Notebook: Homage to a prospering Catalonia

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THERE SOMETIMES comes a point on an unfamiliar aeroplane journey when, at a window seat, a passenger can feel like God. The plane descends through the cloud cover towards a distant runway. The cloud frays. Patches of the Earth's surface appear. First a glassy sea ridged with frozen waves and dotted with a few model ships; then a coast and a miniature train running down the coast; lower now, a ribbon of road with insect-cars crawling along it; lower still, scruffy fields, some kind of farmhouse, flat new factories, a tiny man on a tiny bicycle pedalling somewhere. For a minute or two, it seems like a world you have created. Then you realise it has all been going on without you - without so much as a by-your-leave - this natural and human activity in yet another part of the world which, until now, has just been a word on a page or a postcard.

Of course, Barcelona shouldn't be like that for me or most other people in Europe. There is plenty to flesh out the idea of it. In 1992, it hosted the Olympic Games: weeks of television pictures, that melodramatic screech sung by Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballe. The city's football team is famous. We know about the buildings of Antoni Gaudi. Since the late Eighties, it has been a favourite destination for writers about architecture and design. A fashionable place, in other words. And I have been here before, in the early 1970s, when on the way home from a story about British tourists on the Costa Brava I stopped overnight in a grand hotel and was humbled by its formality and hauteur. That was in Franco's Spain, when Glasgow football hooligans (the infection had yet to spread to England) were locked up in Franco's jails (the implication being unjustly) and the country stood out of step with the rest of western Europe as a symbol of economic backwardness, repression and religiosity.

All changed utterly. Britain is now Europe's exceptional country. This week, after only a few minutes on the streets of Barcelona, it struck me (as it must have struck thousands of others) that the city was a wonderful advertisement for the European ideal. Handsome, restored, prosperous, clean, free and, by British standards, cheap. Has there been a debate about Europe or the euro in Spain? Not for a minute. My host in Barcelona, the writer and publisher Enrique Murillo, said he rather admired the British for having the argument, but in Spain it was simply unthinkable. Europe was the instrument by which Spain had achieved democracy and modernity, Later he put it another way: "People in Spain think that the Germans should go on subsidising them until they are as rich as the Germans."

We were lunching in a sparkling restaurant. A waiter approached with plates of delicious hake on beds of grilled artichoke. Outside the sun shone from a blue sky and oranges grew on trees.

AS THE capital of Catalonia, Barcelona is a good place to consider the Scottish question. The new building for the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh has been designed by Catalan architects, and that may not be coincidence.

Catalonia is to Madrid what Scotland will soon be to London: a semi-autonomous province within a kingdom that is no longer quite so united (Spain also has its equivalent of Northern Ireland in the Basque country, and to some extent of Wales in Galicia). Catalonia, like Scotland, prides itself on its different history. The two places contain similar numbers of people. Catalonia is governed by a nationalist, "business-first" party, just as Scotland will be if the SNP comes to power.

The prognosis for London and Madrid, the capitals of the old nation states, does not look good. They're losing power in two directions: upwards to Brussels (currency, taxation, defence, foreign policy) and downwards to Barcelona and Edinburgh (everything else).

In these terms the argument for complete independence inside Europe - a new Europe, of "the regions" rather than nation states - seems perfectly rational. Why bother with this superfluous layer of government, which dates from an older order? Why not deal, in Scotland or Catalonia, with Brussels direct?

Catalonia was granted the equivalent of Scottish devolution soon after Franco's death and the nationalists have ruled it ever since, but separation from Spain still seems improbable. Or at least - this is a judgement based on only a few conversations - not one that I heard seriously discussed. I went to supper with a few Catalans and non-Catalans.

There was what you might call good-natured joshing. Catalans were pragmatic, they liked to count their cash; they could accommodate Castilian arrogance.

They were Catalans first, Spanish second, Europeans third. Few nationalists in Scotland would so happily reel off the same kind of declension - "British" there is the missing word.

Then the waiter came with a bottle of cava and lemon sorbet with a sprig of basil on top.

ONE OBSTACLE to the separatist cause might be lack of grievance: a city so apparently prosperous, with such an enviable middle-class way of life, doesn't seem to have much to beef about. Another could be language. People in Catalonia are bilingual in Catalan and Castilian, but Catalan is the official language, the medium of instruction in every state school and an essential for any government job. This is a much thicker layer of difference between Catalonia and the rest of Spain than any which exists between Scotland and England and therefore - it would be easy to conclude - a help rather than hindrance to the cause of independence.

On the other hand, somewhere between a quarter and a third of Catalonia's 6 million population are first, second or third-generation immigrants from other parts of Spain. Linguistic nationalism, especially of a language unread and unspoken in any other part of the world, holds no appeal for them. It complicates their life.

Those who can afford to do so take their children out of the state system and send them to schools where Castilian Spanish and sometimes English is the medium from the age of five.

Small nationalisms imply homogeneity, but they can be just as divisive as large ones and sometimes even more so.

I left with a new thought: that if Catalonia were less different to the rest of Spain, popular ambition for its independence might be broader and stronger. Scotland, despite the fantasies of the Gaelic and Braid Scots lobbies, will never have this problem. Linguistic Welsh nationalism certainly does.

PERHAPS AIRPORTS are the best places to encounter the seductions of Europe. Barcelona's was uncrowded and orderly on my way home, still recognisably a public institution unlike the bazaar that Heathrow has become. There were quiet, rather refined shops that sold local specialisms - acorn-fed ham, hand-made shoes, pottery and glass - as well as caviar and perfume. The new Eurocracy strolled around in their Hugo Boss suits, talking on their mobiles, arranging chauffeurs to pick them up at the other end. How wonderful it would be to be a full part of all this! Europe as one vast Business Class! "Just charge the car-hire to the appropriate cost centre," as I overheard one man instructing a subordinate, talking into his phone even as he walked down the ramp to the plane.

But even to be poor in Europe has its advantages. The train fare to the airport from Barcelona came to pounds 1.50; Heathrow to central London is perhaps double the distance, but more than six times the fare (pounds 10 for the 15- minute trip to Paddington, or pounds 15 first-class). Immediately, at Heathrow, one difference between Britain and the rest of Europe is obvious. The Hugo Bossers are making their way to the fine new trains. The less well- off are heading for the Tube and a fare of pounds 3.30. Welcome to a country of great divisions. It pays its chief executives the second-highest salaries in the world after the United States and can't make the Northern Line work.

A conundrum. Britain is among the poorer countries of Europe - but also the most expensive. Its people work longer hours than continental Europeans - but are also paid less. Can anyone explain it?