World Cup win will only paper over Spanish cracks


OPINION:Spain won the World Cup, but it is still debating if the country is a single nation or a pluri-national peninsula, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

NOBODY IN Spain needed a World Cup win last Sunday night quite as much as prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Never shy of basking in the reflected glory of sporting and cultural heroes, Zapatero will milk the feelgood factor coming home from South Africa to the last drop. Ministers from his Socialist Party (PSOE) government are already lining up to claim that Spain’s victory on a football pitch in Johannesburg will somehow reverse the country’s current economic free fall with surging investment and rising employment.

Their haste is indecent but understandable. Zapatero has hardly any other good news to bring the Spanish people when he makes his mid-term state of the nation address to parliament tomorrow.

Spain’s economic crisis is crippling, but Zapatero is also under severe assault on several fronts. The conservative Partido Popular (PP), the main opposition party, accuses him of “frivolously” presiding over the disintegration of the Spanish nation. Meanwhile, powerful regional nationalist forces counter that he is allowing rightist judges to trample on their historic rights. So even the title of his speech is problematic. Which nation will he be talking about? As the Spanish squad was preparing to play for their country, hundreds of thousands of Catalans were marching in Barcelona behind the slogan “We are a nation” and demanding the right to self-determination.

This march was widely reported, probably rightly, as the biggest of many big demonstrations in the city since Spain’s stormy transition to democracy in the late 1970s.

The irony that one third of the Spanish soccer squad, including the goal-scoring Andrés Iniesta, plays for the Catalan capital’s football team, was not lost on the demonstrators.

The previous day, the Spanish constitutional court had published a scathing review of Catalonia’s revised statute of autonomy, which asserts that the region is a nation in its own right. “The constitution knows no other nation than the Spanish nation,” a majority of the court’s highly politicised judges declared. They then proceeded to eliminate new powers already granted to the region, four years ago, by the Spanish parliament.

José Montilla, first minister of the Catalan autonomous government, and a member of the Catalan section of Zapatero’s Socialist Party (PSOE), supported the Barcelona march and accused the highest court in the land of “offensive irresponsibility”.

Meanwhile, the PP, which brought the case against the statute to the court, took credit for protecting the unity of the fatherland. But some conservatives argued that, despite the court’s gelding of the statute, it still contains some seeds with the potency to engender the break-up of Spain.

Redefining the Spanish nation may seem like an abstruse intellectual exercise, but national identity was probably the single most significant issue in provoking the civil wars that have racked the country three times in the last two centuries. As one conservative with no love for the left famously proclaimed before the 1936-39 conflict, “Better a red Spain than a dismembered Spain”.

That conflict was won by General Francisco Franco, whose military dictatorship kept Basque and Catalan “separatists”, as well as socialists, brutally under check until his death in 1975. The much-praised transition to democracy that followed fudged the issue of national identity, producing a constitution that tries to have it both ways.

The document, as the constitutional court judges repeatedly quoted in their judgment last week, proclaims “the indissoluble unity” of the Spanish nation. Rather menacingly, the constitution sets up the army, and not the parliament or the people, as guarantor of this union.

However, in an attempt to appease national aspirations in the Basque Country, Catalonia and Galicia, the same 1978 constitution makes reference to “nationalities” within the nation, without ever defining what differentiates one from the other. Spain subsequently became a “state of autonomies”, with 17 communities enjoying considerable powers of regional self-government, especially the Basques and Catalans. Both Basque and (some) Catalan nationalists, however, felt short-changed by this deal, and have pushed for the right to decide their own futures, either in federation with Madrid or as independent states. The intense terrorist campaign by radical Basque nationalists in Eta in favour of independence made the issue taboo for mainstream Spanish politicians for many years.

For Spanish conservatives, who are fiercely nationalistic in their own way, any further concessions to Basques and Catalans are, in any case, literally unthinkable. But as support for Eta ebbed and the organisation slowly began to implode, non-violent Basques and Catalans again raised their voices for full nationhood. And influential Spanish Socialists began to listen.

When Zapatero unexpectedly won the 2004 elections with a reforming agenda, he made an overhaul of the autonomy system one of his priorities. However, he managed to raise regional nationalist hopes, and Spanish conservative fears, without any clear strategy to navigate this minefield.

It is ironic that this prime minister has achieved something denied to all his predecessors, in winning power for the regional sectors of his own party both in Barcelona and in the Basque capital, Vitoria in recent years. But in Catalonia at least, he finds that his own comrades have moved much further than he would have wished.

So he has lost control of the dynamic he has unleashed, and he finds himself cornered between enraged conservatives, and disappointed Basques and Catalans.

Tomorrow, he also has to report to parliament and people on an economy which, following a property bubble inflated by forms of corruption that might bring a blush to the cheeks of even our own brass-necked bankers and developers, teeters on the brink of intervention by the IMF. He has had to eat his words on reform of the labour market, cut pensions and public sector wages, and now faces the ire of his natural allies in the trade union movement.

The World Cup victory may indeed give Zapatero a small bounce in the polls, but it will take a lot more than a photo-op with a football team, however illustrious, to reverse this prime ministers political fortunes.

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