Cablegate: Spain's Controversy Over Official Languages

Published: Thu 20 Aug 2009 11:09 AM
DE RUEHMD #0836/01 2321109
P 201109Z AUG 09
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: 2008 MADRID 865
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1. (SBU) SUMMARY. The use of Castilian and other official
Spanish languages has been a long-standing divisive political
issue in several areas of Spain. In regions where Catalan,
Galego, or Euskera are spoken, local legislation has further
politicized the issue. Those Spanish citizens who believe
their autonomous communities should designate regional
languages with priority use watched closely the March 2009
European Parliament vote on a non-binding report calling for
parents to retain the right to choose the language in which
their child is educated, and continue to press for regional
language primacy. The issue of language politics in Spain is
not likely to diminish in importance in the near future. It
is an attractive political tool used to garner votes for
minority parties, leading to prolonged squabbles over
regionalism that reduce efficiency within the Spanish
political system. Most Spaniards also believe that divergent
language policies have also led to economic and social
disparities between different regions. END SUMMARY.
2. (U) Reftel describes language policy as a continual
rallying point for Spain's regional nationalists, at least in
the media. As of July 2008, more than 130,000 Spaniards had
signed the so-called "Manifesto for a Common Language"
launched in June by philosopher and writer Fernando Savater
(a founder of the new Union, Progress, and Democracy party
that won a congressional seat in its first election in 2008)
and supported by around 20 other Spanish intellectuals. The
manifesto, also signed by a number of leading opposition
Partido Popular (PP) politicians as well as some
semi-prominent Socialist supporters, is a reaction to Basque
and especially Catalan efforts to prioritize the use of their
co-official languages in education and public services, which
manifesto promoters assert discriminates against
Spanish-speakers in those regions. Since the 2008 launch at
the Madrid Athenaeum, the project has moved to a Facebook
users group with over three thousand current members.
3. (U) Basque and Catalan natives, as well as some
non-natives of the regions, regarded the Manifesto as a
political attack against their languages and national
identity, arguing that Catalan or Euskera (the Basque
language) face a far greater threat and that their regions
allow both co-official language speakers and Spanish speakers
to live and work there with ease. However, the Manifesto's
complaints are hardly without merit which is probably why it
attracted some prominent signatories such as major tourism
sector company Grupo Marsans (which owns low-cost carrier
Spanair as well as hotel and car rental chains), the five
national police unions, and national soccer team goalkeeper
Iker Casillas, a Spanish hero following his stellar
performance during Spain's European soccer championship in
June 2008. Education is the main issue for many Spaniards.
The Basque Country has decreed that Euskera should be the
principal language of teaching, while in Catalonia public
schools are taught in Catalan with only a maximum of two
hours of Spanish instruction per week as of 2009. Even in
Galicia more than 700 citizens have made formal complaints to
the Galicia Bilingual Association during the past year,
alleging various forms of discrimination against Spanish
speakers -- such as lower grades for school work done in
Spanish or a refusal to provide Spanish versions of tax
documents and graduation certificates for use in other
4.(U) The use of Castilian and other official Spanish
languages has been a long-standing divisive political issue
in several areas of Spain. In regions where Catalonian,
Galego, or Euskera are spoken, recent local legislation has
further politicized the issue. During the Franco regime, the
use of any language other than Castilian was severely
restricted by the Spanish central government. The transition
to democracy in 1978 led to a new Constitution that
recognized the right of the autonomous communities to also
practice and institutionally protect their regional language,
according to the Statute of Autonomy. Since the approval of
the 1978 Constitution, regional parties have actively sought
to expand the scope of regional languages in Basque Country,
Galicia, and most importantly in Catalonia. Article 3 of the
1978 Constitution clearly states that Castilian is the
official language of Spain, and the other Spanish languages
will also be official in their respective Autonomous
MADRID 00000836 002.2 OF 005
Communities, according to their Statutes of Autonomy. Article
148 further indicates that the promotion and teaching of
regional culture and language shall be an issue where the
autonomous community can take action. These provisions, along
with the various regional charters opened the door to
extensive regional legislation on language, including that of
the Basque Country (10/1982 Act), Galicia (3/1983 Act),
Valencia (1/1983 Act), Catalonia (1/1998 Act) and Navarre
(18/1998 Act).
5. (U) Autonomous Governments (i.e. Catalonia, Baleares,
Basque Country) are implementing measures to promote the use
of the co-official language only; initiatives that some
consider discriminatory toward Castilian. Consequently, many
legal disputes have been reviewed by the Constitutional Court
which, by its jurisprudence, has slowly established a
framework for the coexistence of two official languages. The
relevant Constitutional jurisprudence (more than 25 decrees)
are the Sentences 82, 83 and 84 of 26 June 1986, passed in
response to Bills submitted to the central government on the
normalization of the Basque, Catalan, and Galician languages.
According to these sentences, Castilian, as the official
language of the country as a whole, cannot be cast as a rival
to the regional languages and must also be respected and
6. (SBU) Language politics as a partisan issue is nothing
new, as different parties in power have made numerous
concessions to regional parties that were helping them form a
coalition government. The 2006 New Statute of Autonomy for
Catalonia led to a surge of political discussion on the issue
of language politics in Spain. The collaboration of the
Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol (PSOE) in achieving the New
Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia also tainted this
discussion with political partisanship. The Partido Popular
(PP) actively criticizes PSOE regional policy and defends the
"Manifesto for A Common Language." The political parties
also grapple with language politics in the National Congress.
The Senate is already spending over 6,000 Euros daily to
interpret its sessions into Catalan and Euskera. Spanish
Congress President Jose Bono received a petition from a
grouping of small, nationalist bloc parties in July 2009 that
requests equal status for regional languages, alongside
Castilian, in the Congress as well.
7. (U) The PP engaged the European Parliament to address
language in education as a broad issue. In turn, European
Parliamentarians affiliated with the Spanish center-left and
autonomous community political parties (CiU, PNV, ICV and
PSOE) had accused the PP with taking to the EU arena what
should be a domestic issue under the control of the
autonomous communities. In March 2009, the European
Parliament's Culture and Education Commission approved a
non-binding report encouraging EU citizens to learn languages
other than their own in order to derive full economic, social
and cultural benefits from freedom of movement. Since the
European Parliamentarians removed report language that
declared "essential" a parent's right to choose the language
in which their children should be educated if a country has
more than one official language, and also removed language
warning against the mistake of promoting on language at the
expense of another, the report subsequently has received less
attention in Spain.
8. (U) Many Spaniards living in Catalonia, Basque Country
or Galicia appreciate the freedom to use either Castilian or
their regional language. Problems have arisen when citizens
in these bilingual autonomous communities seek to enroll
their children in schools that emphasize Castilian
instruction. For example, in 2008, the Basque government
approved a decree deleting from the educational program the
option to receive all classes in Castilian with one subject
in Euskera, a decree widely considered to be
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unconstitutional. The group Circulo Balear, which advocates
for having Catalan and Castilian on equal footing in the
Balearic Islands rather than accepting Catalonian linguistic
dominance, recently voiced its indignation at there being
reportedly not a single school in the Balearic Islands where
Castilian is taught primarily. In 2008, members of the
Guardia Civil in Catalonia protested that as functionaries of
the Spanish national government, they should be able to
enroll their children in a Castilian-first primary school,
something all but impossible in Catalonia. There has also
been great tension around the two hours of Castilian a week
mandated by the Catalonian government, rather than the
minimum three hours required by the Spanish national
government. In April 2009, 30 doctors at the only hospital in
Ibiza, Balearic Islands, announced their intention to leave
the island after the autonomous community decreed physicians
must pass an exam to prove they speak Catalan. About 2,500
people demonstrated in protest about the "Catalan language"
requirement for doctors. Between 2003 and 2005, the
Catalonian government issued fines totaling 169,500 euros for
violations of Catalan language requirements for public
signage. One businessperson fined 1,200 euros for having his
commercial signage only in Castilian has threatened to take
the case all the way to the European Court in Strasbourg.
9. (U) The personal anecdotes of Spaniards not being
allowed to use the language they want to use reveal how
easily tensions can spark on language issues, and stories
like these fill the pages of daily newspapers. One high
profile case featured a student with a university degree from
Catalonia who tried to enroll in medical school in Andalucia,
but could not complete his matriculation on time because the
medical school would not accept his educational credentials
in Catalan, and the Catalan authorities could not provide an
official translated transcript by the medical school
enrollment deadline. In Galicia, high school teachers who
have taken a language course for fluency in Galego are
usually granted more points in their application for a
particular teaching position than those who have a Ph.D. in
their field of study, but no certification of fluency in
Galego. Similarly, the Galego language skills of forest fire
specialists are valued as highly as their specialized
knowledge of forest fires. Limited knowledge of Galego has
also been a reason for not renewing contracts with certain
university professors. Most recently, the Bloque
Nacionalista Galego, the leading nationalist party in the
Galician Parliament, proposed a bill that would force all
medical personnel to be able to offer services in Galego,
reasoning that Galicians had a right to be treated in the
language of their choice. These are some examples of
state-imposed restrictions that cause government-supported
enterprises such as healthcare and education to lose out on
special expertise in favor of increasing services in a
regional language.
10. (U) Galicia:
In 1981, the Xunta de Galicia (the regional government in the
Autonomous Community of Galicia) created a Statute of
Autonomy which, like its Basque and Catalonian counterparts,
increased legislative autonomy for the region. Article 6
names Galego an official language of Galicia, along with
Castilian, and Article 27 allows the Galician government to
promote and protect it within the framework of Article 149 of
the Spanish Constitution. The Xunta has promoted and
protected the use of Galego throughout Galicia. Most
importantly, a 1983 'Ley de la Normalizacion Linguistica'
officially equated Castilian and Galego and promoted further
expansion and protection of Galego as the official language
of Galicia. For example, it established Galego as the main
language of instruction in all public schools, with a
designated instructor at each school ensuring compliance with
this requirement. Since the PP won control of Galicia in the
March 2009 regional elections, plans are underway to adjust
language instruction. Galicia President Alberto Nunez Feijoo
is proposing a new model whereby one-third of instruction
would be in Gallego, with two-thirds of instruction in
Castilian or English, as preferred by the student's parents.
The Galician Education Council is undertaking a survey and
plans to launch the new model for the 2010-2011 school year.
11. (U) Basque Country:
Similarly to Galicia, the Basque Statute of Autonomy from
1979 indicates in Article 6 that Basque ('euskera') is an
official language of the region and that it is to be
MADRID 00000836 004.2 OF 005
protected and promoted by the government of the Autonomous
Community. This includes reaching out to native 'euskera'
speakers in the autonomous community of Navarra, although
Basque claims in Navarra are controversial. Article 5 also
designates 'Euskaltzaindia' (Royal Academy of the Basque
Language) as the official academic language regulatory
institution that watches over Basque language. In 1982, the
Basque government wrote a 'Ley de Normalizacion del Euskera'
to raise the status of Euskera to a language of equal
official weight as Castilian. Currently, well over 50% of
Basque schoolchildren attend what are known as 'ikastolak'
schools where all teaching is done in Basque. Currently in
the Basque Country, parents can choose between three options.
Model A is instruction in Castilian with Basque as an
adjunct. Model B is bilingual Basque and Castilian
instruction, with math taught exclusively in Castilian.
Model C is instruction in Basque with Castilian as an
adjunct. Since the PSOE took control of the Basque country
in 2009, it is expected that they will try to maneuver a
shift to a trilingual model in which Castilian, Euskera and
English are available in all schools. PSOE officials are
aware that this transition will need to be gradual, with
trial applications before bringing a proposal to the Basque
legislature, and the support of the PP and PNV will be
12. (U) Catalonia:
The issue of language politics is most controversial in
Catalonia, where the Catalonian Parliament approved in June
2006 a new Statute of Autonomy, replacing the 1979 version
and significantly increasing its degree of legislative and
executive autonomy from the Spanish national government.
Article 6 of this new Statute of Autonomy affirms that
"Catalan is the language of normal and preferential use in
public administration bodies and in the public media of
Catalonia, and is also the language of normal use for
teaching and learning in the education system." Articles 32
and 33 guarantee that Catalonian citizens communicating with
any public body in Catalonia may use either Castilian or
Catalan. Article 35 affirms that "Catalan shall be used as
the teaching and learning language for university and
non-university education" and that although students may
submit their examinations in either language, students
arriving in later years to the educational system shall be
taught Catalan intensively. Article 50 allows the Catalonian
government to promote Catalan in other areas of Spain where
Catalan is spoken, namely Valencia and the Balearic Islands.
Essentially, it officially equates Castilian and Catalan and
grants the regional government full autonomy to
institutionalize Catalonian in all domains of public life. A
new Catalan Education decree was approved May 7, 2009,
stipulating that Catalan will be the lingua franca of
Catalonian schools, and parents who wish for their children
to also learn Castilian must indicate so orally during their
child,s registration. Reportedly, educators in Catalonia
have been focusing more on student immersion in Catalan,
neglecting the GOS requirements for the teaching of
13. (U) Balearic Islands:
In the nearby Balearic Islands, at least fifty percent of the
course curriculum must be in Catalan language. In May 2009,
thousands of residents demonstrated in favor of linguistic
freedom and defended their right to choose between Castilian
and Catalan. The demonstration was in response to the
regional government's plan to end bilingual options in the
public sector, as well as sports events, media and places of
worship. In April 2008, the regional government informed
public servants that bilingual Castilian/Catalan signs were
prohibited and signage must be in Catalan only. In a widely
publicized move, the government asked Air Berlin to address
its passengers in Catalan as well as printing its
informational material in Catalan.
14. (U) Due to regular reporting and opinion pieces in the
domestic press, most Spaniards are very aware of the problems
of regional language politics. According to the daily
right-of-center newspaper El Mundo, a recent poll found that
although two-thirds of all Spaniards believe the current
system of autonomous communities has been positive for
Spanish society, 50 percent believe the current system has
endangered the unity of Spain rather than protect it. In
addition, 50 percent believe the system has increased social
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and economic inequalities between the autonomous communities,
and 40 percent believe that the system makes regional
nationalism more radical. For most Spaniards, school
enrollment and opportunity for their children is the primary
issue. Another poll by El Mundo determined that 50.7 percent
of Spaniards would accept a job in a different community even
if they had to learn a different language. But 60.6 percent
would not move to that region if they were forced to send
their children to a non-Castilian school. According to the
poll, 87.4 percent think that people should be able to study
Castilian everywhere in Spain.
15. (SBU) The struggle between regionalism and centralism
is the framework within which Spanish politics operates,
revealing strains on the federalist aspects of the Spanish
political system. Given the vague wording in the 1978
Constitution regarding which issues will be left to the
autonomous communities and which issues will be left to the
central government, wrangling over regional politics and
language policy will continue. Despite their differences,
nationalist politicians from Spain's different regions and
Spain's most pro-unity politicians live in a permanent
symbiotic relationship, because the main parties on their own
cannot hold a majority in the national legislature. For
example, the ruling Socialist party currently is seven votes
short of a majority in Congress. This forces the PSOE to
engage in "horse-trading" to achieve their objectives and
sometimes forces uncomfortable concessions to the minority
parties. The challenge for Spain's democracy is ensuring the
cohesiveness of national structures through a common language
while allowing adequate recognition of autonomous
communities' languages.
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