Sunday, 11 November 2007

Orwellian Regionalism in Catalonia

I have just moved to Barcelona, in Catalonia. I love it here- the weather is great, as are the food and the people. However, something is not quite right. One of the first things that struck me, as a non-Catalan, is the amount of energy spent in proving that Catalans are different. Different from what? Different from the rest of Spain, primarily. It is almost as if Catalans (or a certain sub-set) define themselves by exclusion, i.e. by what they are not, instead of what they are.

As a consequence, in a great number of the social events that I have attended, the issue of Catalonian politics has come up as a major discussion topic. Inevitably, the conversation starts by someone asking me how I have settled in and is then followed by long tirades explaining why my perceptions are manifestly incorrect. This is something that I have not experienced in other discussions, with the exception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where one or the other affected party was involved.

I think that a certain part of Catalan society relies on a sense of grievance (real or perceived) to justify a series of actions that would not be reasonable under normal circumstances. Given this "persecution", legislators feel compelled to enact discriminatory legislation which limits personal freedom or eschews meritocracy by valuing nationalist credentials above any other criteria. As a result, regional governments spend a substantial part of their budget in working against central government initiatives instead of cooperating with them. Witness the creation of Catalan cultural institutes, development banks, sports federations, foundations and other "duplicated institutions" which lead to a shameful waste of resources. Given the pervasiveness of regional government intervention, the emphasis on knowledge of the local language above other technical criteria is leading to a society of poor technicians with strong language skills.

In my opinion, the current political situation reflects poorly on a region of Spain that was known for its common sense, its love of freedom, and a flourishing entrepreneurial class. The bureaucrats must learn to encourage personal and economic freedom by using their resources to do just that instead of attempting to duplicate what the central government is doing. One of the competitive advantages of Catalonia is that it is probably the most attractive region in a country of 44 million people and a focus on the similarities as opposed to the differences would undoubtedly lead to a more competitive approach to the challenges posed by globalisation.

Mind you, this is not an exclusive problem of Catalonia. The excessive decentralisation of the Spanish government has led to some autonomous regions depending almost exclusively on regional governments for economic development. Andalusia is a well-known example. Catalonia is heading the way of Andalusia by depending more and more on government hand-outs and less on private initiative. The irony of this state of affairs is that twenty years ago the aspiration of many poorer regions such as Andalusia was to converge with it seems as if Catalonia wants to converge with Andalusia.