In a special report published in November 8th, “The Economist” examines the issue of decentralization and the nature of the Spanish “estado de las autonomías” (as the prestigious British newspaper puts it).
In its discussion of Catalan autonomy (in the section “How much is enough?”), the author of the report, Michael Reid, makes a series of assertions about linguistic and education policy, about the financial structure of the Spanish state and about the Spanish constitutional settlement in general which are either imprecise or strictly inaccurate.
Given the international standing and global influence of the “The Economist”, we feel under the obligation of responding and correcting the content and conclusions of the article:
1. The report characterizes the linguistic policy of Catalonia (to teach both Catalan and Spanish in schools and to employ Catalan as the primary language of the regional government) as the result of “an obsession” rooted in a “shaky historic claim to nationhood”. The report implies that the policy is parochial in its goals, that leads to lower levels of linguistic competence among youngsters, that makes Catalonia less attractive to foreign labor and investment, and that its “dogmatism is provoking a backlash”.
The information and conclusions of the report are wrong in several and fundamental ways:
1.a. The report does not understand the nature and philosophical foundations of Catalan policy. Catalonia was a nearly monolingual community until the Spanish civil war. In the 1950s and 1960s it witnessed an extraordinary inflow of workers from the rest of Spain that basically doubled its population. Although this new population was truly welcomed, linguistic integration was impossible under the Francoist dictatorship, which forbid Catalan in schools and the public arena. After the restoration of democracy and of regional autonomy, the Catalan government decided to introduce bilingual education in school (Catalan as the vehicular language in primary, Spanish and Catalan in secondary) to give everyone (natives and newcomers) equal rights and opportunities. The decision not to have pursued that policy would have resulted in the construction of linguistic guettos and in the degradation of public and democratic life.
1.b. The report is silent about the overwhelming level of support received by that educational policy. Both Catalan business and unions welcomed it. Legislation implementing it passed with the overwhelming support of the Catalan parliament. When contested by the Spanish right and a few Spanish intellectuals, the Spanish Constitutional Court clearly asserted its constitutionality.
1.c. The report disregards its success. Many surveys show Catalans as thoroughly competent in both languages. Moreover, numerous tests show that the level of linguistic competence in Spanish among Catalan students is identical to (or even better than) that of Spaniards in general.
Consider, for example, the 2003 report on educational outcomes done by the Instituto Nacional de Evaluación y Calidad del Sistema Educativo, the main research institute of the Spanish Ministry of Education (Compulsory Secondary School Evaluation 2000. Final Report. Madrid 2003.) This report (http://www.ince.mec.es/pub/eeso2000.pdf), based on a (strongly representative) sample of 328 schools, 7486 students, 5979 families, 290 principals and 1265 teachers, shows the following: the average performance (measured in points) in Spanish is 242 for students whose mother tongue is Spanish, 241 for those using the autonomous community language at home and 251 for those that are bilingual. The report concludes, in page 240, that "en el área de Lengua Castellana y Literatura los alumnos que son bilingües, es decir que se expresan en su domicilio tanto en castellano como en la lengua propia de su Comunidad distinta del castellano, alcanzan las puntuaciones más elevadas. Aquellos que solo se expresan en una de las dos lenguas, obtienen la misma media.” As a matter of fact, the report goes on to conclude that “en Matemáticas, los alumnos que utilizan la lengua propia de su Comunidad distinta del castellano son los que alcanzan la puntuación más alta. Entre expresarse en castellano o en ambas lenguas no hay diferencia.”
1.d.. The report misinforms its readers about the linguistic practices of Catalan universities when it claims that “a Spaniard who speaks no Catalan has almost no chance of teaching at a university in Barcelona.” Although it is simply fair to expect faculty to have some knowledge of the language of the country where they teach (we know of no French university that hires without the faculty showing some proficiency in French), the matter of the fact is that Catalan is not required at this point to obtain an appointment in a Catalan university: consider the paragraph 6.4 of the Catalan law of universities of 2003 and its development by a decision of the Catalan government in April 26, 2005, followed by the decisions of Catalan universities made public in June of this current year.
1.e. There is no evidence that the educational policy of the Catalan government, which, by the way, accommodates families with temporary stays in the autonomous community, has affected the international competitiveness of the region. To name a few reports, in the last few years Healey & Baker's European Cities Monitor and Ernst & Young's European Investment Monitor have consistently put Barcelona and Catalonia among the top five European cities or regions in terms of their attractiveness to invest in them. Alternatively, consider the following measure in the field of scientific research: Catalan researchers won 5 percent of all (300) Starting Grants of the European Union Research Council – yet the Catalan population only represents 1.5 percent of the European Union population. (By the way, the number of awards to Catalans almost doubled the number of grants won by researchers in the rest of Spain.)
1.f. The report implies that the “backlash” of Spanish intellectuals (who recently signed a manifesto to demand that Spanish be taught in Catalan schools) extends to the “thoughtful” (and supposedly broad) segments of the Catalan population. The manifesto is grounded on utter ignorance about the educational policy of Catalonia, which respects and implements the existing constitutional provision to teach Spanish in schools. The manifesto does not respond to any backlash in Catalonia. Repeated surveys by CIS, the Spanish government polling institute, show that less than 1.5 percent of Catalans name language in Catalonia as one of the top three topics they are worried about. Moreover, those parties that frontally oppose the educational policies of the Catalan government poll at most 3 percent of the vote in Catalonia.
2. The report is equally imprecise about the nature of the overall financial architecture of the Spanish system of autonomous communities. It minimizes the extent of budgetary imbalances between Catalonia and the rest of Spain and the lack of public investment in Catalonia compared to other autonomous communities. Yet the unfairness of the current system is undeniable. Due to an exaggerated application of the principle of interregional solidarity, the annual difference between total taxation paid by Catalonia and public expenditure received by Catalonia fluctuates between 7 and 9 percent of the Catalan regional GDP – this is by far more than any other European region is bearing today. As a result of this policy, after-tax personal income in Catalonia becomes lower than after-tax per capita income in Spanish regions that were poorer than Catalonia before taxes. One can only shudder at the incentive effects this type of tax policy is having on economic innovation and growth.
3. “The Economist” is right when it points to the limits and exhaustion of the current Spanish model of decentralization and when it states that “it would have been easier for all concerned if Spain had adopted federalism in 1978. That would have set clear rules and aligned responsibilities for taxing and spending.” This was precisely one of the goals that the Catalan parliament had in mind when, following well-established constitutional procedures, it pushed through a new statute of autonomy for Catalonia in 2006. The problem is that the legal reforms advocated by Catalonia, which were thoroughly contested by the Spanish right, were heavily amended by the Spanish parliament. Two years after the approval of the new Catalan statute by the Catalan electorate, the Spanish government has hardly complied with any of its provisions – including a legally binding new financial structure to fund the Catalan government.
4. The report describes Catalan and Basque nationalisms as inventions of the 19th century. If they are, then modern Spanish nationalism is an invention as well – with shallow roots that at most go back to the 1808 war of independence or more likely to the shaky constitutional experiments of the nineteenth century.
The fundamental problem of Spanish nationalism is that it was, from the very moment it emerged, a failed project – and as such incapable of making itself attractive to Catalans.
That failure (coupled with the loss of the Spanish colonies) explains the emotionality with which Spaniards react to anything that questions their own preconceptions about what Spain is. It is that emotionality what in turn precludes Spaniards from accepting any reasonable solution to the territorial problem of the Peninsula.
Let us conclude that we truly lament that “The Economist”’s report, by misunderstanding the issue under investigation and by misreporting most facts, has done nothing to ameliorate the existing political climate and debate in Spain.