There are in Europe famous hotspots that conform a certain continental imaginary of conflict, revolution, and war: the Termopilae in Greece, the Rubicon, Poitiers and Constantinople, Spain’s colonization of the Americas and the Armada, Austerlitz, Waterloo, revolutionary Paris. industrial Britain, the Rhine, the Balcans, the Ardennes, revolutionary Russia, the Danzig corridor, Normandie, the Iron curtain, and so forth. Neither Catalonia or Barcelona are ever in the landscape of these key events. Mediterranean peoples generally retain a vague memory of Catalan commercial and military exploits in the late middle ages, as well as of Catalan deep involvement in conspiracies and conflicts in Renaissance Italy; after which Catalans disappear from history (even retroactively, as most general history manuals and atlases often depict it in a subdued fashion even when the country arguably “ruled the waves” in the 14th Century).
Now I do not intend to argue that Catalans are “more important”, or should be given more “broadcast minutes” or pats in the shoulder. And as history is very much a hobby for me, readers will have to value my argument just for its own visible merits. So I simply wish to note that key developments repeatedly have taken place in Catalonia that go generally unnoticed for the average educated European. Usually these developments are more important from a “deep” perspective of European social history than for their “surface” immediate political import. It is simply the old question of “who” tells the story, or the history. Residents in what is now Catalonia certainly watched Annibal’s elephants pass by, and they were on the losing side against the Roman Republican Army in the 2nd Century BC. Almoravid armies rushed across the Pyrennes finding little resistance in the 7th Century. Catalonia is said to have been “born” as a simple border outpost of the Carolingians in the 8th Century.
It is at this early moment of the “dark ages” that important things began to happen in Catalonia. First it was the feudal revolution, which basically consisted in the new order brought about by the total demise of the little law and order that subjects of the Roman Empire had been able to sustain. At this point, brute force and thuggery became the foundation for social rule, and thousands of peasants were murdered, enslaved and disposessed. Clearly, this is not like other celebrated achievements of “Western” civilisation, the product of the ingenuity and enlightened vision of the “proto-Catalans”. Not at all. Sheer urgent need brought clerics to impose a “piece and truce” on holy grounds, to officialize fealty oaths and write down agreements in parchment as much as possible. Unfortunately, these events became later a trend that swept throughout Europe.
In the following centuries, important centres of learning developed in many European cities. Not in Catalonia, site for second-rate monasteries too close to the Muslim “peril”. However, these universities were often convulsed by the regular arrival of classical teatrises that trickled through this type of borderlands that had access to the more literate Muslim world. This was not by chance if we consider the number of Catalan consulates that were established to consolidate trade on all sides of the Mediterranean coast. To administer such a complex network, Catalan kings laid out the Consolat de Mar, the origin of modern maritime legislation. The Roman tradition of map maping was recovered and developed with the help of these explorers-traders (together with the Genoese and Venetians), which eventually led some Columbus (probably a Catalan exile) to attempt the crossing of the Atlantic.
European history abounds with accounts of the peasant wars from the late middle ages. A list of these can be found in the Wikipedia/List_of_peasant_revolts, in which Catalan peasants are, as usual, not mentioned, although they raised well disciplined armies from the mid 14th Century and eventually won the day in 1492 while their European fellows were routinely crushed by their overlords. With the help of agricultural excedents, the Catalan countryside eventually developed industries and trade in significant dimensions. I come from an unassuming small town in the Pyrenees that produced cloth and leather and smuggled it into Barcelona in the mid 16th Century. Next town uphill was an European hub for arms manufacturing, etc.
In our planet, 90% of the population does not know that Catalonia even exists. They do know about Barcelona though, as if the city was all that there was in that part of the world. However, it was these unremarkable towns and villages that dragged Barcelona to war in the 17th and 18th Centuries agains the Spanish crown, whose policies were (as usual) detrimental to local industry and trade. The Dutch, the Flemish, and the Portuguese managed to get the Spanish off their backs because a substantial part of the Imperial Army was busy suffocating the Catalans, who were angry about the restrictions of access to the colonies. Numerous historians have observed that Catalans behaved at the time very much as a “nation” avant la lettre, thus anticipating the political economic logic of modern Europe. Had the Spanish crown given them a fair hearing, Europe would probably have been a different place altogether (not necessarily better though). To start the First World War (by which I mean the Spanish war of succession) the British did not deal with the Barcelona authorities but with this emerging rural bourgeoisie. And later, when the Spanish crown finally lifted the restrictions to trade, every tiny town in the Catalan coast sailed to sea to ship slaves and produce around the world.
As the industrial revolution raged in Europe, the one Mediterranean town and territory that took off was Barcelona, again accompanied by a miriad industrial centres up the Pyrenean hills. Barcelona was no longer a political center but no matter: industrialization was not to pass by.
The Second World War (usually called the 1st) admittedly bypassed Catalonia, although Catalans felt deeply involved emotionally in it, to the point that a few hundreds even enlisted in the French army. The Third (2nd) World War is conventionally said to have started in Poland in 1939. However, to me it is clear that it started in Barcelona in July 18th 1936 when fascist-backed military officials staged a rebelion against the Spanish Republic. Catalans wouldn’t have it, so the formidable Anarchist Workers’ Unions and the small bourgeoisie confronted the rebels for three years. The Czechs and the Austrians will probably see my point more quickly, as they too were the victims of the “appeasement”. However, it was Italian and German warplanes that dropped their bombs on Barcelona in what was to be the first rehearsal of the terror later to come to most European cities. Had European leaders then been more foresighted, some of the oncoming horror might have been averted.
Now Catalonia entered the European Community together with Spain in 1986. Formally speaking, Catalonia is not a player in European politics. It is not even an electoral constituency in the European elections. Its language is the largest European language without an official status in community institutions. In the conventional European imaginary, Catalonia does not exist. And following the conventional logic of the principles of sovereignty practiced since the peace of Westphalia, the conflict of the Catalans with the Spanish authorities should be duly ignored by other EU member states. In short, Catalans do not matter, as a principle. They can be ignored as they were in Westphalia, in Utrecht, in Helsinki, in Rome, in Maastricht, etc.
However, as I anticipated at the begining, I wish to argue that we should take a different view, a broader one, that is, an European one. From this perspective, Catalonia is not simply a legal problem, a Spanish problem or a localized political hotspot. The issue is: what does the Catalan case tell us about Europe? To answer the question we can, of course, keep an eye on Scotland or Belgium itself, even former Zcechoslovakia, or even beyond that. In fact, another relevant question would be: why did we create the EU in the first place? After all, was it not one way of overcoming the disastrous performance of the “nation-state world order” based on sacred sovereignty and nationalist bigotry? Is this not actually the same beast agains which Catalans are now pitched to fight? After all, was the EC not to instaurate a new order based on the fundamentals of democracy and human rights?
The European founding fathers foresaw none of this, or maybe chose not to raise the fundamental question that the European Community eventually was bound to raise: why do we need nation-states in the first place? What are they for? The Catalan-Spanish conflict then provides the case material to think Europe through. We have, on the one hand, a country -Spain- that is staunchly nationalistic in both its internal and foreign policies, that paralizes international agreements to press for subsidies, that systematically breaches European regulations in all areas, squanders subsidies in ruinous pharaonic works (Barajas airport, High-Speed Train Network), that threatens the stability of the currency through debt and uses the credit from the ECB to cut social services and continues building ruinous High-Speed Trains and raise military spending. On the other side, we have a small country with a long industrial and mercantile tradition, a country with three official languages and politicians that often speak even more, a hub of tourism and fairs where 35% of residents are not local born; a country with a GDP able to pay its dues; a country generally uninterested in having an oversized and militarized nation-state.
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