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Matthew Tree: “Catalonia will only be fully understood abroad if it becomes independent [from Spain]”

This English writer has been living in Catalonia for the last 26 years. This week he presented his new book ‘Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside’. Tree explains the difficulties he encounters explaining Catalonia to foreigners.

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01 April 2011 11:09 PM

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ACN / Maria Fernández Noguera / Gaspar Pericay Coll

Barcelona (ACN).- \u2018How to explain this country to foreigners?\u2019 This is the question that you ask yourself after reading Matthew Trees' latest book and is also the book\u2019s title in Catalan. This English writer arrived in Catalonia 26 years ago and ended up settling down in what he describes as \u201Cone of the most complicated corners of the European continent\u201D. This does not mean that Tree hates Catalonia or considers it an impossible place to live or do business in; quite the contrary. In fact, Tree loves living in Catalonia and is in fact very critical not with Catalonia itself but with the Spanish State in general and its attitude towards Catalonia in particular. According to Tree, \u201CMadrid moves the goal posts every time the match doesn\u2019t go as expected\u201D, which means every time Catalonia questions or does something that displeases Spain\u2019s establishment and Spanish nationalism. \u201CThis is an insult to collective intelligence\u201D affirms Tree. In fact, he predicts \u201Cfrom an objective observation and not from a nationalist point of view\u201D that \u201Cin five years time, Catalonia will have become an independent nation\u201D if Madrid is to continue with the same attitude and does not introduce a radical change. This English writer reached this conclusion due to the large quantity of people that he believes is \u201Cfed up\u201D with the Spanish Government\u2019s treatment towards Catalonia, a quantity that in his words \u201Chas been growing\u201D in the last years. Tree also denounces a generalised attitude to overshadow Catalonia\u2019s political reality and culture, an attitude he has experienced himself on several occasions in Madrid and abroad, for instance at a conference he hosted in the London School of Economics. All these factors make him reach the conclusion that \u201CCatalonia will only be fully understood abroad if it becomes independent [from Spain]\u201D, as stateless nations do not have a place in most people\u2019s mindsets. Matthew Tree\u2019s book is available in English via online shops with the title \u2018Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside\u2019.


Matthew Tree (London, 1958) has been living in Catalonia for the last 26 years. He settled down in Barcelona in 1984 but he first arrived in Catalonia in the late 1970s. He arrived with little knowledge about Catalonia, its language, its history and its political and social reality. He was surprised with what he found and, after a small time he became both puzzled and intrigued, he decided to go deeper and try to better understand the Catalan reality. In 1979, he started learning and speaking in Catalan, a language he perfectly managed after some years. Tree integrated into Catalonia and fully grasped its complex political, social and cultural reality, a reality he thinks very few foreigners really understand, especially when they come as tourists or when they work as foreign correspondents in Madrid and report about Catalonia from there.

\u201CCatalan nationalism is not understood abroad\u201D

In fact, Tree denounces the fact that most foreign correspondents in Spain settle in Madrid and thus have a limited vision of Spain\u2019s complexity. Tree believes that the majority of them do not even understand Catalan reality, and what is worse, many do not even care. They approach Catalonia thinking Spain is a homogenous country and try to fit Catalan political reality into their mindsets shaped on Madrid or on their Nation-State background. Actually, Tree thinks that many tourists also have the same attitude after having spent some few days in Catalonia. Tree criticises some journalists and quotes some of their articles. For instance a British journalist once wrote that foreigners were \u201Cobliged\u201D to learn the Catalan language in Catalonia. According to Tree, some foreign correspondents write articles about Catalonia from ignorance with biased sources from Madrid and even \u201Cwith a bit of anger\u201D.

For Tree, one of the causes for this hostility is the word \u201Cnationalism\u201D. Foreigners, especially from Central and Northern Europe see Catalan nationalists as a threat. Tree points out that the word \u201Cnationalism\u201D has very bad connotations in the UK and is associated with intolerant ideologies such as the British National Party\u2019s. In addition, in English, \u201Ca nation\u201D is a synonym of \u201Cindependent state\u201D and thus \u201Cnationalism\u201D is associated with an intolerant ideology from an arrogant and self-focused independent country. However, Tree explains in his book that \u201Cnationalism\u201D has a very different meaning in Catalonia. It is the expression of the vindication of the Catalan political reality and culture, which has been oppressed for decades.

How Catalonia is seen abroad

In his book, Tree gives many examples of how foreigners do not understand Catalan reality or how they do not know anything about it. When CNA interviewed Tree, we asked him \u201Chow he would present Catalonia to foreigners\u201D. Tree answered by pointing out to a greater problem: \u201Cmost of the time they do not even see us\u201D. \u201CI met a Dutch person, with a very good education, who did not even know that Catalan was a written language\u201D. This person \u201Cwas completely surprised when he discovered a wide literary tradition\u201D, coming from early Middle Ages. According to the English author, for many visitors, \u201CBarcelona is a sort of \u2018world city\u2019, which is in the middle of a cultural emptiness\u201D.

\u201CThis is a country where you need to speak minimum one language and be able to understand two\u201D, being Spanish and Catalan. The advice Tree would give to foreigners who want to spend more than 6 months in Catalonia is \u201Cto start firstly by learning Catalan and secondly Spanish\u201D, \u201Cbecause the latter will be learnt by osmosis\u201D. He would also warn foreigners about the diversity and the complexity of the country. \u201CYou have just landed on one of the most complicated corners of the entire European continent\u201D, says Tree.

\u2018How to present Catalonia to foreigners?\u2019

Tree reached these conclusions years ago and has spent the last ten years explaining them to foreigners through articles in British media such as \u2018The Times\u2019 or through various conferences. Tree collaborates with many Catalan media, from newspapers to radio and TV, such as \u2018Avui\u2019, \u2018El Temps\u2019, \u2018Catalonia Today\u2019, \u2018Rac 1\u2019, \u2018Catalunya Ràdio\u2019, \u2018TV3\u2019, etc. He compiled some of these articles in his new book, which has the Catalan title \u2018How to present this country to foreigners?\u2019 The book can be found in English via online bookshops with the title \u2018Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside\u2019.

Tree believes that any initiative like CNA that tries to explain Catalonia to the world is \u201Cvery important\u201D. He praised the Catalan News Agency as well as the Institut Ramon Llull\u2019s exhibitions and activities in London or New York. However, he regretted that the initiatives were too small, that they only reach a small group of people - people who are already interested on Catalonia. These initiatives \u201Chelp, but they are just drops into the ocean\u201D.

Catalonia to become an independent nation \u201Cin 5 years time\u201D

Tree concludes that \u201Cthe only thing that will make Catalonia fully understood abroad is its independence [from Spain]\u201D. \u201CThis is an objective fact\u201D and not \u201Ca Catalan nationalist\u201D statement, as \u201CI am not a nationalist\u201D. According to this foreigner who has been gradually becoming a native, Catalonia\u2019s independence from Spain is to happen \u201Cin 5 years time\u201D. 

This will happen because the Spanish Government \u201Cmoves the goal posts when it thinks the match doesn\u2019t go as expected\u201D, and this \u201Cis an insult to the collective intelligence of everyone living here\u201D. Tree explains that in the last few years, he has met people who never would have thought about desiring Catalonia\u2019s independence from Spain. However, as they are \u201Cfed up\u201D with Spain\u2019s attitude towards Catalonia, now they are pushing for it. Tree mentions the triggering by the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2010 of the Catalan Statute of Autonomy, which had been approved by referendum in 2006, as one of the examples of what pushes Catalans towards being pro independence.

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  • Matthew Tree during the interview with CNA (by ACN)

  • Matthew Tree during the interview with CNA (by ACN)
Matthew Tree presents Catalonia to foreigners in 2 minutes