Trouble rumbling beneath – Spanish Autonomy versus Catalan Independence in Barcelona

There was a sense that beneath the noise of the tourists, under the surface of an over-visited tourist city were tensions in the city that were simmering waiting for another instance to boil over.

The packed streets of Las Ramblas mask a deeper story of Barcelona

I turned to our guide of the old city to ask about the referendum chaos I had read about.

“Well, it’s a complicated thing and people get very emotional talking about it, but I’m sure the people will work it out eventually.”

A seemingly innocent question, to my mind, was given what seemed like a very rapid brush. My guide obviously did not want to talk too much about it. He was European but neither Spanish nor Catalan and living in Barcelona sure seemed to make him feel uncomfortable sharing about it.

I zipped up and continued walking taking in the conflict within.

One of the giveaways was the diversity of flags and banners hanging all over the city. There were flags everywhere in Barcelona but not every flag meant the same thing, all these flags were Catalan flags but each flag represented a different political opinion. A political opinion that goes to the heart of the Catalan identity.

The issue: Should Catalonia go independent?

Political opinion in Barcelona was split slightly over a year ago, and came to a head with the Catalan Independence Referendum on October 1st. It came with the societal zeitgeist of independence movements all across Europe following on from the high profile Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014.

That long-running saga was called by the pro-Catalan independence party governing the province and was a controversial vote, the split opinion however was brought forth by the lack of consensus on the result. While 92% of the valid vote voted for Catalan independence, this was caused by a low voter turnout at 43%. The vote was declared illegal by the Spanish government which could also be seen as a barometer of support/desire for independence.

The results of the vote led to chaos in the province. While the referendum was non-binding, not unlike the Brexit vote in the UK, the Catalan government went ahead to declare independence on 27th October 2017, leading Madrid to impose direct rule over the province, in essence losing the autonomy that it had wanted. Political leaders of the ruling regional government were put in jail for treason, the President of the Catalonia fled to Germany and the Spanish government requested his extradition on charges of treason (which were refused by the German government, a decision condemned in some quarters in Germany).

The government of Catalonia was crippled without leadership until May 2018, when Quim Torra, an indepence supporting independent politician was successfully elected into the position of President (after three other choices were vetoed by the Spanish courts).

The foundation was laid however much earlier to the year 1932 regional elections, the year of the first ever regional government vote in Spain (the second vote would arrive in 1980, after the fall of Franco). You could even argue that the foundations date further back. But even in 1932, the majority vote was won by parties supporting Catalan autonomy and independence. From 1932 through to 2017 the ruling coalition of Catalonia and the largest party was always the independence party in various forms. There was only a short period from 2003 to 2010 when the largest bloc was the pro-uniom party and that had more to do with the retirement of a long-term Catalan Independence leaning leader (Jordi Pujol) than anything.

Catalonia has, in a way, always been a region apart, a culture apart and a people apart from the rest of Spain. Because of its location near the French border, and with mountains separating Barcelona from the rest of Spain, Barcelona has always had political opinions that differed from those in Madrid, differences that have lead to civil wars on numerous previous occasions.

The distinction was made even more extreme during the rule of the dictator Francisco Franco who sought to suppress all forms of cultural divergence in the country including the banning of Catalonian flags and Catalan language. Catalonia was one of the regions with the strongest anti-franco, Republican movemetnts and resistance to Franco came in the form of Catalan nationalism. For a time, especially before the internationalisation of football, it was embodied in support FC Barcelona especially during the El Classico versus Real Madrid.

While there is a sizable group of Catalonians who want independence from Spain, most want to go it alone within the ambit of the European Union (EU), but this move of having smaller nations in the EU faces a not-so-minor complication – vetos from existing members. Just as how the Spanish government declared that it would veto a Scottish application to join the EU, Catalan independence is not something that is widely supported by the political establishment in Europe, since almost every major European nation itself faces its own independence movement and there is the larger challenge of Brexit on the horizon, which all have created numerous unwelcome cracks in the unity of the EU project.

What caught my eye the most was how even in cities like Barcelona, where support for independence is strongest, both the Nationalist and Unionist flags flew side by side in apartment blocks. These were neighbours with different views, but living side by side. I’m not sure whether these neighbours talk to each other in a friendly way or ignore each other frostily but it speaks to just how divided the views of the locals is for such statements to be made side by side.

Still, it seems that there is a middle path and a more nuanced approach that has emerged from all this. It seemed like even till the early 2000s, one could only be a Catalan or a Spaniard and not both embodied in the parties of old wanted either strong union with Spain or Catalan independence.

The Ciudadanos party (Citizens party) was formed only in 2006 as a response to a call from well known Catalan civil society activist who called for a new political force (and I quote a Wikipedia entry here)*, “to ‘address the real problems faced by the general public’. In this manifesto, they also warned that “the rhetoric of hatred promulgated by official Catalan government media against everything ‘Spanish’ is more alarming than ever” and that ‘the (Catalan) nation, promoted as an homogenous entity, has taken over the space where an undeniably diverse society lived’.” It’s electoral results speak for itself, from its first election in 2006 where it won 3% of the valid vote, its obtained 25.4% of the valid vote in the Catalan regional elections of 2017.

It also won 13% of the vote in the national elections of 2016 up from 0.1% in 2008, representing in a way the rise of a new politics in Spain.

Why does this matter? Because this new party does not just cut into the traditional political establishment in Spain but also the traditional establishment in Catalonia, speaking up for continued autonomism rather then independence. Giving voice to the idea that one can be Catalan and Spanish, as much as one can be Castilian or Galician or Basque and be Spanish at the same time. Moree importantly, they have a growing amount of supporters on their side.

Could this be the direction of Catalonia and of Spain going into the future? Could this take the flame over the pot of Catalan Independence before the water boils over? And where how would that change the Catalan Independence debate?

Cover Image Source

*I don’t support any party, I have no skin in the game to ‘bother’ who wins except curiosity about the system.


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