When Pep Guardiola, a former star player for the Spanish national soccer team and now one of the world’s most successful club managers, announced in July that he’d joined the electoral coalition in favor of Catalan independence, Spain’s interior minister couldn’t hold back his excitement. “When they take off their masks,” said Jorge Fernández Díaz, “we see that the [Catalans] who played and triumphed with the Spanish national soccer team surely did not do so out of patriotism, but out of greed. Some people have money as their god.”
With a single salvo, Fernández Díaz managed to question Guardiola’s integrity and invoke the age-old stereotype of Catalonia as a region of calculating money-grubbers. For many Catalans, the statement confirmed the central government’s utter lack of understanding of and respect for their culture and identity.
On September 27, for the third time in five years, Catalonia will be holding regional elections. Many have defined the elections as a de facto referendum on independence. The interior minister’s candor showcases the bull-in-a-china-shop approach that the ruling, conservative Partido Popular (PP) has taken to Catalonia’s demand for self-determination. Spain’s federalist center-left hasn’t fared any better. In late August, former Socialist Prime Minister Felipe González published an open letter in El País, unambiguously titled “To the Catalans,” comparing the pro-independence movement to Italian Fascism and German Nazism, implying that the Catalans had allowed themselves to be seduced by devious political leaders.
Those leaders replied days later with their own open letter in the same paper, “To the Spanish,” written by Catalan President Artur Mas and signed by seven other party leaders in the pro-independence coalition Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”). Soaked in the language of melodrama, the letter narrated a history of Catalonia’s unrequited love for Spain, only comparable with Charlie Brown’s for the little red-haired girl: “Catalonia has loved Spain and continues to love it,” wrote Mas. “The problem isn’t Spain, it’s the Spanish state.”
Competing nationalisms can baffle many an outsider. Whether Catalan, Basque, Galician, or Spanish, nationalism is Spain’s most divisive issue. To complicate things further, nationalist fault lines cut across the left-right political spectrum. Politicians who would otherwise see eye-to-eye on economic and social policy find themselves deeply at odds when it comes to defining Catalonia vis-à-vis Spain, for example. That’s because in Spain, as opposed to the United States, there exist two political axes, explains Lluís Orriols, a political scientist at the Carlos III University of Madrid. There’s the liberal-conservative axis, which includes moral, economic, and social variations, but can generally be explained within the left-right political continuum. Then there is “the ethnic-nationalist or identitarian” axis, says Orriols, in which the radical left might find itself agreeing with the far right. Neither axis necessarily takes precedence over the other. But for parties that mainly define themselves in left-right terms, a clearly defined position on the topic of nationhood risks alienating a significant part of their constituency.