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Parliamentary Status for Spain’s Regional Languages: Cultural Advancement or Political Move?

Flags of regions of Spain on flagpoles against blue sky Salou Spanish Catalonia Europe

Staff Writer, Emma DaCosta, argues the Parliamentary Status granted to Spain’s regional languages is a cultural advancement with political roots.

Spain’s regional languages, Galician, Catalan, and Basque have a history of both suppression and marginalisation. Since the late 1970s, they have had co-official language status alongside the main language of Castilian. Last week in the Spanish parliament their position was enhanced further with Galician, Catalan, and Basque languages being granted parliamentary status.

On September 21, the Spanish Congress of Deputies voted to allow the use of all three regional languages in parliament. Earlier last week a precedent was set on September 19 when Jose Ramon Besteiro, the Socialist deputy of Lugo in Galicia, spoke in parliament in his native language Galician. This was the first of the three languages to be used in parliament in Madrid. Besteiro said it was an “honour” as well as highlighting that minority languages are part of the “cultural wealth” of Spain. Spain’s current regional language statistics are 9.1 million Catalan speakers, 2.6 million Galician speakers, and 1.1 million Basque speakers.

Not everyone in parliament was thrilled with the passing. Members of both Vox and the People’s Party, Spain’s Conservative parties, left translating earpieces on the chair of an absent Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who was in New York for a UN conference.  This was to protest the speaking of the regional languages due to their belief in it making debating more difficult in the chamber.

Further controversy surrounding the languages comes from the instability of the July election results. Sanchez’s advocation for regional languages can be linked to his attempt to create a left-wing coalition. He needs the backing of these regional parties who are left-leaning.

The Prime Minister’s political weakness has led opportunists such as self-exiled former Catalonian president Carlos Puidgemont and Catalan separatists looking to receive as many benefits as possible from Sanchez’s Parliamentary arithmetic woes. These gains would be in return for aiding him in forming a government. This leaves a bad taste surrounding furthering regional languages, as it could be perceived as part of a greater appeasement of Catalan hardliners, as the Spanish Conservatives are spinning it. This has been a demand from Catalonian separatists for many years and is something they see as integral to their regional identity and subsequently their independence. As shown by Miriam Nogueras, a Catalan lawmaker from Puidgemont’s JxCat party, saying, “This is a historic day… Finally, the rights of Catalan speakers are being respected”.

Sanchez also pushed the languages to become official languages of the European Union. However, this was met with a pessimistic view from Brussels. The EU already has high translation costs ($380 million spent last year) and has concerns about other countries following Spain down this path of regional language status pitches. Spain did say they would cover the cost, but no figures were confirmed.

The cynicism surrounding the new status of the regional languages cannot be ignored. The notion of cultural wealth claimed by Galician, Besteiro, has seemingly been overshadowed by Sanchez’s perceived ulterior motives and rejection from the EU due to cost.

Galician, Catalan, and Basque have a substantial history when it comes to their status in Spain. In the 1930s all three languages were legally co-languages to Castilian. However, during Franciso Franco’s dictatorship from 1939-1975, this was reversed. As he wanted to increase the dominance of Castilian over the regional languages. They were viewed as dialects under Franco, not developed enough to be real languages and their use in administration was discouraged and banned. In 1978, after the end of Franco’s reign, the Spanish Constitution recognized them again as co-official languages. The granting of parliamentary status in 2023 has furthered the journey of recognition for these regional languages.

Is this a cultural advancement or a political move? It can be seen as either, depending on the levels of optimism or pessimism you want to view it with. Regional identities are very important to people of any nation especially when there has been a history of suppression, so recognition is crucial to these communities. However, are the Galicians, Catalans, and Basques being used as pawns on the political chess board that is the Spanish Congress of Deputies, due to Sanchez’s hung parliament?

Personally, I see this as a step in the right direction for regional identity in Spain, however, due to having Galician family members I could be biased. It must feel like a long time coming for the regional political parties but the looming threat for Sanchez of a right-wing PP-Vox coalition cannot be ignored in this situation. This is a cultural advancement for Spain however, its catalyst equally makes it a political move.

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