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“Catalonia is not Spain” – the banner waved by fans during Barça matches simply and forcefully explains the Catalan separatist cause. But it doesn’t speak for everyone in this province of north-eastern Spain. For years a disgruntled minority has lamented anti-Spain rhetoric, though they have lacked a political voice. Until now. The Citizens of Catalonia is a new liberal political party with a mission: be individual citizens, drop identity politics. The Citizens’ bold demands – among them an end to Catalan-language “immersion” in schools – have led to their portrayal by many in Catalonia as Spanish nationalists. But the Citizens stunned Spain by winning three seats in the regional elections; enough to enter the Catalan regional assembly. And when the unlikely president, the Barcelona lawyer Albert Rivera, posed naked in posters under the slogan “Your new party has been born”, it caused a sensation. The party is now preparing to take municipal seats in the spring elections, although it faces flak for its support from the right-wing media and scepticism that it can bring about political change. Rivera, 27, is unruffled. By pressuring the Catalan government to commit to social issues sidelined by nationalist measures. “We are breathing new life into the way politics is done here,” he says.

Monocle:Would you call yourself a Spanish nationalist?

Albert Rivera: Of course not. Unfortunately, anyone in Catalonia who is critical of Catalan nationalism is labelled a Spanish nationalist. The Catalonia we believe in is a part of modern Spain, which is in turn part of Europe. Our party is critical of all nationalism and defends individual liberties above collective rights, but there is still a lot of ignorance about our ideology. Just before last November’s elections there was interest in us from the foreign press, including Britain. But here, many Catalan journalists either dismissed or snubbed us. Before the elections they said we were just a party run by a few intellectuals and their pals, and that we carry no weight in Catalonia.

M:And where are you now?

AR: The polls show that we have nearly tripled our support since entering the assembly. Next time we could grow from three to nine seats. With this kind of growth, it’s possible that we could hold the key to a future government coalition.

M:Why has the Citizens phenomenon happened only now?

AR: Catalonia had 23 years of centre-right government [1980 to 2003] and many people were fed up with their nationalist measures. When the Socialists took power in 2003, things should have improved – but with their ally, the [pro-independence] Republican Left, they became even more nationalist. The Catalan political class is very closed, a sort of political caste, so many people started to say, “Enough!” We saw there was a gap in the centre-left and we filled it.

M:You position yourselves as centre-left, yet it must worry you that Citizens has become the darling of the right-wing Spanish media.

AR: No, we gladly talk to everyone, and that goes for El País [the left-leaning Spanish daily] too.

M:What three things would you change in Catalonia tomorrow?

AR: First, a culture of greater respect for individuals. I spent the New Year in London – and it struck me that there, nobody is worried about where you were born, what language you speak. But here politicians try to impose some idea of what Catalans ought to be and how they should behave. Secondly, instead of uncoupling ourselves from Spain and becoming “a nation”, I want Catalonia to be a social, cultural and economic model that leads Spain from the front. Thirdly, we need a social model more in line with northern European countries. Here we have grave problems with housing and we could do well to take the lead from other countries where access to housing is seen as a social necessity.

M:Very ambitious. But how can a small party leverage such change?

AR: We concentrate on a few key issues – housing, education, and linguistic policy – and then we lean on the other parties, and make a noise in the press. All the parties say they’re worried about housing, but it gets pushed down the agenda, so we’re proposing 50,000 low-rent flats for young people and single parents. We’ll go to the parties and say, are you with us on this? If yes, fantastic, we’ll do it together. If not, we go to the press and say this is what we proposed and the other parties aren’t interested. We have below-average levels of education in Europe: failing pupils, classroom violence. We’ll oblige the government to address this. This is our function.

M:What’s the proof that you’re already influencing the political agenda?

AR: On linguistic policy it’s irrefutable. There’s a rule that schools should teach a minimum of less than 10 per cent of classes in Spanish, the rest in Catalan. In a recent debate, one of the nationalist parties called for this minimum to be decreased! The minister replied that it was a cause for concern that some pupils in rural Catalonia couldn’t speak Spanish properly. Before we arrived, the Catalan Socialists sang from the same hymn sheet as their nationalist allies. Now they have to restrain themselves because if they step out of line, we’ll be waiting for them.

M:But if Catalan isn’t taught in schools, won’t it die as a language?

AR: It’s only right that it should be taught. What’s wrong is that 91 per cent of all classes are given in Catalan. What we’re proposing is that individual schools can choose to use either Spanish or Catalan predominantly, while guaranteeing a minimum of 35 per cent for the other. Both languages here are meant to be “co-official”, but the fact is, Spanish is treated in schools as a foreign language. Yet surveys show that around half of all Catalans choose to speak Spanish.

M:What proof is there that nationalist measures are harming the Catalan economy?

AR: Under certain circumstances, businesses here are fined if they don’t label in Catalan. I’ve talked to business people here who say they’d go to Madrid, where they’ll be free of all that. In the past years Madrid has attracted three times more investment than Barcelona, even though traditionally the situation between the cities was balanced. Many choose Madrid because it’s the capital but look at other models such as Rotterdam or Milan, that manage to function as alternative economic capitals: Barcelona should opt for this. But to do so it has to be much more open. We can’t complain about airlines going to Madrid instead of Barcelona if they are being fined for not having tickets in Catalan.

M:You talk of political regeneration. Apart from posing naked, what else does this entail?

AR: I think people are fed up with the traditional party model. We see ourselves more as a movement, holding cultural events and meals. We use the internet a lot, linking up with like-minded people across the region, not just people from here but foreigners who live here, too. We also want to have open lists like other European countries, where you can choose your candidate, whereas here at the moment, you choose a party and they impose a candidate. All this will help, I hope, to attract young people. I was born in 1979; I’m a passionate believer in an open Europe. It seems absurd to me that in the 21st century anyone should still be wanting to close off frontiers.

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