A British friend on a recent visit to Barcelona said he was struck by the Catalans' habit of referring to the rest of Spain as "Spain". Instead of saying: "Tomorrow, I am going to Madrid", they would say: "Tomorrow, I am going to Spain", as if they were travelling to another country.
I told my friend that I had an even better example of the mental distance separating the inhabitants of Catalonia from their Iberian neighbours: myself. I have lived in Barcelona for five years. Before arriving here, it had never crossed my mind that Catalonia might not belong to Spain, any more than I had thought to distinguish between Scotland and Britain. And yet for the past three or four years, I have caught myself making the same slip, time after time: saying Spain, when what I intend to say is Madrid or Seville or Saragossa.
If I am thinking this way - I who have a Madrilena mother and not an ounce of Catalan blood - how wide must the gap be in the minds of the real Catalans? Or in the minds of the Galicians? Or the Basques?
Very wide indeed, if you consider the outcome of local and regional government polls last month, when nationalist parties consolidated their control in Catalonia and the Basque country, and made significant gains in Galicia. The funny thing is that the nationalists, eager as they are to wrest control of their affairs from Madrid, are dead keen to hand it over to Brussels. What they want - or, at any rate, say they want - is to swap Spanish sovereignty for fealty to a European superstate.
Since even the majority of Spaniards who wish to remain Spanish (the Andalusians, Valencians, Asturians, and so on) are enthusiastic about Europe, the conclusion appears to be inescapable: the Spanish love Europe, but hate each other. Which makes Spain an interesting test case on the fraught question of Europe's future cohesion. What happens in Spain - where the one great political question is whether the state will hold together - will help tell us whether the centrifugal regional forces across the Continent will make a future European central government impossible. Spain will serve either as a model or a warning for a Europe that seeks to strike a balance between competing federal and regional claims.
There are two reasons for pro-Europeans to be optimistic. The first has to do with Spanish youth. Enthusiasm for Europe as well as a longing for regional sovereignty were the two most striking political responses to 40 years of Franquista rule. Perpetuating a 500-year trend in favour of obscurantist Catholicism, Franco cut Spain off from the modern world. The upshot was that Spaniards ached to share in the wealth and freedom they glimpsed north of the Pyrenees. Franco also exercised such a strong centralist grip - he banned the Basque and Catalan languages - that, when the lid came off, nationalist fervour inevitably bubbled over.
The people who will be ruling Spain in ten or 20 years, who were born around the time of Franco's death, have not grown up in a climate of political oppression. Neither have they the inferiority complex of their parents vis-a-vis the British, Germans or French. Basques learn in Basque at school; Catalans in Catalan. They have their own newspapers, TV stations, historical street names. However, young Catalans increasingly use Castilian Spanish in everyday conversation. And young Basques, bludgeoned into learning an abstruse tongue by their political elders, will probably follow. In general, young people are more relaxed about their regional identities, more confident about their status in Europe, less slaves to political passion.
The second reason to think that a healthy equilibrium will be struck between the regions and the Spanish state is that Spaniards are ultimately a practical people. It is only because they go in for more bluster than other Europeans that they don't seem like that.
As the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges remarked, the Spanish are "very ethical". By which he meant that they like to be seen doing the right and noble thing. They are a conformist lot, orthodox in eating habits and style of dress, responsive to the pull of political correctness. If conventional opinion is to be anti-Spain, you are anti-Spain. If it is to be anti-war, you are anti-war. Probably no country in the world had more people out on the streets against the Iraq war than Spain, while no government, except in Britain and the US, was more in favour. Everybody thought the centre-right Popular Party government of Jose MarIa Aznar would then take a pounding at the polls and that the anti-war Socialists would make hay.
Well, lo and behold: in the May elections the Socialists suffered badly in Barcelona, while the PP made inroads on the nationalist majority; and in Madrid, where two million demonstrated against the war, the PP took city hall with an increased majority. Why? Because things are going well for Spain. Growth, thanks in large part to European aid, remains above the European average. Take the ethical line against the war by all means, but don't put at risk the euro in your pocket.
One might draw a similar lesson from the regional elections. People are quite happy to vote for nationalist parties that are long on rhetoric but short on actual plans to withdraw from Spain. Why would you opt for uncertainty, goes the thinking, when Spain has never, ever, had it so good? Which is precisely why you can be confident that, were it ever to come to a referendum in Catalonia or the Basque country on secession from Spain, both the angry old parents and the serene, sensible youth would vote resoundingly in favour of everything staying the same.