, they both registered a growth in figures. In 2007, only 30% of the Spaniards had good languages skills while 5% claimed to have a superior level and in 2011, the percentage had already risen to 35.5%, according to a survey by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics (INE). Furthermore, the youngest population is also the most skilled in the language: 49.8% of the people aged between 18 and 24 years old claim to have a good level in English while the percentage drops to 17.7% for people aged between 55 and 65.

The Basque country leading Spain, both Madrid and Barcelona are behind European capitals

In last year’s EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI), listing the 60 most proficient countries in English, and which was issued in November 2013, Spain has made some progress since the two previous editions (2007 and 2009). With 55.89 points, it reached the fourteenth spot at European level, 9 places ahead of Italy and 12 spots above France. However, the country is still well behind Northern leaders Sweden (68.91), Denmark (67.96), the Netherlands (66.32), Finland (64.37) and Norway (63.22). Nevertheless, according to the report, conducted on 750,000 students worldwide in 2012, these improving figures are both due to the increasing number of bilingual English-Spanish schools and to the economic crisis, making the language perceived “a necessary skill in a globalized world”.

According to the survey, the leading area in the whole of Spain is the Basque country (57.90), which is two points above the national average and above Catalonia’s 54.60 points. With these figures, the Autonomous Community has gained ground on Central Europe countries such as Poland or the Czech Republic. Madrid on the other hand (56.39) obtains the worse results at European level compared to other capitals such as Paris, Rome, Berlin, or Moscow, but it is still the leading city in Spain. It is then followed by Barcelona (55.00), Valencia (54.28) and Seville (53.85).

English teaching policies in Catalonia

The Catalan Government has passed several measures to improve English proficiency in order to consolidate the upward trend that was revealed by recent surveys. English is increasingly being taught from an early age, starting with special activities in kindergartens and primary schools. Other initiatives were also taken in such respect: Catalan Public Television Broadcaster TV3 has for instance started broadcasting the ‘Worldgirl’ children’s program in English in January.

Meanwhile, some high-schools and universities also offer subjects in English to further develop their students’ abilities in the language. Besides, a law was also passed to ensure higher English skills for all graduates, implying that in order to graduate from the year 2018-2019 onwards, each private or public university student in Catalonia will have to pass a test in English – or another foreign language – equivalent to the B2 level (upper intermediate) in the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for Languages. Similar measures have also been voted in other areas in Spain but most of the other universities have decided to set the test at lower intermediate (B1) level.

Read more »

Free or Dead

It was August 2009 when we discovered the character of Ermengol Amill, one of the completely forgotten Catalan national heroes. Therefore we felt like we had the moral obligation to create a biopic in order to internationalize the Catalan conflict. A film is the fastest, the most convincing as well as the most efficient way to help overseas citizens understanding the origin of our main national conflict and, much more, to make them come to understand why now Catalans have started their march to independence. We have just managed to write a novel. It has became a bestseller in Catalonia, being in the TOP 10 most sold books since its first publication in September 2012, as well reaching five editions in just five months—so we will persist in the film.   

Films like Braveheart in Scotland, Michael Collins in Ireland, or The Patriot in the United States, have helped their nations to stand up for themselves and let the whole world understand their wishes for freedom. From the entertainment and mass culture point of view, as well as a historical and documental review, we thought that this sort of production could turn out as a great cultural and commercial product that would catch the attention all around the world.

Free or dead not only explains what the War for Spanish Succession really meant for Catalans and it lets us understand the magnitude of this war, considered by historians as the first world war. The War of Succession was a conflict incited by the English Crown who provoked Catalans into rising up against King Phillip V of the Bourbon, as well as quashed them down when Lord Bolingbroke announced in the middle of the board of negotiation of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713  that defending the rights of the Catalan people was no longer in the interest of England. This treaty radically changed the geopolitics of Europe and America by utilizing the Catalan nation.

The English betrayal that lead to Catalonia's ultimate defeat in 1714 generated a political strifle between the conservatives (Tories) and the liberals (Whigs) in the British Parliament, known as the Case of the Catalanswhich left behind feelings of guilt in part of English society, as the pamphlets of the period show, like The Deplorable History of the Catalans,  or as the words that a few centuries later were pronounced by former first minister Winston Churchill: “With kind diplomatic words they were delivered (The Catalans) in revenge to the winner side Spain.”

Therefore the relation between England and Catalonia needed and explanation in order to understand that when there are no friends but just interests, freedom is the price. Soon it will be three centuries since the Catalan nation has been paying that price up to the highest. A lesson that we wanted to point out in our novel Free or dead, a title that evokes one of the slogans written down on the black flags displayed above the walls of Barcelona in 1714.

Let’s hope one day we can see the defense of freedom that Free or dead represents in the big screen, and translated into as many languages as possible. Nothing would make us happier than this.

David de Montserrat @davidmontserrat                                                Jaume Clotet @jaumeclotet

First published at HC on January 17th, 2013

Read more »

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Day One

With an insistence that I find increasingly aggravating, an EU spokesman has yet again repeated the stale claim that "a new state would become, by dint of its independence, a third country with respect to the EU and the Treaties of the Union would not apply from day one of its independence”. Such a statement disqualifies the Commission's similarly repeated statement that it will only state its position at the request of a member state, in the light of a specific set of circumstances. 

Moreover, the very statement throws a wide range of unknown variables into limbo. For a start, it takes for granted that the EU, which has not in the past display any admirable ability to make sudden decisions affecting millions of European citizens overnight, will have the capacity to do so should Catalonia declare its independence from Spain. 

Far from it. Could the EU decide to lop off part of an existing member State before its Members have gone through the formality of actually recognizing the new independent country? Could it decide anything, given the unanimity required in such matters, until the affected member State - that has up to now dragged its feet over the whole issue of the Catalans' right to decide their own future - has been nudged into acknowledging the new independent State (by reminders about Spain's sovereign debt obligations, for instance)?

And where are the precedents? The Treaties of the Union that Commission officials are so prone to quote say absolutely nothing about internal secessions. Indeed, the only comparable cases hardly give credence to their apparent position. When Algeria became independent it didn't cease to be in the EEC till over a year later. And when Greenland decided to leave, the negotiations, to my knowledge, lasted several years. No Day One in either case.

Nor do these spokespersons fill us in on the border posts that, presumably, the EU Treaties would force France and Spain to set up on Day One, and the trade tariffs that would have to be charged at these borders, and at ports and airports, from Day One. Are they really saying that German cars being transported to, say, Valencia, to be shipped to Hong Kong, will have to pay tariffs for their passage through this "third country"...on Day One?

Would EU member States require people wishing to enter and leave Catalonia to show their passports at customs on Day One, if Catalonia is thrown out of Schengen (another supposition)?

And are we to supposed that Spain, with 7.5 million fewer inhabitants on Day One, will automatically have its cohesion funds revalued, the number of its MEPs automatically reduced, and the number of its representatives in the Commitee of Regions automatically recalculated? Can't we expect the Commission to be a little more serious when talking about Day One?

There are so many things that simply do not happen automatically overnight, that in the context of what is above all a pragmatic organization, the Commission's statements seem much easier to understand if they are seen as coming at the behest of Spain's active diplomacy, engaged in an offensive to cower over seven million EU citizens into changing what right now is the will of a clear majority of Catalonia's electorate. 

That, dear reader, is a role that the Commission should never, never have allowed itself to play. It amounts to a gross, not to say grotesque, interference in the internal affairs of a member state. Such a role goes well beyond the stated functions of the Commission itself, and also pushes it down a slippery slope into contravening the democratic principles the Union itself is supposed to be built upon.

It is high time it stopped being bullied and took a neutral, respectful stance, for seven million committed Europeans might get second thoughts about the advantages of a Union which, right now, is certainly not wooing them to stay inside it.

Professor Miquel Strubell

Read more »

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Catalonia from Switzerland

When writing this speech in French before having it translated into English, a language I am not that fluent in, I asked myself two questions:

a)   Would it be right or fair of me to voice opinions here in person in this forum at Utrecht about the Catalonia issue?

b)   How might Switzerland be interested in understanding what the realities are in Catalonia today and could Switzerland’s past and neutrality have something to add to the debate?

It is self-evident that the Catalan origins have something to do with me being here before you today. Over ten years ago, initially through the history of the Barcelona soccer club, I became interested in Barcelona, the city, its history and the history of Catalonia. As for my wife, who cannot stand football, she understood even more clearly the importance of Catalonia’s history through the history of Barcelona’s famous soccer club. The history of Barça is written large in Catalonia’s past. Barça’s past has similarities with Switzerland’s past too. Indeed, Switzerland knows much more about Barça’s past than Catalonia’s. That’s simply because one of the founders of Barça was Swiss, a Swiss-German speaking the local dialect called Hans Gamper whose daughter still lives in the French-speaking region of Switzerland at Nyon. Hans Gamper, known as Joan Gamper in Catalonia, scored a goal in the first ever Barcelona-Real Madrid El Clásico match on 13th May 1902 which Barcelona won 3-1. This Swiss-German also campaigned for Catalonia’s independence, As a result, he was forced into exile. Despite his his enthusiasm for life, because of this exile, he had to suffer a huge depression. As condition for his return to Catalonia, he was obliged to promise not to get involved again with the club he had helped to found. He could not stand the unfairness of this and committed suicide in 1930. The La Vanguardia newspaper of 1st August 1930 reported on the huge crowd that attended Joan Gamper’s funeral. Coincidentally, that also happens to be Switzerland’s National Day. General Franco vehemently objected to the decision to name Barcelona’s stadium after him. Gamper was a foreign national and a Protestant who had committed suicide, and who was a liberal and pro-Catalonian independence. And to add insult to injury in Franco’s eyes, he had changed his Swiss-German first name from Hans to the Catalan Joan. For the Franco regime, Joan Gamper was taboo.

I fervently believe the issue of Catalonia itself must not be treated as a taboo subject neither for Europe nor for Switzerland. Judging by the reactions of Madrid, it is safe to say the Spanish authorities would prefer it if the Catalonia issue were taboo. However, the role of those who want democracy and citizens’ right of free speech to prevail is to do their utmost to ensure these democracy and individuals’ rights of free expression are not just voiced, but real action taken.

The Swiss Federal Charter is considered to have existed since 1291. For historians, unlike the politicians and the general public, it has been clear for some considerable time that the founding of the nation of Switzerland cannot be dated back to the Middle Ages. That is an invention born out of the need to wipe from the memories the troubles of the Sonderbund civil war in the mid-19th century which briefly saw catholic and conservative cantons, including my canton of birth, Valais, clashing with radical, protestant and progressive cantons. Nurturing this myth was vital for the birth of the Swiss nation-state.

The first Swiss Federal Constitution dates back to 1848, but, in effect, what really underpin Swiss constitutional law are the right of referendum, which did not come until 1874, and the right to the popular initiative, introduced in 1891. In 1891, the Swiss celebrated for the very first time, six hundred years on, the original charter dated 1st August 1291. It is easy to see that Switzerland, like Catalonia, is keen on marking those symbolic numbers and dates. It is also clear from this that the establishment of Switzerland as a nation-state does not go that far back in time.

Today, Switzerland’s population is just over 8 million. Under the Federal Constitution, 100,000 Swiss citizens can request complete or partial amendment to the Constitution by submitting a popular initiative. Moreover, Federal legislation and international treaties can be submitted for popular vote, through an optional referendum if 50,000 citizens ask for it. That is what is called direct or semi-direct democracy in Switzerland.

In recognition of Switzerland’s traditions and reputation for diplomacy and mediation, the Palais des Nations was built in Geneva from 1929 to 1936. It is decorated with superb frescoes by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. These portray the idea of international brotherhood.

Switzerland’s domestic constitutional past and my country’s ability over time to act as an accomplished mediator on the international stage seem to provide, in my view, sound guarantees that Switzerland will not duck the whole debate about Catalonia. I was one of the first in Switzerland to declare that Switzerland should strive to understand what is really at stake in Catalonia and to be involved one day perhaps in its journey to independence. We all know this process of gaining independence will not be exclusively driven domestically, but will also have to be resolved beyond the borders of both Spain and Catalonia.

Switzerland itself had to cope with a process of independence inside its own country. The long path ended on 24 September 1978 when the 26th canton of the Confederation, Jura, was created. Obviously, the creation of a new canton inside a Federal state cannot be compared constitutionally with Catalonia’s desire for an opportunity to vote on becoming an independent state. Nevertheless, I think we can compare the wishes of the Jura inhabitants no longer to form a part of the canton of Berne with the desires of the Catalonians no longer to be part of Spain. It should be remembered that the canton of Berne in the end agreed to conduct a series of popular votes to ascertain what the people of the Jura region really wanted. Those popular votes ended up with the canton of Jura being set up.

The questions to be put to the Catalan people on 9 November 2014 must be equated to that of a popular vote or plebiscite. If we were to make a comparison with Swiss constitutional law, I would say that we are talking more about the rights and law associated with popular initiatives rather than the referendum. That comparison may be splitting hairs somewhat as, in formal terms, the Spanish constitution does not make provision for any right to have a popular vote based on a popular initiative.

When referring to a region in Eastern Europe, Switzerland’s President, Mr Didier Burkhalter recently commented very clearly that, if the people do have to be consulted on an issue about the status of autonomy, it is something that has to be managed carefully. He was specifically referring to the wish to extend the autonomy of a region. In his opinion, it was up to the region to decide on its future. If we paraphrase him, I would say it is up to Catalonia to decide on its future.

This right for Catalonia to follow the path of its independence is, in my view, clearly enshrined in the right to self-determination, the right of people to make decisions for themselves. This right is broadly stated in the United Nations Charter and in the two 1966 international covenants on human rights. The right to self-determination is regarded as a basic human right in international law.

Spain will object to this argument as its constitution prohibits any such split. I would simply remark that, to my knowledge, the introduction of the Statuts of Autonomy recognizes Catalonia as a nation. By virtue of the principle of the primacy of a higher-ranking right, the principle of self-determination of peoples as laid down in international law ranks above Spanish domestic law.

That said, when putting this argument forward, I am not overlooking the fact that laws are only instruments of power, rarely of justice. As a result, all the approaches made by Spain’s leaders to international authorities, neighboring countries, the European Union, its friends and allies, in far-flung corners of the world, will underpin the legal position and reinforce Catalonia’s right of self-determination and eventually persuade Spain, through the power of justice and the principle of self-determination, to negotiate financially Catalonia’s exit.

Failure to talk about the role of the language today would be a mistake, indeed a serious shortcoming. You are probably all aware that, on 9 February 2014, Switzerland voted against mass immigration. This choice made by Swiss voters, by a very slender majority of 50.3%, was widely interpreted throughout Europe as a vote against foreigners. However this is a simple view of the matter. Although the factor of an expanding non-Swiss population in the country obviously did play a part in the electoral decision made by the Swiss people, it should be remembered that the traditional stances of the conservative parties struck a chord with another phenomenon, the large number of Germans living in Switzerland. Germans make up the biggest proportion of foreigners in Switzerland. Moreover, in spring 2013, Germany figured on the list of countries on which the Federal Council had activated an exceptional clause for restricting the free movement of people. This German presence in reality raises a basic cultural issue, the question of language. There is a typically Swiss inferiority complex with regard to speakers of a language that is not really their own. The clash between the pure version of German, ‘Hochdeutsch’, and the dialect of German spoken in the Swiss-German regions, ‘Schwyzerdütsch’, is key. The vote registered in Swiss-German areas, as many commentators have pointed out, harks back to that pact of 1291 and fears about Swiss identity purely and simply disappearing.

I believe that, if there is one country that can understand the position of the German-speaking regions of Switzerland as regards the importance to be given to the language used, it is indeed Catalonia. Respect for the identity of a people is rooted essentially in respect for the language they speak and use.

When almost 80% of the population or of a nation want to vote to determine their futures, Europe and Switzerland, by their common past, their personal histories, their separate histories, cannot really refuse the Catalan people a vote to determine what they want. If they did, they would be denying them their fundamental values, their belief that citizens have the right to choose, that citizens have the right to design their own institutions, that citizens have the right to appoint their leaders and representatives, that citizens have the right to alter the course of their history.

These are the values, the values of freedom and solidarity, which give the right to any citizen of the world, be they Swiss and neutral, from Valais and socialist, to declare here in Utrecht that common sense and justice must direct us to allow Catalonia to relish, in peace, calm and harmony, that historical day to come on 9 November 2014.

Stéphane Riand
Socialist Party Member of the General Council (Sion, Switzerland)
Utrecht, April 8th, 2014

Read more »

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Catalonia, Crimea and Scotland

The Spanish Parliament with the support of the EU has decided that Catalonia will not get a legal referendum on whether to stay in the Spanish state or become independent. The Crimea has just had a referendum which the EU condemns as illegal, and the Ukrainian state with the support of the EU failed to offer Crimea a legal one. The Crimea has left the Ukrainian union regardless, with the help of the Russian army. The EU is right that this was not done legally or by agreement, but maybe wrong to imply a majority of the Crimean population would have voted NO to the move in any legal referendum. Maybe Catalonia will now hold its own referendum, creating a clash between the Catalan and Spanish governments.

Scotland has been given a legal referendum on whether to stay in the UK or not. The EU does not seem to approve of that process very much, threatening Scotland if she dared to vote to be independent. All this implies the EU does not believe in the democratic self determination of people. They need to change their mind and be more accommodating, as do the European states who wrongly seek to block the free expression of opinion about identity within their current territories.

There is a paradox about the EU’s approach. In the earlier days of its long journey to superstatedom the EU seemed to encourage regional government and regional identities. It saw this movement as a way of weakening the member states from below, and claiming greater affinity to the people of the EU by identifying the EU more with the regional interests. As the EU has grown in power and taken more control over the member states, its enthusiasm for regional identity has waned where it looks like becoming a movement for new smaller independent states.

I believe in the democratic self determination of people. I am glad we are about to see what Scotland really wants. We should then accept the verdict and get on with implementing the consequences either way. Allowing a vote when there is a serious question to answer is an important part of democracy which the EU seeks to stifle. Continuous referenda on the same subject until one side gets its way, having lost in the past, is not such a good idea. Indeed, when the EU is forced into referenda that is their style: to keep on voting until they get the answer they want.

Member of UK Parliament for Wokingham
Chairman of the Conservative Economic Affairs Committee

Read more »

Monday, April 14, 2014

Francesc Macià, President of the Catalan Republic

Social and Democratic Commitment

On the 25th of December 1933, the President of Catalonia Francesc Macià died at the Palace of the Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan Government in the very heart of the city of Barcelona. Enormously popular, as proven by his landslide election victory of 1931, Macià was seen off by an enormous grieving crowd showing condolence at his funeral.

Mr. Macià –then known as the grandfather, a familiar, loving moniker– had had a haphazard life dedicated to his patriotic and social ideals –for an independent Catalonia and for a transformational left, though distanced from Marxism. However, neither his family origins nor his first vocation should have brought him there. Born in 1859 to a landowning family of wine and olive oil merchants, he began his career as an officer in the Corps of Engineers, reaching the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Spanish Army.

It was in fact the Spanish Army's liking for sabre-rattling and the ebullient social situation in Catalonia, with the reiterated discrimination by the Spanish State towards his country, Catalonia –affecting both the working class and the emerging middle class, as well as economic development in both rural and urban society– that gradually led Francesc Macià to become committed to the people and the land, with a growing interest in politics. He thence decided to resign his commission upon election to the Madrid Congress in 1907, even though he was offered promotion to the rank of Colonel.

A dedicated member of Congress in Madrid –more and more active in demanding democratic and social rights for Catalonia– in the midst of the organisation of new political movements, General Primo de Rivera's coup d'etat in 1923 led him to exile in France and Latin America. Now clearly siding with those fighting for the independence of Catalonia, Macià was tireless in coalescing the struggle of the exiled against the dictatorship. In 1926, he prepares an attempt at armed invasion of Catalonia over the Pyrenees –known as the Prats-de-Molló affair. The attempt was a fiasco, and the members of the expedition –with Macià at the forefront– were arrested by the French authorities. However, the trial held in Paris was a huge success, not just because of the insignificant sentence –two months, which had already been served– but because of the international exposure achieved through the allegations made in their defence by their counsel –French First World War hero Henri Torres– and by Macià himself. The trial thus became a stand against the Spanish dictatorship and for the freedom of Catalonia widely broadcast by the press everywhere.

The tireless member of Congress, the former soldier who had opted for the people and their country, became an internationally recognized leader who, upon returning to Catalonia in February 1931, participated in the founding of a new party, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia) which brought together political parties, social movements and various regional organizations, with the defence of Catalonia and progressive humanism at its core. Those in favour of independence were in the majority to differing degrees, and Macià was their undisputed leader. A few months later, on April 12, 1931, Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya swept in with a landslide victory in the elections –as did other Republican groups in other parts of Spain. And on the 14th of April, Macià proclaimed the Catalan Republic –which was to be incorporated in a future Federation of Iberian Republics. Three days later, after protracted negotiations with ministers from the newborn Spanish Republic, Macià accepted that Catalonia should remain a Spanish territory, though now with political autonomy, its own devolved government within a single state, with a stated will to cooperate jointly in the progress of all its territories –a joint cooperation that has not always been forthcoming from the successive governments in Madrid.

Macià died as he led the process of national reconstruction, of social betterment and of democratic enhancement. He was succeeded –both in the party and as President of the Catalan autonomous government– by Lluís Companys, a labour lawyer with considerable experience in politics and in municipal management. Reared rather more towards social action, but with the same firmness in defence of the Catalan cause, Companys had to lead government of the country in very tough times, which became still harder with the Fascist insurrection led by General Franco in 1936. Exiled in Paris, Companys was arrested by the Gestapo and handed over to the Franco authorities. He was summarily executed in Barcelona in 1940 after trial before a military kangaroo court. Thus, no more than 75 years ago, in Europe a head of government elected democratically was executed, a crime that has since gone unanswered –all the Spanish governments since the restoration of democracy have refused to declare the trial null and void, which would be unheard of in any other member state of the European Union recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Catalonia has now dauntlessly staked its future setting course for national sovereignty. She did so in a mass demonstration on the 11th of September –one and a half million people demanding independence in the streets of Barcelona– and in the results of the elections to the Catalan Parliament on the 25th of November, in which the parties favouring a referendum, the right to self-determination without limitations, won 87 of the 135 seats. This is the stake which has, in its first stage, materialised as the Parliamentary concord between Convergència i Unió –the governing coalition– and Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya –now the main opposition party– which contemplates a referendum in 2014 on Catalonia becoming the next state in Europe.

It is hoped by many this process will lead to a Republic of Catalonia. That is why it should be remembered –to remind ourselves and the whole of Europe– that on the 25th of December 1933, the President of what was the Catalan Republic, Francesc Macià died. And with the hope of building a modern, fair, equitable state, open to the world and based on social roots. Free. Then as now.

About the author of this article for Help Catalonia

Josep Bargalló Valls
First Minister and Minister of the Presidency of Catalonia 2004-2006
Minister of Education of Catalonia 2003-2004
Councillor in Torredembarra Town Council (1995-2003)
President of the
Ramon Llull Institute (2006-2010)
From 2010 he is Professor of the University Rovira i Virgili
Other articles by this author:
Read other Special Colaborators articles here

Read more »

UN criticizes the Kingdom of Spain for not prosecuting the crimes perpetrated during Franco’s regime

The UN Rapporteur Mr. Pablo de Greiff has reproached the State for not investigating or prosecuting the serious crimes perpetrated during the Civil War and the Dictatorship and regretted the “huge gap” betweenthe Spanish authorities and the victims of Francoism

After a ten-day visit to Spain, the Rapporteur for the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of non-repetition, disclosed his preliminary conclusions with a series of recommendations to the Government, including invalidating the Law of Amnesty of 1977 and providing access to Justice to all the victims. 

In a press conference, De Greiff, endorsed the recommendations of the Committee against Torture and the Committee on Enforced Disappearances of the UN, specifically in terms of Justice, which is where the “biggest deficits” are observed. 

Therefore, he asked the Spanish State to suspend the Amnesty Law of 1977 and to make it possible for all the victims of Francoism to access the judiciary by bringing the Spanish laws in line with international standards. 

In Spain it has been argued that “this law is not a full stop act”, although at the end “it has accomplished the function of a full stop act because it has been used to close virtually all the cases brought before the magistrates” . 

De Greiff reminded that countries in which amnesty laws have not been suspended, the courts have found a way to interpret the rules “in such a way that the prosecution of alleged responsible parties has not been obstructed”. 

The United Nations Representative claimed that “it is particularly perplexing” that the State should have not done more for the rights of the victims because “it is not about partisan politics or about redeeming certain political agendas, but about rights that concern everyone”. 

In his opinion this explains the “huge gap” between the State institutions and the victims of Francoism, this being the biggest he has ever observed along his professional career. 

In his report, the Rapporteur urged the Spanish courts to cooperate with the open legal proceedings outside Spain with reference to the open lawsuit in Argentina by more than one hundred associations of victims from the Francoism. 

On this regard he criticized the proceedings by the “Audiencia Nacional” and the “Fiscalía del Estado” for being “apparently aimed” to prevent that the Constitutional Court rules on the Amnesty Law and the prescription of “human rights violations which are so serious” which –he added– “might constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity”.

Pablo de Greiff (EFE)

He mentioned that this is the case regarding the position taken by the “Fiscalía de la Audiencia Nacional” to dismiss the petition for extradition of the two alleged Francoists torturers José Antonio González Pacheco, nicknamed “Billy the kid”, and Jesús Muñecas Aguilar. 

The Rapporteur also expressed his “concern” over the draft law by the Popular Party regarding universal justice that “would significantly restrict” the application of that principle before the Spanish courts. 

On the other hand, the Rapporteur regretted that the authorities have not actually applied a real State policy to make the truth official, “thus more resources are needed to carry out the necessary inquiries on this regard, like updating the mass-graves map which, he stated, is a matter which has barely received any financing from the State”. 

In this sprit, he recommended the strengthening of the Historical Memory Act in order to “fill the gaps” that now exist within, including the exclusion of prisoners and people arrested during the Francoist regime that were sent to labor and concentration camps. 

Moreover he referred to “the ambiguity” displayed when teaching the Civil War and the Dictatorship in schools and he requested the remodelling of El Valle de los Caídos, which is "what the victims demand and deserve”. 

The Rapporteur concludes today his official visit at the Spanish State, where he has visited Madrid, Andalusia, Catalonia and Galicia to meet Foreign Office Minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, as well as several other representatives of the State, of the victims and of the civil society.

Read more »

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ruairidh MacIlleathain: "Many people in Scotland (or Alba) are fascinated by the vigour of the independence movement in Catalonia"

Many people in Scotland (or Alba as we call it in my language) are fascinated by the vigour of the independence movement in Catalunya and, if we were called upon to lay a bet on which country might achieve independence first, we would be hard-put to know where to place our money. Putting a million people on the streets of Barcelona last year was a phenomenal achievement, and certainly not one that could be copied (even at a smaller scale) in Scotland. If our country’s drive to independence seems to be lukewarm currently, there is more than just economic uncertainty to blame. Indeed, a lot of the political lethargy (with eighteen months to go until the referendum) can probably be linked to the fact that the United Kingdom authorities have actually been rather gentle with, and largely respectful to, the ‘errant’ Scots – so far, at least. Those who wish for independence would probably welcome a Madrid-style interference with our governmental priorities in order to raise the political temperature!

Scotland has been part of Great Britain since 1707, and part of the United Kingdom since 1801. It was in theory an equal partner with England (including Wales) in the 1707 union, but in practice there never was, and never would be, equality between the two countries. England had four times the population of Scotland in 1707; it now has ten times Scotland’s population. The only way that equality might have been achieved would have been for Scottish and English identity to disappear, and for everybody to view themselves as British, and only British. That has never happened. Scottish identity is undeniably stronger today than it was in my childhood, and it now has expression through the devolved parliament and government in Edinburgh. If only our football team were better…!

While it might be tempting to some to compare the roles of Francisco Franco and Margaret Thatcher in boosting the desire of Catalans and Scots to achieve independence, the comparison would be unfair. Thatcher was a democrat, and didn’t try to squash Scottish identity through banning the country’s minority languages. But there is little doubt that the Iron Lady’s policies, and her premiership, fuelled a sense that Scotland was being misgoverned. The English elected her, the Scots suffered her – or so the orthodoxy goes. The end result of that process of disengagement was the setting up of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Since that time, there has been a new political dynamic in Scotland, and the Scottish National Party, which seeks independence, is now a majority government in a parliament whose electoral system was established with the aim of preventing such a scenario.

But many Catalans would be surprised to hear that language plays an insignificant role in the Scottish independence debate. ‘We want to govern ourselves; we want to have the economic levers to create a more prosperous society; we want to build a fairer society with less of a gap between rich and poor; we want our country to pledge itself to peaceful co-existence with its

neighbours and to reject militaristic adventurism’. You will hear all of these comments from advocates of Scottish independence. What you won’t hear is ‘we want to speak and use our language without interference from the authorities in London’. London doesn’t interfere in that way any more. It doesn’t need to – our languages are so weak that they provide no challenge to the hegemony of the English tongue. The contrast with the vigour of Catalan in Catalunya is stark.

There are two major indigenous languages in Scotland. One is Scots, a close relative of English, which grew out of the Anglian speech common to northern England and southern Scotland. It is traditionally associated with the eastern and southern parts of the country, although dialects are also spoken in the once-Norse island groups of Shetland and Orkney in the far north.

My own tongue, Gaelic, a sister language to Irish, is the only founding language of the kingdom of Alba still spoken today. It grew to be the majority language of Scotland between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries, reaching most corners of the country and establishing a Scottish identity that prevented the country being absorbed into an aggressive and expansive England, but it was gradually pushed into its later stronghold of the mountainous Highlands.

It is now only spoken by a little over one percent of the population, having been in retreat for a long time, although there are hopes for its regeneration, particularly through Gaelic Medium education which, like the Catalan system, produces fluently bilingual children with an above-average command of the national majority language (English in our case, Spanish in the Catalan situation). However, in contrast to the vast numbers in Catalunya, only some 3,500 children currently gain the benefit of a Gaelic Medium education.

Whether Gaelic would benefit from independence is not clear. It has certainly benefited from devolution, however. The Scottish Parliament passed the Gaelic Language Act in 2005 with all-party support, and the language’s new confidence and dynamic saw the creation of a (part-time) Gaelic TV channel, BBC ALBA, in 2008. On a small budget, it provides an excellent service.

I was in Catalunya some years ago and met some language activists in Girona. They were unhappy at what they saw as the oppressed state of their language and were convinced that only political independence from Spain would ensure its future. The continued suppression of the language in the Valencia community and other parts of Els Països Catalans, plus the current attempt by Madrid to demote the place of the Catalan language in education in Catalunya itself would certainly seem to support their contention.

But I also experienced a language spoken by many millions (not tens of thousands like my own), with a vigour that most lesser-used or minority languages around Europe can only dream about. Ironically, it is the success of Catalan that marks it as a powerful political symbol, both for its supporters and opponents. The Gaelic language can be largely ignored by the central powers, but

Catalan cannot. An act of suppression can be read, if one is a lateral thinker, as a compliment!

If Catalans are a little disappointed at the apparent lack of interest among Scottish politicians in the struggle for Catalunya’s independence, they can rest assured that there is a lot of interest both in political circles and within the general population. However, Madrid’s tentacles have clearly stretched as far as Edinburgh, stilling Scottish politicians’ tongues when it comes to voicing support for the Catalan cause. In the event of a ‘Yes’ vote for independence in September next year, an independent Scottish government would have to take part in negotiations over the country’s future in the European Union, NATO and other international organizations. The opportunity for Spain to play mischief-maker and block Scotland’s route into those organizations is clear.

However, the attempt by the Spanish authorites to fundamentally alter Catalunya’s education system would be impossible in Scotland. We are entirely autonomous when it comes to education and we have our own legal system, separate from that in England. Decisions to expand or restrict Gaelic Medium education are made in Scotland. Decisions to support the language in other ways are made in Scotland. The role of the UK in such matters is mainly as a signatory to pertinent international treaties such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

In that respect we already have a lot of freedom and, even if the majority reject independence in next year’s plebiscite, it is likely that Scots will demand, and most likely receive, further powers from London, particularly concerning economic governance. And Scotland has a couple of big bargaining chips – its substantial subsea oil deposits and its hosting of the UK’s nuclear-armed submarine fleet. On the other hand, the Scottish government’s desire for an independent Scotland to be part of a Sterling currency zone, rather than joining the Euro, is seen by London as boosting their own bargaining position.

What neither Catalunya nor Scotland yet knows is how the independence movement and campaign in each of our countries will affect the argument in the other. We should speak to each other more. What each learns from the other can help to inform our political outlook and ambitions, and our understanding of the universal desire of humans, whatever our languages, to build prosperous, happy and peaceful societies.

by Ruairidh MacIlleathain

Scottish journalist Ruairidh MacIlleathain works primarily in the Gaelic language.

Read more »