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The Politics of Catalan language unfolding in Spain and Europe

The Politics of Catalan language unfolding in Spain and Europe

The Catalan language has gained traction in the European politics once again since the past few days. Catalan language has long been used as a political tool by the separatists demanding secession of Catalonia from Spain. However, the recent debate about Catalan language has been sparked off by Spain’s President of the Government Pedro Sánchez’s specific demand.

During the General Affairs Council meeting of the European Union (EU) on September 19, Sánchez requested the EU members to include Catalan, Basque and Galician, Spain’s regional languages, in the list of official languages of the EU. Spain currently holds the presidency of the EU and Sánchez tried to leverage his country’s position to forward this proposal. However, Sánchez did not find many takers for his proposal and it remains to be seen if and when this issue would be taken for discussion again in the EU.

The Catalan language issue is a complex one and must be considered from two perspectives – from Spain’s perspective and from European perspective.

In Spain, Catalan language has long been in the forefront of Catalonia’s politics and the Autonomous Community’s continuing friction with Madrid. Catalonia has a long drawn history of dispute with Spain’s central government, irrespective of which party is in power. Catalonia, which is the richest and industrially most developed Autonomous Community in Spain, has for decades accused Madrid of partial treatment.

Catalonia’s contribution to Spain’s economy has been around 20% at one time, although it has now reduced to around 16-17%. Still Catalonia remains economic powerhouse of Spain. Catalonia accuses Madrid of not giving a fair share from the revenue which the Autonomous Community contributes to Spain’s coffers.

The ties between Catalonia and Madrid have soured in the past few years. Catalan language has been the face of asserting of a separate identity for the Catalans.

In Spain, Catalan is spoken in the northeastern Autonomous Community of Catalonia. Catalan is also spoken in Balearic Islands. In Catalonia’s southern neighbour Valencian Community, a variation of Catalan is spoken known as Valencian.

While Spanish, also known as Castillan (Castellano in Spanish), is the official language in Spain Catalan, Galician, Basque and Aranese are the co-official languages.

Apart from Spain, Catalan speakers are also prominently found in France (particularly in the southern part of France which the Catalans refer to as Catalunya Nord or Northern Catalonia), Andorra and Italy. In Andorra Catalan enjoys the status of the official language.

Spain’s fragmented national politics has also provided fuel to the regional political parties in Catalonia that are fighting for independence. After the 2011 general elections, no party has won an absolute majority in Spain’s lower house, the Congress of the Deputies. The present caretaker government, led by the socialist party PSOE has been in power since 2018, is also without a clear majority. This has led to Sánchez negotiating with the Catalan political parties for support for the survival of his government.

Sánchez’s current support for expanding the linguistic profile of the EU also stems from a fractured mandate that the July 2023 elections in Spain have given. With neither of the main national parties, PSOE or PP, receiving absolute majority, smaller regional parties have gained an upper hand.

For Sánchez, any shot at a successful investiture hinges on the support from two Catalan parties – the Junts and the Esquerra Republicana. In one of the moves to accede to demands of the Catalan politicians, Spain’s lower house, Congress of the Deputies, allowed the use of Catalan in parliamentary proceedings on September 19, the same day when Sánchez demanded official status for Catalan along with Basque and Galician in the EU.

From Left to Right: Flags of Catalonia, Spain and European Union (Image Source: www.europarl.europa.eu)

However, there are indications that wider use of Catalan is unlikely to satisfy the secessionists. To iron out his path towards investiture Sánchez went out of the way and reached out to Carles Puigdemont, leader of the Junts and who served as the President of Catalonia from 2016 to 2017. Under Puigdemont’s presidency, an independence referendum was held in Catalonia on October 1, 2017 which was declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Spain. Since then Puigdemont has been living in exile in Brussels, Belgium as he has been declared as fugitive and charged with rebellion and sedition by Spanish law agencies.

Spain’s Second Vice President Yolanda Díaz met Puigdemont in Brussels on behalf of Sánchez to seek Junts’ support for Sánchez’s investiture. However, just one day after meeting Díaz, Puigdemont demanded amnesty and referendum in return for an agreement to support formation of government. At present it is difficult to break the impasse with the pro-independence Catalan political parties.

From the European perspective, the inclusion of Spain’s regional languages is a technical as well as diplomatic issue. At present there are 24 languages that have official status in the EU. Inclusion of any new language would require unanimous agreement among the 27 members of the EU. Members such as Croatia, Finland, France and Sweden have called for more time to consider this proposal although every member supports multilingual policy of the EU. The issues about translation and communication also need to be sorted out before according an official status to any language.

Those supporting Catalan point out that the number of Catalan speakers is more than the speakers of some of the official languages of the EU. There are over 9 million Catalan speakers, of which around 7 million are in Catalonia while the rest are in different parts of Europe and across the world.

Another factor is that there is a concern within the EU that accepting Sánchez’s demand could lead to a domino effect and lead to more such demands. There are around 60 minority languages in Europe that are not part of the EU’s official languages. Any language is invariably linked to identity. Recognizing regional languages of a country in the EU could trigger greater separatist tendencies.

Along with Catalonia, there are several regions that are aspiring for their independent identity. Some of these are Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Corsica, Bavaria, Sicily and Faroe Islands. Spain itself had struggled for a long time with Basque separatism.

The 2020 Brexit has thrown a formidable challenge to the EU to keep its organization united. In all probability the EU is unlikely to accommodate a sensitive linguistic issue in its agenda at least in the near future.

Niranjan Marjani

Niranjan Marjani is an Independent Political Analyst and Researcher.

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