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Why José Saramago Was Right

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José Saramago, one of Portugal's best writers ever, and the only one who has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, anticipated in an interview by Portugal's Diario de Noticias on July 14th 2007, that Portugal would end up integrating with Spain in a new state he would call Iberia, explaining that:

Culturally, Catalonia has its own culture, which is both common to the rest of Spain, such as the Basque and Galician, we would not become Spanish. When we look at the Iberian Peninsula which is what we see? We observe a group that is not broken into pieces and is a whole that is composed of nationalities, and in some cases different languages, but has more or less lived alone. What would happen if integrated? We would not cease to speak Portuguese, not cease to write in our language and certainly with ten million inhabitants would have everything to gain in developing this type of approach and territorial integration, administrative and structural.

José Saramago wrote the foreword to Cesar Antonio Molina's essay "Mi iberismo" (1990), in which he made explicit the difference between a defensive versus a rational nationalism:

Only those who still maintain their affiliation to a nationalism which is more defensive than rational, more made of messianisms than of objectivity, will continue to maintain their eyes closed. But they, if they ever were to open their eyes, will in a day to come, find themselves immobilized in history, alone.

In a recent lunch with Portugal's King-to-be Dom Duarte de Bragança in Lisbon city center, Dom Duarte revealed the difference between Iberism and Alliance. Many in Portugal are concerned that Iberism might involve yet another threat of invasion by the Castilians who indeed threatened Portugal for centuries. Whether Saramago's Iberism or Dom Duarte's Alliance, the two countries Portugal and Spain, Spain and Portugal have a unique opportunity to enhance their cooperation further.

Envied or even hated by many in Portugal, admired abroad, José Saramago's controversial opinions were always relevant. Coincidentally the Portuguese along with the Catalans and the Basque represent the strongest nationalities in Iberia. The minor difference, the Portuguese would argue, is that Portugal is a nation whereas Catalonia is not. Moreover, Portugal is the oldest nation in Europe, the Portuguese always notice.

Both the Portuguese and the Catalans maintain in their rhetoric their fear of Castille, as if we were still living in the Middle Ages. The fear needs to be conquered by the reciprocal admiration across cultures and identities.

José Saramago anticipated his vision in his 1986 masterpiece The Stone Raft in which he presents the geographical separation of the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of the European continent and its subsequent navigation towards South America as a standalone, autonomous island.

Portugal and Spain have a unique opportunity to collaborate further than ever because they both share the same problems. Portugal is also a country of Suckers, of professional politicians who have taken absolute control of society in spite of their frequent incompetence. A Sucker-free Portugal is possible. I have called this fiction-state Reypública.

A wonderful people, the Portuguese are nostalgic and polite, and deeply pessimistic. Resignation predominates as it does in Spain. Afraid, they still live the Portuguese grandeur of the former times when Portugal was a World Power, an Empire. Those times are over, I am afraid, no matter how much we refuse to open our eyes and wake up. Portugal lost its last colonies in 1973, whereas Spain lost its last colonies well before in 1898.

Spain is already present in Portugal, the Portuguese might say. Indeed the well-known department store El Corte Inglés has recently opened stores in Lisbon and Porto. The Portuguese love to purchase in El Corte Inglés. Many of the bank branches in Lisbon and Porto also belong to BBVA, Santander Totta or Banco Popular. Some Portuguese still travel to Badajoz or Ciudad Rodrigo to do their groceries at Mercadona, the Valencian supermarket chain commanded by billionaire Juan Roig which still has not opened any stores in Portugal.

Portugal and Spain could collaborate to the point of integration: integrating armies and diplomacy, mutualizing the debt, enforcing the learning of Spanish in Portugal and Portuguese in Spain, uniting the sport leagues and the University space so that any Portuguese student can study in a Spanish University and any Spanish student can study in a Portuguese University. The list of possibilities goes on.

Yet we are afraid. The Portuguese are afraid of the old Castille's threats not realizing that Spain no longer looks to Portugal -- as it should do -- but to France and Germany. The Spaniards are incompetently unable to design a territorial understanding where all nationalities including Castille, Catalonia and the Basque Country can coexist. Spain is the fragile state that seems to always be breaking apart, unless and unfortunately a Dictator imposes a centralist mode which guarantees unity: "España una, grande y libre" was the Francoist motto. Regrettably Spain might have been one, but it was never neither great nor free during the Francoist regime.

Paul Preston, Edward Malefakis and Stanley Payne are the World's best alive historians on Iberian matters and affairs. We desperately need pragmatic outsiders to help us design Reypública, the new Iberia for a twenty-first century and beyond.

José Saramago was right about the new Iberia. There is no other way forward than integration if we do not want to go bankrupt and become absolutely irrelevant. A united Iberia might well inspire Belgium and the United Kingdom at a time of weak territorial integration which seems to be reinforced by the determination of the Scots and the Flemish.

Thou shall not be afraid, Portugal, for integration will respect your tradition, your language, your history. Yet you are Spain's obvious companion, to share, to learn, to embrace a better future ahead, together once and for all.