Sunday, 3 April 2011

Catalonia: in search of an exit

I found Julian Glover's article, Prosperous Catalans may beat rebellious Basques to the exit, in The Guardian on Friday fairly equitable. At least he had made an attempt at speaking to as broadly representative a choice of interviewees as possible.

There was, however, a tinge of distasteful subterfuge: He says that “the Catalan parliament – tellingly – faces the city zoo.” Would it be fair, nay, would it be acceptable, to say that the London Business School or the Central Mosque lie – tellingly – opposite Regent's Park, home to London Zoo?

He also likens the Catalan Parliament to a London gentleman's club because of its red velvet carpets and uniformed retainers. Perhaps much alike the carpeting and the attending staff and doorkeepers at the Parliament in Westminster? Mr. Glover says it “feels no place for a revolution”. But then, does Westminster? Besides, is anyone actually advocating revolution? Besides one or two hotheads, all those who favour independence for Catalonia propose differing strategies for absolutely democratic and properly legitimate process, and that includes those Mr. Glover finds most radical, like Antoni Strubell or Josep Huget.

Besides these objectionable points, there are many other significant issues to be taken up. However, I will take a look at infrastructure, for the time being: Mr. Glover mentions an abundance of “fast roads, new railways and oversized airports”.

First off, the oversized airports. Well, I would say that after several decades of squeezing more that 30m passengers per year into an airport designed to take half that amount, it was about time the capacity of Barcelona airport were enlarged. The new terminal, which started operations in June 2009, has allowed the airport to grow to 55m passengers per year.

As to those “fast roads”, is Catalonia really “awash” with motorways? Well, perhaps they are fast in the eyes of those used to the M25, even though we also have serious traffic problems with our own orbital roads. And if we look at the decades they take to plan, tender and build, I would say they are anything but fast! Besides, most of our truly “fast roads” are toll roads, often with no feasible toll-free alternatives.

One symptomatic example Catalans have particular issue with is the building of a motorway northbound from Barcelona to France to substitute the N-II highway for which the only alternative is a toll road. This has been a stop and go affair for the last 20 years, long before the current economic crisis and consequent budget shortfall. The works have been suspended again and again, and last month the Spanish Minister of Public Works announced there would be no tender for further work in the foreseeable future. The last inauguration was in 2007 (rushed to come before Spanish General Elections) for a 5-mile stretch near Girona. Nothing further has been done since.

As to the new railways we apparently seem to be drowning under, the only new lines built in Catalonia in the past 30 years are for the AVE high-speed trains. The idea behind planning for these arose in the late 1980s and was for a high-speed standard gauge connection northward with Europe (Spanish gauge is broader and rolling stock from other networks cannot travel on the Spanish network, and vice versa). However, the priority was totally twisted! The first line was opened in 1992 between Madrid, the capital of Spain, and Seville in the south. The AVE lines did not reach Catalonia (Lleida) until 2003 and only reached Barcelona in 2008.

There is still no connection with Europe, which was the whole point of standard gauge. Mr. Glover was no doubt confused by the new trains he probably saw when in Figueres, as the high-speed line there only goes north to France. The trains he saw there were in fact French TGVs, and not the Spanish AVEs! After well over 30 years, Catalonia is yet to be connected to standard-gauge Europe!

One can imagine how Catalans feel about Spain, when the Spanish state obviously does not hold Catalonia and its citizens' interests among its priorities, whether for infrastructure or for a host of other issues such as culture (Catalan, that is), the Catalan language, or the acceptance of Catalonia's role in history (the Castillian bias is unavoidably patent). Spain refuses to accept Catalonia as a nation within a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-national state. As I pointed out in my How Much is Enough?, “the Spanish political mainstream ... has always been ... politically conservative and culturally unitary, opposing today's politically liberal and culturally diverse, multifarious milieu, whether local or global.

Should it therefore be such a surprise if Catalonia is in search of an exit from Spain in order to manage herself and decide how and where to go from now on?

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