Manuel Manchón 06/10/2019
Benoît Pellistrandi (Paris, 1966) explains himself clearly. He points out that his condition as French and historian, without political responsibilities, allows him to distance himself from the object of study and offer without subterfuge what has happened in Catalonia in recent years. He knows it well, in detail. Historian and hispanist, Pellistrandi has been director of studies at the Casa de Velázquez, between 1997 and 2005. It is a French cultural institution, dedicated to the study of Hispanicism, based in Madrid. Pellistrandi has just published The Catalan Labyrinth (Arzalia), in which he maintains that independence – has been based on a “total deception, misrepresenting history.” In this interview with Crónica Global he calls for a “structural” solution, which for this historian should go through a reform of the Constitution that could redo the agreement with Catalonia, provided that the independence movement knows how to return to dialogue and institutions. Pellistrandi points out that “the mask of Catalan nationalism has fallen with its totalitarian ambition.”
–Question: You have spoken in the book of how Catalonia has turned its back on reality. But when does it occur? Has it been the inevitable consequence of a national construction project, which started in 1980?:
—-Response: I think there has been a drift. Catalan had a very important role in the political transition, in the Spanish political culture. But this legacy, which can be defined around the famous seny, is thrown overboard between 2012 and 2014, because of Artur Mas, which establishes an alliance of all nationalism, as a lever against the central government. And there has been a drift towards the chimera. That has attracted a lot of attention. Why, where are these dreams now, just when it was said that Catalonia was the place of political reason? Catalonia acted as the hinge between Spain and Europe, and now it turns out that the anomaly is Catalonia, which is outside the patterns of Europe.
– The independentist political leaders are responsible for the situation, as you say, but what about a part of the population that defends these theses, and wants to maintain that dream, whether or not it is based on reality?
– That part of society must make its own composition of place, but the responsibility to redirect the situation belongs to the political leaders. They have starred, as Josep Borrell pointed out, about the Pied Pipers of Hamelin in relation to Catalonia or the situation of the United Kingdom with Brexit. There has been great turmoil, with proclamations and comparisons that neither those who formulate understand. When many young people cry out against the Spanish State, and call it Franco, they don’t know who Franco was or what it meant. Many have been indoctrinated. The problem is that these leaders will not have the courage to redo what they have applied, starting with the educational model. It is unlikely that they will. And we will find ourselves in a situation that can reach a temporary solution, although what it is about is to look for some more structural solution.
– What it indicates, therefore, is to reach a new internal pact in Catalonia, of a more structural nature?
–I think it should be achieved. The dramatic thing is the deterioration of nationalism, which has led to secessionism and which can lead to violence. Apparently it has not done so, but there is a breeding ground that can lead to it. We must wait to see how the independence leaders respond to the ruling of the Supreme Court, but it is clear that we can live a dramatic moment, if they tense the rope a lot. I have been very concerned that in conferences, in meetings, intellectuals and politicians they have made references to Yugoslavia, with great fascination, when it is not an example of anything. It is something dramatic. It is playing with fire. That response from President Torra, after the arrests of the members of the CoR, is irresponsible, typical of an activist. And it strikes me as a European, because it goes against European values. The independence movement does not want to admit that it acts with a double measuring stick, when it does not respect the symbols and values of all Spaniards, but it shouts in the sky when theirs are questioned. It is inexorable that one can walk towards a situation of social violence. I repeat that it is being played with fire.
–But, shouldn’t everyone measure their words and actions much more, thinking also of the Spanish political leaders, when they refer to the violence of independence after these arrests?
– One thing has happened and it is that the independence process tires, and a climate has been generated in which patience is lost, with declarations of different signs. The environment is also heated by anti-independence workers and a very negative situation occurs. There is an inability of the constitutionalist parties to agree, at a time when electoralism prevails.
–If we turn on the long light, if we think of a more long-term solution, a central question arises: to reinforce Catalan self-government, or recentralize the entire State, by example, as always historically in Spain, in France. Can you generate that climate with that model?
– The political pact in Spain went through the decentralization of the State. It is in the DNA of democratic Spain. I understand that recentralization is an impossible involution. No one will have the courage to undo 17 client networks, from those 17 autonomous communities. The solution, I believe, must go through a reform of the Constitution, with a political negotiation in which all fit, as happened in 1977 and 1978. In addition, it is logical that a Constitution can age. Now, what path should this reform, a federal change or recover competencies with a disguised recentralization pursue? There is another problem, which could be assumed, but that will be hard. Whoever promotes an important reform, like the one I suggest, should know that it will have a cost. It happened to the UCD in the transition. The PSOE, which seems to be the best disposed political force at the moment, knows perfectly well that it would have costs. In spite of everything, everyone should try.
– Is it not possible to leave everything the same, and wait, weathering the situation as you can?
–It would be like waiting for the aftershocks of an earthquake. I think it is not a valid exit. A more global solution is needed, it is essential. Catalan nationalism, as presented, has an ethnic and supremacist variant that endangers European values. In Europe, what happens in Catalonia is seen with many reservations. The story has been idealized. If they end up teaching what they have inside, they will fail flatly.
– You analyze in The Catalan Labyrinth that idealization of history, with details about the entire independence process. It is also your vision, as a French historian. Why do you think that the Anglo-Saxon world, on the other hand, has given wings to the movement, in its early years, and that that has served to feed back independence?
– For a great ignorance, because in the media and in the Anglo-Saxon world that idea of the black legend of Spain prevails. And because the Generalitat has carried out propaganda work, in the last ten and fifteen years of great intensity. I have seen it from Paris, with an enormous work of the Catalan political leaders. Instead, Spanish diplomacy has been slow to react. In France it has been clearer, because of its own tradition and because these regional movements have never been supported. In Germany too. But others have supported Puigdemont, in countries like Belgium. And that has been bad for Spain. What happens is the whole process has shown one thing: Catalonia is not an oppressed province, and there has been a supremacist and ethnic drift from power. For the Catalans and for the Catalan brand, it is a disaster, because the image they had was degraded.
– The paradox is that with the independence process Spain has been better known?
–Yes, totally. It has been possible to appreciate more what Spain has done in all these years. But it has entered the heart of the problem. Who are the bearers of political rights? For modernity there is no doubt: the citizens. The old are the territories. And what seems to be wanted is to define a Catalan people, with an ethnic character. I think that the mask of Catalan nationalism has fallen into its totalitarian ambition.
– Now the debate also focuses on the same role of Catalanism, which is different for you. But, has Catalanism died, just when different movements try to recover it?
– Looks like it is dead. But I want to believe that there is a hope that can recover that role that Vicente Cacho Viu highlighted with mastery. The good news is that a catalanism that committed to the governance of Spain will be recovered, taking into account that neither the PP nor the PSOE have much support in Catalonia, although the Socialists have something more weight. I explain in the book that Artur Mas would have played a very important role in 2011 if the PP had not had an absolute majority, with CiU with 16 deputies at that time. Then there is the case of the PSC, which found itself in a very bad, disoriented situation. Part of the solution to the problem lies in the recovery of those mechanisms, of the PSC and of a Catalanism that participates in Spanish governance. Also in the possibility of a Catalan president. Recall the role of Borrell, at the time, or Carme Chacón, who was about to lead the PSOE, and which was set apart by the socialist apparatus.
– Aren’t you thinking about Albert Rivera, who is Catalan?
–Unclear. I am thinking of some Cambó operation, an idea to recover the role of Catalanism.
– One of the background ideas, in the whole process, is that, in reality, what happened in Catalonia is a reaction of Barcelona to the expansion of Madrid, within that battle between big cities, as geographer Guilluy points out. Do you defend it?
–It is a possible interpretation. Barcelona is an open capital, and claims its weight. But that idea of the cities left behind, as Guilluy explains, and that is a phenomenon that occurs in France, Italy or Spain, also occurs in the interior of Catalonia, with Tarragona, Vic, Lleida or other areas. That explains the phenomenon of yellow vests in Paris, and is part of populism. However, in the case of Spain, the rise of Madrid has not hurt Barcelona. Its expansion occurs at the expense of the interior of Spain. The evolution of GDP shows this. The idea of economic rivalry has been instrumentalized for political purposes. Spain has committed to Barcelona, as happened with the 1992 Olympic Games. And that must continue to occur. One thing that I think should be addressed is a moral reform, of the behavior of the leaders, of the administrations, for everything that has happened.
–Let an independentist listen to you. And he can say, with all the arguments presented, that he has lived on another planet: neither historical justification, nor economic nor political, with leaders willing to do everything and to deceive the whole world. Has it all been a great hoax?
–Yes, the independence leaders themselves know that they have deceived theirs. When these leaders indicate, after the declaration of independence of October 27, that they will meet in their offices next Monday, and leave the country, they deceive even among them. Therefore, it could generate enormous anger, which could lead many to radicalize. I think what you should ask for is a commitment to the truth. And it is clear that a whole generation of politicians should not continue in the front line, because of this deception committed.
– Can you defend the independence of Catalonia, then, in another way?
–Yes, of course, but not as an adjustment of accounts with History. Independence has changed the rules of the game midway. You can have arguments, explain why Catalonia could do better with an independent state. And work for it, but without misrepresenting as it has done.