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Franco, Football and Tax: What Drives Catalan Independence?

 6 min read / 

One of Catalonia’s modern heroes is a Dutchman. The best footballer of his generation, Johan Cruyff, joined an average Barcelona team in 1973 when the Catalan region, and its top football club, were underdogs to a military government led by dictator Generalissimo Franco and the team he loved, Real Madrid. But in his first season, Cruyff inspired Barcelona to their first league title for years, including a 5-0 trouncing of Real in their imperious Bernabéu stadium. The New York Times commented that Cruyff had done more for Catalan nationalism in the 90 minutes of that match than what had been achieved by decades of politics.

Barça vs Real

Thousands celebrated the victory on the streets of Barcelona and Cruyff came to personify an on-field resistance to Franco’s right-wing anti-Catalan regime, underlining the team’s position as a focal point of Catalan ‘national’ pride. And in a week when hundreds of thousands of Catalans have demonstrated in the streets against the Madrid government’s heavy-handed use of the Guardia Civil paramilitary police in their attempts to stop Catalonia’s unconstitutional independence poll, the Barcelona team provides a useful perspective to show how far Spain has progressed since the dark days of Franco and the 1970s.

Barcelona’s rivalry with Madrid has been played out on the football field for decades and illustrates the ancient fault line between Spain and Catalonia, a region with a distinct language, literary tradition and business culture. The Catalans’ adoption of the expansive, free-flowing “Total Football” introduced by their Dutch hero from the north contrasts sharply with Real’s assertive, direct power-plays that are so representative of the traditional values of the more insular Madrid establishment.

But while Catalonia’s exceptionalism and secessionist pull can be traced back to its forced entry into the united kingdom of Spain in the early 1700s, at around the same time as the Act of Union between Scotland and England, the real driver of the region’s current independence push is a lot more contemporary. Europe is littered with ancient nationalist fault lines, but Franco’s legacy and tax issues are more important here.

Franco and Taxes

The Generalissimo’s suppression of Catalonia’s language and culture was brutal and quite arbitrary to the point where he even banned the Catalan’s traditional “Sardana” folk dance. He feared the Catalan, and Basque, secessionist and republican impulses that his right-wing Falangists had fought against during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and wanted to establish a unitary Spanish identity centred on Madrid. It is said that Barcelona ran out of Catalonia’s local version of Champagne as its people celebrated his death in 1975 and the cultural repression lives on in the minds of Catalans in their ongoing sense of distrust towards Madrid, a city they view as haughty and prejudiced.

Modern day Catalonia and Barcelona’s vibrant cultural and linguistic renaissance shows that the repression has been consigned to history, but the distrust lives on with the issue of taxation and Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, has exploited this to the full in his push for independence. Catalonia’s trade-oriented regional economy is Spain’s largest economic engine, contributing close to 20% of national output, with its GDP per capita 25% higher than the rest of the country. The region transfers around €10bn of taxes, equal to 5% of regional output, to Madrid and Puigdemont claims that Catalonia would be able to go it alone if it could hold onto these taxes.

Weak Mandate, Brittle Reaction

Puigdemont, however, glosses over his regional government’s high levels of debt, which is largely underwritten by Madrid and rated as junk by international credit agencies, and the economic dislocation with the EU and Spain that independence would cause. The Catalans probably understand this, and the scenes of mass demonstrations belie a sense of scepticism towards outright independence in the province. The Catalans regularly complain about Madrid, and taxation, but the disputed poll only delivered 2m “yes” votes out of an electorate of 5.5m, indicating a 35-40% level of support which tallies with the average level of backing for Catalonian independence parties over the past three decades. Of course, Madrid’s voter obstruction tactics have not helped in reaching a conclusive result.

Madrid’s brittle reaction most probably boosted the “yes” vote. Nothing inflames the nationalist passions of a Catalan more than the sight of the Guardia Civil, still seen as a symbol of Francoism in Catalonia, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s show of ‘strength’ by sending in 10,000 of them has instead highlighted his weakness.  Sadly, King Felipe’s address to the nation last week was underwhelming. The Catalans still respect his father, King Juan Carlos, for his brave 1981 public speech that stopped a right-wing military coup that threatened to crush Spain’s nascent democracy and reimpose Francoism, but Felipe’s failure to acknowledge Catalan sentiment or Madrid’s heavy-handed reaction was a missed opportunity.

Its Neymar, Not Cruyff Now

With tensions inflamed, and Carles Puigdemont threatening to declare independence next week, Spain could be heading for its worst constitutional crisis since the 1981 attempted military coup. It is likely that Madrid would suspend Catalonia’s autonomy under article 155 of the constitution if he declares independence, which would further polarise opinion. But the focus on the 1978 constitution should highlight to both sides the importance of this document to Spain’s economic and social well-being and its position as a democratic and relatively prosperous EU member state. It was written as the country emerged from a long period of dictatorship, and its guarantees of regional autonomy hardwired the recognition of Spain’s diverse ‘nationalities’ into a country that was traditionally insular.

Spain has changed since Franco’s time. As a player and manager, Johan Cruyff laid the foundation for Barcelona to become the best team in modern football history. But the club can now sell the best player of this generation, Brazil’s Neymar, for a world record €220m and still be 6 points ahead of Real Madrid in the Spanish league after only 7 games played. Catalonia is not the underdog anymore and is in fact very middle-class. And neither is it the radical hotbed of republican nationalism that Madrid has traditionally feared, which are deep-rooted sentiments that probably played a part in precipitating its over-aggressive and unseemly reaction.

The current stand-off comes across as a clash between a regional government blowing a taxation and funding dispute out of all ethno-nationalist proportion against a central government that sticks to the letter of the constitution but ignores its spirit. No constitution is perfect, but if Spain’s has managed to make it work for the arguably more nationalist, and historically violent, Basque separatists, then Barcelona and Madrid should be able to work within its boundaries and sort things out through their respective tax bureaus. Then we can keep the politics to the politicians, and the nationalism to where it belongs – the football field.

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