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Iberian union could be answer to Spain’s woes

It might seem quixotic, at a time when Spain looks like it is falling apart, but could the country’s future lie in a union with neighbour Portugal? DAVID BARKER investigates ‘Iberism’

As events in Catalonia continue to expose Spain’s core fragility and the Iberian peninsula’s vulnerability to splintering into several smaller states, it is a timely moment to highlight that there is another political movement to unite it – all of it – through a union with Portugal.

This seemingly counter-intuitive idea is called Iberism, and has seen support swell slowly and quietly for decades. Simply, it stems from a belief that Portugal and Spain have a common culture and history.

The same empires have occupied them both: Romans, Visigoths, and later Arabs, shaping all Iberian languages (with the notable exception of Basque). Even the Spanish and Portuguese dictatorships during the last century almost exactly corresponded, in terms of their lifespan. As a result, Iberists argue, the two countries have more which unites than divides them. The concept has ebbed and flowed through the decades, but has been particularly powerful in Galicia, in north-west Spain, where the local language is so similar to Portuguese that many consider them to be dialects of the same language.

Elsewhere throughout the peninsula, it has found its strongest support among republicans and socialists – although one poll has showed that more than half the Portuguese people would accept Spain’s then-king, Juan Carlos, as their head of state.

Notwithstanding this surprising finding (it is worth pointing out that Juan Carlos lived near Lisbon during his exile), Iberists generally propose a federal republic to unite their two countries. This would mean more autonomy for regions like Catalonia, the Basque country, and Navarre, and could, its advocates claim, siphon support for separatism.

Partly this is because supporters of Iberism propose their federation having five official languages: Castilian, Galician, Portuguese, Catalan, and Basque, giving them a parity they currently lack.

The new country would encompass the entire peninsula, as well as the Spanish Canary Islands and Balearic Islands, and the Portuguese Azores and Madeira. The status of Andorra and Gibraltar – where Iberism has not taken hold – might prove more problematic.

Iberists can look back to a time when the peninsula was united. Between 1580 and 1640, Spain and Portugal were one country during the Iberian Union. This is, though, an unhelpful precedent for proponents.

That union was the direct result of the Portuguese crisis of succession, and the Spanish crown using force to conquer its neighbour and rival. Iberism is a movement which comes from the people.

One of its biggest proponents has been José Saramago, the Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning writer, who died in 2010. He described Iberism most famously in his novel A Jangada de Pedra (The Stone Raft), in which the peninsula is depicted as a raft, drifting away from Europe, together.

While the concept is old, political organisation for its reality is relatively new. The movement is politicised via two political parties, who joined forces last year.

On the Portuguese side, there is the Movimento Partido Ibérico and on the Spanish, the party Íber. Both are currently on the fringes in their respective countries. But the fortunes of political parties, even minor ones, can change quickly.

While Portugal is currently enjoying an economic recovery, led by its centre-left minority government, Spain faces a number of huge constitutional problems. The most obvious right now is that of Catalan independence.

However the situation develops, the crisis has already shown the weaknesses and tensions inherent in the country and the speed with which its seemingly-stable arrangements (only in place since the fall of Francoism 40 years ago, after all) can be unpicked. Against this backdrop, what else might be possible?

After all, should Catalonia secede, other Catalan-speaking regions, including Valencia, the Balearic Islands, and towns and villages bordering the region, could attempt to unite as one Catalan state, separate from Spain. If successful, it would create a country with more than twice the population of an independent Scotland.

The loss of the wealthier Catalan-speaking regions would be devastating and undoubtedly lead to the Basque-speaking regions to hold their own referendum. Galicia, the Canary Islands, and potentially other regions may also begin to see Spain as a sinking ship and either opt to go it alone or, in Galicia’s case, consider joining a neighbouring country.

The Spanish government – even before this crisis – is not a strong one. A general election two years ago failed to produce a majority government, as the four major parties couldn’t find any workable coalition. This led to a second election six months later, with the exact same conclusion. In the year since then, there have been (unsuccessful) attempts to vote down the incumbent minority government, led by the Mariano Rajoy and Partido Popular, Spain’s equivalent to the Conservative Party.

Spain is a country seemingly in need of renewal. Could this be found in a union with Portugal? Certainly, the resulting country would have a significantly greater voice in Europe, on a par with that of Italy, and perhaps even France.

Polls in Spain and Portugal a decade ago pointed to increasing support for Iberism, but it was still contained amongst a minority of citizens. In the past 10 years, this has changed. A Portuguese poll earlier this month put support for a political union with Spain at 78%. This may well take you by surprise, and this may well have been an outlier.

But in a continent where separation and division within countries has been the trend for the past couple of decades, is it really so surprising to see a backlash hoping for more unity with our neighbours?

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