Letter from Barcelona: Inside the battle for Catalan independence

This crisis could have been avoided. In recent years, Madrid has run a masterclass in how not to handle breakaway nationalism.

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Barcelona is a city draped in flags. Only a handful of windows surrounding my rented apartment in El Born – a fashionably ramshackle district close to the harbour – are flag-free. From the rest hang Esteladas, the distinctive blue-and-white-starred symbol of Catalan national sovereignty.

Catalonia has become increasingly polarised in recent years as requests for enhanced autonomy – consistently rejected by Madrid – have hardened into demands for outright independence from Spain. Polls suggest as many as 45 per cent of Catalans support secession, while 25 per cent favour federalism and a further 20 per cent support the constitutional status quo.

On 9 November, nationalists staged a non-binding referendum on independence. They won by a huge margin, with 80 per cent voting for separation and 10 per cent voting against, on a turnout of 2.3 million – roughly one-third of the electorate. The majority of pro-Spanish Catalans seem to have stayed at home.

Nonetheless, independence activists are buoyant. Having defied the central government in Madrid, which tried to block the vote, they believe their campaign is unstoppable. The most radical parties, including Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the Catalan Republican Left, want to hold plebiscitary elections before divorcing from Spain unilaterally next year. More conservative voices, such as that of Artur Mas, Catalonia’s centre-right president, would rather resume negotiations to secure a legal path to statehood.

In contrast to Scotland, where poorer voters form the bedrock of nationalist support, the Catalan independence movement is dominated by civil society organisations and middle-class professionals. Spain’s economic crisis, coupled with the country’s loss of faith in ruling parties, has persuaded many middle-income Catalans that they would be better off managing their own affairs.

But two significant groups remain opposed to independence. The first is working-class, Spanish-speaking immigrants. “I’m not happy about the vote,” a Kashmiri waiter told me before the referendum. “Independence would be very difficult. Lots of jobs here depend on Spain.”

The second is the Catalan business elite, parts of which have already begun issuing Better Together-style warnings about the financial pitfalls of constitutional change.

Writing in the New York Times, the Madrid-based Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, denounced Catalan nationalism as a “cynical victim posture [that] effaces the individual, fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity”.

But Vargas Llosa’s depiction of Catalan separatism doesn’t fit with my recent experiences. On 7 November, I attended a nationalist rally in downtown Barcelona. The event, floodlit beneath the Olympic Stadium, could not have been more civilised. The speakers delivered politely worded speeches and were received with muted applause. The atmosphere two days later, during the referendum, was similarly benign. There were no reports of scuffles or confrontations between opposing political groups. Barcelona seemed uncharacteristically subdued.

It is unclear what happens next. The ERC is ahead in the polls. Were President Mas to call fresh regional elections, his ruling party, Convergència, which has spent the past 30 years trading on the ambiguities of home-rule politics, would almost certainly find itself relegated to a supporting role in the new Catalan parliament. With the ERC in power, Catalonia’s fraught relationship with Spain would sink even further.

This crisis could have been avoided. In recent years, Madrid has run a masterclass in how not to handle breakaway nationalism. Its belligerent refusal to explore alternative constitutional models – such as a federal settlement granting Catalonia and other wealthy regions greater room for fiscal manoeuvre – is fracturing Spanish unity, at the same time as a centrally imposed programme of austerity cuts has compounded a wider sense of regional impotence.

Yet, for the most part, the Yes voters of Catalonia seem to be motivated by a basic concern for democracy. The more entrenched Spanish resistance to Catalan autonomy becomes, the more likely it is that Catalonia will choose a final, decisive break from Spain. Many moderate Catalan nationalists who once would have settled for more devolution now believe the situation cannot be salvaged. The Spanish central government may be forced to make concessions, but I doubt that the flags in El Born will be coming down soon. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist