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'Spain's new king hasn't earned Catalan respect'

George Mills · 4 Jun 2014, 19:05

Published: 04 Jun 2014 19:05 GMT+02:00

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"There will be a change of king in Spain but there won't be a change in the Catalan political process, which will bring us towards a free vote (on the issue of independence) on November 9th."

These were the uncompromising words of the President of Catalonia Artur Mas shortly after King Juan Carlos announced his resignation on Monday — just the latest salvo in a long-running dispute between the region and Spain's central government in Madrid.

Mas and his political allies are determined to hold a non-binding vote to test support for independence for a region with 7.5 million people, a move deemed illegal by the Spanish Parliament.

The Catalan powers-that-be say it doesn't matter who the King of Spain is, and that Monday's abdication by an ailing 76-year-old is immaterial.

Àngel Casals, professor in modern history at the University of Barcelona agrees.

"Some people in Catalonia are playing a game of wait and see after the king's departure," Casals told The Local.

"Others — left-wing groups, but not necessarily pro-independence — believe this is the right moment for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

"But for the majority of people of people in Catalonia, the King's abdication is not really of pressing concern. They feel the independence movement has its own trajectory and will go ahead regardless."

Spain's King Juan Carlos praises the people of Catalonia in Catalan in 1976.

Waning popularity

The popularity of King Juan Carlos in Catalonia has taken a beating in recent years.

Some of the reasons for this are the same as those seen in the rest of Spain. People have turned against the monarch in the wake of corruption scandals including an infamous luxury hunting trip in Botswana and allegations that his daughter Cristina was involved in the embezzlement of funds destined for a charity sports institute.

But Catalans also have their own reason for resenting the outgoing king.

Chief among these is his failure to speak out against the 2006 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, a document which handed control of the region's tax revenues to Madrid, and which has been the source of friction between the two parties ever since — particularly since Spain's crisis began in 2008.

King Juan Carlos also landed himself in hot water in 2001 when, during an awards ceremony, he declared that "nobody was ever forced to speak Castellano (Spanish)".

This did not go down particulary well in a region where people were persecuted for speaking Catalan as recently as under the rule of dictator Francisco Franco.

"It wasn't always like this in Catalonia though," the historian Casals explains. 

"There was a time when Catalans thought they had a good understanding with Juan Carlos. His popularity was very high after the (failed) 1981 coup (when agents with Spain's Civil Guard attempted to take control of the country). And the 1992 Barcelona Olympics were also a high point."

SEE ALSO: IN PICTURES: The reign of Spain's King Juan Carlos

Adding to the close relations between the royals and Catalonia was Prince Cristina's marriage to Iñaki Urdangarin in Barcelona.

The couple even lived in the Catalan capital, making her a kind of 'Catalan princess'.

Casals also points out that the king spoke Catalan when he came to Catalonia, and had a number of friends in the region which provided a bridge into the culture. But those friends have been disappearing with time.

"Now there is a disconnect between King Juan Carlos and the people of Catalonia. Basically he is seen as someone who representes the interests of 'Spanish' businessmen in the region — businessmen with contacts in Madrid not enjoyed by most Catalans"

Is there any chance Prince Felipe could improve relations between Catalonia and Madrid, perhaps even turning the independence tide?

Story continues below…

For Casals, the answer is a clear no: "Felipe and (his wife) Letizia were booed at a theatre in Barcelona last year.

Prince Felipe and his wife Letizia receiving a hostile reception in Barcelona in 2013  

"Catalans don't feel any need to respect (the king's son). While his father helped Spain become a democracy (after 40 years under the dictator Francisco Franco), people here say Felipe hasn't done anything yet."

The Barcelona-based historian also believes there is no time for Felipe to make a difference to the outcome of a November independence vote in Catalonia — if it goes ahead. The summer political recess is coming up and nothing happens in August in Spain, so time is short.

"For me, the king's abdication is a case of 'changing the person so as not to change anything else.

"Felipe won't make any major changes. The royals are, after all, conservatives by nature." 

SEE ALSO: Finally: someone resigns in crisis-hit Spain — The Local's op-ed on the abdication.

George Mills (george.mills@thelocal.com)

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