Political fútbol

By Víctor de la Serna, deputy editor at the Spanish daily newspaper El Mundo (THE GUARDIAN, 01/07/08):

Some optimistic souls in Spain are interpreting the national football team’s success at Euro 2008 as a turning point in what many consider a downward spiral into a Balkans-style breakup of the nation. It’s not so simple. Beyond the outburst of pride and emotion that has seen cities and towns in Castile and Andalusia, as well as Catalonia and the Basque Country, festooned with red and gold, the dogged determination of separatist parties to keep chipping away at the remains of a unitary state and to prepare for eventual secession remains. The Basque regional government, led by the Basque Nationalist party, still plans to hold a controversial referendum on self-rule next autumn. The Catalan regional government, led by the Socialist party, still fiercely defends the legality of its new statutes, which give its citizens a privileged status. Distinguished separatist politicians publicly and defiantly wished for the defeat of Spain’s team in Vienna. They are left flustered, but by no means cowed.

Undeniably, however, no sporting triumph in this country’s history has elicited as much passion – there can be no comparison, for instance, with the only other Euro victory for Spain, back in 1964, during the Franco dictatorship. There was more than sporting pride in the throngs that swamped Spain’s streets and squares on Sunday night. There was a need to let go of the anguish and concern over recent events in the political field, to let off some steam and to show that most Spaniards are still for team play. In that sense, the demonstrations had sociological value. And yet it is doubtful, after initial emotions calm down and daily routines return, that this can last.

Galicia, Catalonia and the Basque Country have never been independent states before, and therefore cannot claim the same type of historic legitimacy that can be brandished by, say, Scotland or Bavaria. The regional frustrations instead stem largely from the narrow-minded and self-defeating policies of Francoism, which suppressed the regional traditions and languages. The democratic constitution of 1978 re-established historic regional institutions and rights and consecrated legal bilingualism, reflecting social reality.

For most citizens, this was an acceptable combination of distinct cultural differences and a centuries-old tradition of living together in the Spanish nation. But the political and intellectual elites, steeped in the radical and sentimental roots of Europe’s 19th-century nationalism, including racist components, never accepted it. Their agenda was and is much more ambitious.

Until now, many voters in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia or Spain’s archipelagos have placed their trust in separatist parties because “they’re local, they’re our guys”, but they have shied away from the most extreme manifestations. In 2006, 51% of Catalonia’s 5.2 million eligible voters abstained in the referendum on the controversial regional statute, and just 36% voted in favour of the wording that is now in the books.

But it will take more than renewed national pride after a sporting victory to make the same citizens turn away from Catalan or Basque nationalism in regional or parliamentary elections. Other developments, such as the extinction of the Spanish language (except as a foreign language, with two weekly hours devoted to it) in the Catalan educational system may play a larger role in the future, as may the disappearance of a single justice system to resolve legal issues throughout Spain, as proclaimed by the Catalan statute. It remains to be seen. But, for now, the path towards Spain’s dismemberment is unbroken.