Spain’s economy is of course booming, (as it has been for the last ten years). The inflation rate is booming too. Some even go so far as to suggest that Spain should now become a member fo the G8. Spanish people are of course buying a lot more houses, indeed more housing units were built in Spain last year than in Germany, France and Italy combined, and since, as Brad Delong pointed out yesterday, as long as interest rates stay low, the housing sector can keep booming, and since in the short term interest rates in Spain will stay low, then the boom looks set to continue. Plenty of reasons then, at least for now, to break open the bubbly.
Which is what, of course, a lot of people having been doing. In Spain by bubbly people normally mean Cava, a Catalan beveridge which is really remarkably similar to French Champagne. This year, however, things may be a little different, at least in some parts of Spain, since in addition to having a smokeless celebration, many will also be having a cava-free one.
So what is this all about? Well funnily enough rather than being about Eve (whether New Year’s or Xmas), this topic is in fact much more about JosÃ© Luis Rodriguez Zapatero (the Spanish Prime Minister/President).
The sub-script to all the colourful publicity this affair has been receiving is the fact that Spanish political right are trying to use the Zapatero government’s dependence on Catalan votes to get at him.
The right of the Partido Popular (the local party members, not the leadership) are using the campaign against the new Catalan Statute of Autonomy (which is still under discussion in the Spanish parliament) as an excuse to try and raise the temperature in the national political arena. This topic is also losely related to the recent bogus phone call to Evo Morales, since it is being partly organised and promoted by the same radio station (La Cope).
The issue has particular significance at this time of year since Spanish people tend to receive a case of wine as part of their xmas ‘box’ (the other part being an extra monthly’s salary payment) from their employers, and normally these cases contain a couple of bottles of Cava. In a sense the composition of the box has represented the cultural diversity of Spain. This year however some distributors have changed the Cava for sparkling wine from other Spanish regions and it is this move that has sparked all the debate.
All of this has its curious dimension, since the people in the forefront of promoting the boycott are the very people who want to argue that the Catalans are in fact Spanish (right to their bone marrow!), while it is normally the Catalans themselves who say they aren’t. But if Catalans are Spanish, then why boycott a Spanish drink? Really I can’t help feeling that it is the people who say their main priority is maintaining the unity of Spain who are the ones who are doing the most to foment separatism.
The same would go for the recent comment by Esperanza Aguirre (possibly the main contender to replace current PP leader Mariano Rajoy, should he prove to have a mission impossible **) that the merger of the Spanish electricity company Endesa with the Catalan-based Gas Natural should be opposed since it would mean control of what would be one of the largest European utility comanies (in terms of market cap) would be moving outside ‘territorio nacional’ (the headquarters of the new company would be in Barcelona).
Be warned however, the Catalan Cava is only a warm-up issue. Just behind the Catalans, in what is, it should be said, a remarkably orderly queue, come the Basques. This topic is ‘on hold’ for the moment. But if the Catalans get what they want (which I guess is something like what Quebec has in Canada), then there will be peace with Eta, a new statute of autonomy for Euskadi (the basque name for their country), and a new tri-national Spain – which may have many structural similarities with the current UK (with England, Wales and Scotland). This then is the big beer, and not the little ol’ Cava of Catalonia.
Of course the real hurdle to cross in establishing a tri-national Spain is not the identity of the Catalans or the Basques. The real issue, IMHO, is that it is the Spanish themselves who need to define their identity.
This is the ‘plato principal’ (or main dish) which will need to be served for the final toast to be called (with or without cava?) at this feast. Essentially what is involved here is a big gamble on Zapatero’s part about whether and to what degree Spain has changed (see my comment re this on Emmanuel’s latest post).
In the past, the easist way for Spanish nationalism to whip-up popular support was either to stage a bullfight ** (Franco Era) or to make a passionately anti-Catalan speech (the 90s). This later phenomenon reached its peak with the election of JosÃ© Maria Aznar in 1996, when on victory night thousands of PP supporters chanted enthusiastically ‘Pujol, enano, habla Castellano!’ in the street outside the party headquarters.
An enano is a dwarf, and Pujol was the then President of Catalonia. What the party faithful were celebrating then was the hope that the Catalan dwarf President would now be forced to speak in Spanish.
The celebration was however very short-lived. In fact the whole incident turned out to be fantastically embarrasing (and dogged Aznar in the humour columns throughout his presidency), since only a few days later (and lacking a majority), he was forced to negotiate with the very same Jordi Pujol in order to form a government. To explain this sudden conversion Aznar made a now legendary speech where he ‘admitted’ (if you want he ‘outed’ himself) that he himself liked to speak Catalan, but only in the intimacy of small family gatherings since he was too embarassed by his poor pronunciation to do so in public.
Aznar, of course, speaks neither English nor Catalan, But this is beside the point, Spanish politics at this level is simply a big ‘show’. Incidentally, Aznar’s University of Georgetown lectures are big audience viewing here in Barcelona: everybody loves to see the guy making such a fool of himself, and to note that his poor English pronunciation seems to constitute no impediment (has the man NO shame).
So, as I say, Zapatero is gambling that all this is about the ‘old Spain’, and that it is this old Spain which is in the process of changing. I certainly hope he is right. If he is, don’t expect to see the PP back in government anytime soon (think post John Major conservatism in the UK).
** The aspirations of Esperanza Aguirre to succeed Mariano Rajoy are now more or less an open secret in Spain. I think to the more intelligent PP leaders it is clear that – bar a miracle – the next election is now lost, and that the party will definitively have to turn the page on the Aznar era to have a hope of a shot at government. The fingerprints of Aznar are simply all to evident on the day to day policy of the current ‘opposition’ (or lack of one).
So everyone is positioning themselves for the post-Rajoy leadership contest, and our Esperanza is certainly well placed. Having impecable ‘right’ credentials, she is now busying herself in trying to be seen as a much more ‘centre’ politician. She conspicuously didn’t participate in the pro-family march against gay marriage, and after wrong-footing herself on the Endesa-Gas Natural merger, she is losing no-opportunity to be seen toasting the future with the best Catalan cava, which can, of course, be read as an implicit critique of those who are doing just the opposite.
Those of you who like conspiracy theories need look no further than the recent helicopter crash. Aguirre invited Rajoy to participate in a reckless take-off from a local bull-ring, one which produced the more or less inevitable (but fortunately non-mortal) dramatic crash as the copter was buffeted by a strong gale as it rose above the protection of the ‘ring-fence’ wall. Aguirre climbed straight out of the wreckage, dusted herself down and was immediately giving interviews to the astounded media. Rajoy was only to be seen in the backrground, muttering darkly ‘I knew it’, ‘I knew it’, before being lead away for an overnight stay in a Madrid hospital. The observant among you will realise just how all of this reinforced Aguirre’s image of a somewhat reckless survivor (note how she like to be photographed with fast cars, motor bikes and helicopters, all of these are good points in Spain) while leaving poor Rajoy tainted with the idea of his being ‘gaffe’ (or riddled by bad luck, in the Jimmy Carter/ Gerald Ford mould). This, I think, now makes him virtually un-electable.
The incident also highlighted the continuing semiotic significance of the bull in Spanish life, since European Parliament President Josep Borrell was overheard and broadcast across Spain as saying :â€œserves them right for going to see a bull fight in a helicopterâ€. Borrell, being a Catalan, hates bull-fighting.