Thursday, February 9, 2012

Radial Elites


About the author of this article for Help Catalonia
 Special Colaborators
MHP Ernest Benach is the author of this article

MHP Ernest Benach
Chairman of Catalan Parliament (2003-2010)
Deputy of the Catalan Parliament since (1992-2003)
President of the CLAIRE (Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies) (2004-2005)



Every country has a capital city, which becomes a reference from all points of view but especially from a political and institutional standpoint. However, there are some states in the world that, despite having an important capital, enhance the potential of other large cities, allowing them to grow and prosper. This allows these countries to become much more competitive throughout their geographical area. We find examples of this in North America (Canada is a fine example) or Australia. A European case would be that of Germany: besides Berlin, the cities that really have a significant weight in terms of economy and infrastructures are Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart. Also Italy, where Rome does nothing without previously looking at its northern neighbour, Milan. Some of the countries I’ve mentioned are federal structures, and the one that is not, Italy, has recently gone further in its decentralization process, thus bringing the country closer to a federalist model.
The case of Spain is very different. Madrid has always been the indisputable and undisputed capital. I have no issues with this fact, for I would not like Barcelona to be the capital of the Kingdom of Spain. However, ever since the transition to democracy —after the death in 1975 of General Franco, the  dictator who tried to destroy Catalonia— winds of decentralization have blown from the center of the peninsula. Yet these are nothing but siren songs. Some people have had the nerve of suggesting that there was true federalism in the timid decentralisation process that Spain has undergone. The results speak for themselves: a relentless drive towards recentralisation. The Spanish political and economic elites are radial beings: they can’t fight their DNA, it has been etched on their brains for centuries.
Spain has always had a strong centralist tendency. The Spanish tax system has worked to stifle Catalonia’s economy. Thus Catalonia, historically Spain's most dynamic territory, has been prevented from growing and developing to its full potential. On the other hand, Spain’s whole infrastructure design is entirely radial. Everything begins and ends in the centre, following priorities that don’t always have a clear economic rationale. The high-speed train, for instance, linked Madrid and Seville long before the capital was connected with Barcelona and the French border. Nowadays Spain is probably one of the countries in the world with more kilometres of high-speed railway per inhabitant — but this comes at an outrageous cost compared to the return on the investment. Indeed, the sustainability of some of the existing high-speed routes is now being questioned due to lack of passengers and low profitability. Meanwhile the Mediterranean railway corridor, which would naturally unite Europe and Africa, remains just a forgotten project. The radial elites that hold power in Spain would not accept a corridor that doesn’t begin in the centre.
The same applies to airport policy. Civil aviation in Spain is designed and executed following the lines traced by General Franco’s dictatorship: a large central airport (Barajas) with the rest gravitating around it. This is a model that no country in the world wishing to be competitive would ever apply. Yet Spain’s radial elites keep preventing Barcelona’s airport from taking off on its own merits. They are making every effort to turn Barcelona’s airport into a second-class infrastructure catering mostly for low-cost flights — despite its excellent facilities which, by the way, Catalans have paid with their taxes.
The Spanair operation was strategic for Catalonia, and beyond the management of the company, it is clear that Spain’s ruling elites had the highest stakes in the failure of a Catalan company based in Barcelona’s airport, which would link Catalonia with the rest of the world. It was as though that would violate the sacred unity of their motherland. Yet in the 21st century network infrastructures are much better suited to economic needs than radial ones. The sad reality of Spain is that modernity and competitiveness are sacrificed in the name of nation building, in order to justify an existing system in which the centre is the sun that illuminates everything, the undisputed star, something that cannot even be discussed. Meanwhile, the recession suffocates all of us a little more every day.

Barcelona, ​​a valuable brand in the world of the 21st century, is strong enough to exist without the burden of this outdated Spain, archaic and centralized. Barcelona makes perfect sense as the capital of Catalonia, which should be a new state within the European Union. We are willing to take on all the risks and hindrances that membership of the European Union entails, because we know all the advantages of being an independent state within the European Union today: having our own tax policies, taking full advantage of the resources we create, planning our own infrastructures, developing the social policies we really need, deciding upon our own immigration policy, protecting and promoting our language and culture, communicating with the world without intermediaries, sharing our resources with the developing world, making research and innovation a national priority... In short, acting as any other country in the world would do.
Spain’s radial elites will not understand Catalonia’s social, political, economic and strategic needs. Many have tried to explain these needs to them, but have failed. Spain simply won’t accommodate the Catalans. Meanwhile, we will continue defending our right to a full existence as a nation.

ERNEST BENACH
Chairman of the Parliament of Catalonia (2003-2010)
@ebenach
ernestbenach.cat

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