Països Catalans

Valencia and the Països Catalans Controversy

Valencian Community MapFive days before the recent regional elections in Catalonia, the Archbishop of Valencia, Antonio Cañizares, gained attention and generated controversy by urging Catholics to “pray for Spain and her unity” while also arguing that “Spain is bleeding out” and that “there is no moral justification for secession.” It is not surprising that such sentiments would be voiced by the Archbishop of Valencia. The region of Valencia (officially, the Valencian Community) is largely Catalan speaking by strictly linguistic criteria and many Catalan nationalists would like to include it in a future independent Catalonia, but most of the people of Valencia firmly reject Catalan national identity.

Catalan Countries mapThis rhetorical battle over identity and language extends beyond Valencia to include other Catalan-speaking areas outside of Catalonia proper, encompassing a broad transnational region often called Països catalans (Catalan Countries). As the election approached, the rhetoric heated up. As reported in El País:

A suggestion by a Catalonia government official that the region could offer Catalan citizenship to residents of Valencia, the Balearics, parts of Aragon and parts of southern France if it becomes independent has been met with widespread indignation. Javier Lambán and Ximo Puig, the regional heads of Aragon and Valencia, called the proposal to extend Catalan citizenship to all residents of the area nationalists regard as the Països catalans (Catalan countries), because of historical ties, “intolerable” and “senseless.”

“It’s an intolerable lack of respect,” said Lambán about the statements made on Saturday by Catalonia regional justice chief Germà Gordó. “It is a clumsy and irresponsible opinion that not only violates basic legal norms, but also toys with the dignity of an entire region and the feelings of its people, in a display of identity-based arrogance – if you can call it that – with highly disturbing historical overtones.”

Catalan Language Valencia MapBut as the El País article noted, no other members of the Catalan government voiced support for Gordó’s position. Still, his comments reveal some of the deep controversies that undergird questions of regional and national identity in Spain. Gordó made it clear that in his interpretation the Catalan nation is essentially coterminous with the Catalan-speaking region. As he was quoted in the same article:

“The construction of a state must not let us forget the entire nation,” he said, specifying that this greater Catalonia included “North Catalonia [the French areas of Roussillon and Haute-Cerdagne], the Valencian Country, the Strip [the border area with Aragón] and the Balearic Islands.”

Greater Catalonia MapThe only part of the Catalan-speaking realm excluded by Gordo is the city of Alghero in Sardinia. Perhaps this was an oversight on his part, or perhaps making potential claims to a portion of Italy was simply a step too far. A few Catalan nationalists, however, would perhaps include within their envisaged domain almost all of the territories ruled by the Crown of Aragon during its medieval height, at least as evidenced by the maps posted to the left. Interestingly, they do not include the lands in what is now Greece that were dominated by the Catalan Company in the 1300s.

2015 Spanish Municipal Elections MapThe people of Valencia, as would be expected, have mixed views on the Catalan controversy. Most support the unity of Spain regardless of linguistic considerations. As can be seen in the maps posted to the left, Valencia’s voting behavior tends to mirror that of Spain as a whole, and is such is unlike those of the more separatist regions of Catalonia and the Basque Spain 2011 Election Mapcountry. But quite a few people of the region do prioritize Valencian identity. According to the Wikipedia, this “Valencianist” group itself is “bitterly divided over the very nature of the Valencian identity, something which is best reflected in the debate over the philological affiliation Valencian Language MapCatalan Dialects Mapof Valencian.” Some Valencianists simultaneously embrace a larger sense of Catalan identity, although this seems to be a decidedly minority position, with its supporters receiving at best around half a percent of the vote in recent regional elections. Pejoratively called catalanistes by their opponents, members of this group tend to identify with the political left. More conservative or centrist champions of Valencian identity, on the other hand, more often reject the Catalan connection, regarding their Valencian tongue as a separate language (the linguistic position of Valencian is a significant controversy in its own right.) They also generally favor enhanced autonomy within Spain rather than outright independence. The main political group of this movement, the Valencian Nationalist Bloc, currently holds six out of 99 positions in the Valencian legislature (Corts Valencianes) and 384 out of 5,784 elected positions in local governments.

 The growth of Catalan nationalism has been associated with a countervailing “anti-Catalan” movement both in Valencia and elsewhere in Spain, as discussed in a Wikipedia article on “Anti-Catalanism.” As noted in the article:

[A]nti-Catalanism expresses itself as a xenophobic attitude towards the Catalan language, people, traditions or anything identified with Catalonia and the political implications of this attitude. In its most extreme circumstances, this may also be referred as Catalanophobia. Several political movements, known for organising boycotts of products from Catalonia, are also actively identified with anti-Catalanism. Anti-Catalanism in its most virulent form is mostly associated with far-right Spanish political parties.


In response to such sentiments, anti-anti-Catalanism statements have also been forwarded. One such view focuses on the arts and other forms of cultural production. As argued in an A*Desk article by Oriol Fontdevila, “Anti-anti-Catalanism is a stance with which to eradicate the ballast that nationalism has placed on certain aspects of Catalan culture, that if on the one hand naturalizes it as a culture of the state, on the other, makes it difficult to place them in correspondence with current challenges and articulate them within contemporary cultural production.”

In the end, all that I can say is that the situation is complicated indeed, and as a result is highly interesting.


Catalonia: Nationality or Nation?

The Spanish policy of preserving national unity by devolving power to the regions faces three main challenges. First, some groups remain unsatisfied, pressing for enhanced self-rule or even outright independence. Second, members of several smaller unrecognized groups seek to hive off their own autonomous communities. Third, the borders of the existing autonomous communities poorly correspond with those of the cultural groups on which they are ostensibly based, as discussed yesterday in Languages of the World.

The big problem is the call for outright secession in the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Most Basques and Catalans want more autonomy, and many would be content with nothing less than full sovereignty. Independence-seekers in these two regions have adopted divergent strategies. Hard-core Basque nationalists have long embraced militancy, attacking the Spanish state and its institutions with bombs and guns. Catalan nationalists, on the other hand, have almost entirely eschewed violence in favor of public demonstrations and electoral politics. In an important recent article in Foreign Policy, Paddy Woodworth argues that the former policy has been a dismal failure and the latter a marked success. Not just Spaniards at large, he contends, but the majority of Basques themselves have been so disgusted with the terrorism of the separatist ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) that the movement for Basque nationhood has lost its impetus. Catalan nationalism, by contrast, is gaining ground.

Catalan stalwarts have long insisted on recognition as a nation and not a mere nationality, generating untold tensions with the central government. Where Catalonia leads, other regions tend to follow. The current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, strongly backs regional autonomy, encouraging the Catalan parliament to press its demands. With Zapatero’s support, the Spanish parliament recently accepted Catalonia’s status as a nation. In July 2010, however, the Spanish Constitutional Court overruled the maneuver, arguing that there can only be one nation in Spain. The decision prompted outrage in Barcelona, inciting an estimated one million people to take to the streets. As Woodworth observed,

[The protests] were led by José Montilla, leader of the PSC, the Catalan chapter of Zapatero’s party, who described the decision of Spain’s highest court as “offensive.” The tone of the march suggests that many Catalans who would have been content with even the watered-down statute are now shifting towards demands for complete independence. Montilla was repeatedly abused by pro-independence demonstrators, who appear increasingly to reflect the popular mood.

Other sources have ascribed an economic rationale to Catalonia’s surging independence movement. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, its tax receipts subsidizing the poorer parts of the country. With Spain’s current economic crisis, many of the region’s residents feel that they can no longer afford to support Extremadura and other poor neighbors. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, this is one issue that binds indigenous Catalans with migrants from other parts of Spain: “Newcomers from Andalusia or Aragon may shrug at warm-hearted appeals to protect Catalan culture, but they respond to hardheaded arguments about their tax money being spent on schools or hospitals far from Catalonia.” But as the map posted above shows, economic considerations cannot explain the different trajectories of Basque and Catalan nationalism, as the Basque region is even more productive than Catalonia.

Whatever the reasons for Catalonian separatism, it will be interesting to see whether Woodworth’s assessment of surging support will be confirmed in upcoming elections. In the 2008 Spanish General Election, the independence-seeking Republican Left of Catalonia lost five parliamentary seats, taking only three. But as the Electoral Geography map posted above shows, most Catalonian districts rejected the nationally dominant center-left and center-right parties to support the local coalition called Convergence and Union, which supports augmented autonomy while remaining ambiguous on independence.

Even if Catalonia were to become an independent country, the aspirations of hard-core Catalonian nationalists would not be satisfied. Such people seek sovereignty not merely for their existing autonomous community, but for all Catalan-speaking areas: the Països Catalans. In addition to Catalonia proper, this region includes the Balearic Islands, most of Valencia, and parts of both Murcia and Aragon in Spain; it also potentially encompasses the entire micro-country of Andorra, most of the French department of the Pyrénées-Orientales, and even the Italian city of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. Sentiments in favor of such a greater Catalonia, however, do not run strong outside of the autonomous region itself. In the early 1980s, the possibility that much of Valencia might be incorporated in an expanded Catalonia prompted an anti-Catalan reaction and even a few physical attacks. Inhabitants of Valencia opposed to the Països Catalans idea insist that Valencian is a language in its own right, not a dialect of Catalan.

Even within the autonomous community of Catalonia, a common national identity is far from universal. Many residents hail from other parts of Spain, and feel put upon by the constant cultural demands of local nationalists. And in the far northern Catalonian comarca (county) of Val d’Aran, the indigenous inhabitants have their own speech, Aranese, considered a dialect of the southern French language of Occitan. The commentator “Ninja,” writing in response to the Foreign Policy article cited above, argues that, “There is also a nascent movement for the independence of Val d’Aran as they speak a different language, Occitan, and have an unique identity.” With a population of 7,130, Val d’Aran would make Andorra seem like a populous country.