How do you solve a problem like Catalonia?

Tom McGee (2013) studies Spanish and Arabic at Pembroke College, Cambridge. In this article he reflects on his year abroad to Barcelona, and the build-up to elections described by some as a de facto referendum on independence.

Mira, Tom, look at this”, the taxi driver says, passing me a photo of his young daughter.

“She’s very sweet”, I reply, “what’s she called?”

“Ariadne”, beams Luis, relishing the look of bemusement which is spreading across my face.

Ariadne. I wrack my brain, trying to unravel the significance of the girl’s name. My thoughts alight on a few key words: labyrinth; Theseus; Minotaur. Eventually, with considerable coaxing from the driver, the true meaning of his daughter’s name emerges. Luis, a passionate Catalan nationalist, had decided to name his child after the Greek heroine who helped slay the Minotaur. And of course in the eyes of Luis, the Minotaur represents the Spanish bull and the central government in Madrid.


Ariadne on the Island of Naxos, by George Frederick Watts

I am amazed that Luis’ fervent political allegiance is embodied even in his little girl and for the rest of our journey, he emphasises that the next three weeks – culminating in the Catalonian parliamentary elections on 27 September – will be crucial to the future of his people. Finally, I pluck up enough courage to ask him why he believes so strongly in an independent Catalonian state. Without even pausing, Luis fires back:

“Tom, amigo, I support a sovereign Catalonia because I speak Catalan. I speak Catalan with my father and he spoke Catalan with his father. I even dream in Catalan.”

This was the scene which greeted me as I arrived in Barcelona, a city plunged into a rapidly approaching political crossroads. In fact, during my brief conversation with Luis from the airport to the centre of town, a number of recurring themes arose, which offered an interesting insight into the pro-independence movement. Luis’ sense of Catalan history, passed down from father to son, is palpable. This national history is in turn mythologised, not by Theseus or Ariadne, but by a cast of Catalan heroes. The Catalan language is a tangible symbol of identity, clearly distinguishing the inhabitants of Barcelona (and the other three provinces of Catalonia – Lleida, Tarragona and Girona) from their Castilian (what you or I would call ‘Spanish’) cousins. Yet there is a limitation to this expression of identity. Luis’ closing comment hinted at the fate of his pro-independence aspirations: they will remain a dream. Indeed, even if the Catalan independence coalition were to triumph in the 27 September (or ‘27-S’) elections, it seems that the establishment of a sovereign Catalan state will still be out of reach.

So how did the current, effervescent situation come about? Contrary to what much of the media suggests, the voting on 27-S is not an independence referendum. At stake will be the 135 seats in the Parliament of Catalonia – the regional body which controls the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia – and the post of President of Catalonia, currently held by Artur Mas. This common misconception comes from Mas’ framing (or, as Madrid would claim, ‘hijacking’) of the parliamentary elections as a plebiscite on independence.

That is to say a de facto referendum on Catalonia’s future. Mas justifies his actions by explaining that, if the Catalan people are to have their voices heard, he has no choice: in November 2014, Mariano Rajoy’s Spanish government refused to recognise a non-binding ‘consultation’ in which 80% of voters supported an independent Catalonia. Mas interpreted this result as a mandate to press ahead with the independence process and he has now formed the Junts pel Sí (‘Together for Yes’) coalition, comprised of his Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) party, the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC) and several smaller separatist parties.

If his coalition emerges with a majority in the Catalan parliament, Mas vows to embark on an 18-month transitional period, concluding with a unilateral declaration of independence in the spring of 2017. The declaration will have to be unilateral because the central government insists that such secession is unconstitutional.

Junts pel Sí: a public portrait of Artur Mas

Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes): a public portrait of Artur Mas

Much of the Junts pel Sí campaign’s nationalist ammunition stems from an idealised, and ostensibly, shared history. The 19th century Catalan Renaixença movement resurrected the medieval figure of Wilfred the Hairy and reinterpreted his life, presenting him as the founder of the House of Barcelona. Of even greater symbolic value were the events of 1714 which saw Catalonia defeated in the War of Spanish Succession and are now commemorated every 11th of September, as the National Day of Catalonia. This year, the annual celebrations conveniently coincided with the beginning of campaigning for 27-S and I went along to Meridiana Avenue which leads to the Catalonian Parliament.

A Palestinean flag, flown with the red estelada

A Palestinian flag, flown with the red estelada

A young child grapples the traditional blue estelada

A young child grapples the traditional blue estelada

On the surface, at least, the scenes were inspiring. Between 1 and 1.4 million people, draped in Catalan flags, lined the streets. Nationalist chants built to a crescendo as the television cameras approached, clearly conveying the will of the Catalan people to the rest of Spain. However, as the emotions of the afternoon subsided, I began to ask those around me why they had turned out today, and what feelings bound them to the nationalist movement. With alarming frequency, the youth I spoke to shrugged, saying that they simply fancied spending their bank holiday with a few friends and a few drinks, singing by the side of the road. Other members of the public muttered vague comments about a glorious Catalan past and prosperous Catalan future. Of course, I appreciate that my sample size was hardly representative of the entire population, but I was nonetheless struck by their apathy.

This fits with the high abstention rate in the aforementioned November 2014 vote. Despite Artur Mas claiming that the 80% ‘Yes’ vote gave him a popular mandate, he rarely mentions that only 40% of the electorate turned out. Thus, it increasingly appeared as if the nationalists had excavated a romanticised Catalan history with which their people struggled to connect. Having artificially created a narrative which suits them, the Junts pel Sí coalition now seem intent on imposing, top-down, a fitting finale: one of their campaign slogans is tota historia necessita un gran final (“every tale deserves a grand ending”).

While it seems that the belief in this distant Catalan mythology is slightly hollow, there is a more recent historical event which still casts a long, linguistic shadow over Barcelona. My flat-mate’s grandmother was born in 1927 and was a teenager living in Catalonia in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). She told me that she remembers going to school one day “when suddenly my headmistress stopped teaching Catalan”. Montse had witnessed first-hand the effects of General Franco’s attempted “linguicide”, which began in April 1938 with his repealing of the Statute of the Autonomy of Catalonia. Having defeated Barcelona, Franco aimed to ‘Spanish-ise’ the region, imposing Castilian culture and language, and banning the public use of Catalan. I told Montse that I too had noticed how raw the linguistic issue remained: during my internship in Barcelona, a prospective client poured a torrent of Catalan down the telephone. I asked him to speak in Castilian. He declined with a curt “No” and hung up.

I had seen that the Catalan language forms an integral part of Junts pel Sí’s momentum. However, Montse thinks that the pro-independence movement still relies too heavily on anti-Franco animosity to bind together its occasionally disparate members. Hay que pasar la página (“we must turn over a new leaf”), she explains. Indeed, there has been a clear break with the past: a new Spanish Constitution was passed in 1978 and Catalonia regained its status as an autonomous community the following year. While Catalonia may still bear the scars of Franco’s dictatorship, Montse does not believe the Artur Mas’ coalition should make political capital out of them. Indeed, Junts pel Sí has been offering a stark choice to the Catalan people: llibertat o submissió (“freedom or submission”). This almost war-like rhetoric stands in contrast to the tolerant, Unionist message, written on the bus below: perque vull seguir sent catala i espanyol – a ‘No’ vote will allow people to maintain both their Catalan and their Spanish identities. It is this more thoughtful approach which has appealed to some voters, alienated by what Montse describes as the fanatismo of the ‘Yes’ campaign.

To be both Catalonian and Spanish: a bus expresses this sentiment

A ‘No’ bus advertisement in Catalan: “Perquè vull seguir sent català i espanyol” (because I want to remain both Catalan and Spanish); “posem fi al separatisme” (let’s put an end to separatism)

Overall, the slightly artificial and inflammatory nature of the pro-independence movement is making some voters wary. Even the more pragmatic, economic arguments in favour of independence are flawed: granted, Catalonia, the wealthiest region of Spain, has long been angry that it contributes considerably more (€12 billion more, according to a recent Reuters estimate) in taxes to Madrid than is subsequently re-invested in Catalonia. However, the massive financial dislocation caused by an independent Catalan state, with an unproven record in the credit markets, reapplying for E.U. and euro membership would surely outweigh those potential benefits. Moreover, a ‘Yes’ victory could cause tremendous instability in Spain, amid the prospect of a constitutional struggle. If Madrid were to yield, though, it would also set a dangerous precedent, perhaps inspiring the relatively calm Basque region to erupt again.

All that we do know for sure, is that Junts pel Sí’s primary slogan, on tot comença (“where everything begins”) is extremely prescient. Nothing will be resolved when Catalonia awakes on 28 September, regardless of the result of the election. Should the pro-independence movement triumph, then they will just be getting started on the road to statehood, faced with numerous obstacles. But should Artur Mas’ coalition be defeated (in what is the second de facto referendum in under a year), there is the distinct possibility of a Quebec-style ‘neverendum’.

5) T-shirt slogan On Tot Comenca

An 27-S campaign T shirt reads: “on tot comença, ara és l’hora” (where everything begins, now’s the time)

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