Confusion simmers beneath the bizarre normality of Catalonia in limbo

Locals question their future as they are pulled between independence and a Spanish takeover.

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Finally the moment did come. At 3.27pm on Friday 27 October 2017, Catalonia was declared independent from Spain. It was at that very moment that the speaker of the Catalan Parliament declared a resolution that included a declaration of independence and asked the Catalan government to begin the constituent process.

In my office, just off Barcelona city centre and not far from the Catalan Parliament – and where everyone was following the event live online – the very first reaction was one of shocked silence. Had it really just happened? And, if so, what exactly had just happened?

“Ok, and now what?” asked one of my colleagues, a pro-independence young woman. Nobody had a clear answer to that. In the meantime, in the Catalan Parliament, the MPs present were hugging each other and singing the Catalan anthem, Els Segadors (“The Reapers”).

Everybody went to the balcony. Everything looked completely normal, even the police helicopter flying above felt normal, as it’s been a common feature of the Barcelona sky ever since just before the independence referendum on the 1 October.

That day, 92 per cent of voters said “Yes” to independence from Spain. However, the turnout was just above 43 per cent and the vote was marred by police violence, as it had been declared not legal by the Spanish authorities, which didn’t recognise its results.

Now, the Catalan Parliament had just approved the resolution that declared independence with 70 votes in favour, 10 against, and two blank. However, another 53 Catalan MPs had abandoned their seats before the vote, and left both Spanish and Catalan flags in their stead to protest what they consider an illegal process.

The ball was again in the Spanish authorities’ court. Just after the declaration of independence, the Spanish Senate in Madrid voted and approved to grant the central government the legal powers described in Article 155 of the Constitution, which allows the Spanish government to take over any of the 17 regional autonomous governments of Spain.

Having finally got the ultimate legal weapon ready to deploy, the PM, Mariano Rajoy, called a government emergency meeting in which everyone expected he would fire the head of the Catalan government, Carles Puigdemont, and probably all his government too.

But until that moment, if you believed in its legitimacy, and at least unilaterally as no other country had recognised it, Catalonia was an independent Republic.

The atmosphere around the Triumphal Arch next to the park where the Catalan Parliament is was one of calm celebration. Thousands of people had been following the declaration of independence there live on giant screens, as the park itself had been sealed off by the police. By chance, along the promenade starting at the Arch there many stands offering Catalan wine and cava as part of as annual fair, and this of course came in handy to drink a toast to the newly independent Republic of Catalonia.

“We were shouting, ‘Independence!’, and when this was declared we said, ‘OK, now it’s not anymore about asking for independence, now it’s about proclaiming the Republic’,” says Marc Grifell, 33. “For us it’s no longer about ‘getting’ but about defending what we just got,” agreed his uncle Miquel Grifell, 46. His brother, Joan Carles Grifell, 49, was next to them holding a huge pro-independence flag along with David Uró, 34, and a friend of theirs. The four are architects.

The group has its hopes up and feels very confident about the newly declared independent Catalonia. They give examples of progressive laws passed by the Catalan authorities that then were suspended by Madrid, they remember how Catalonia had asked to host thousands of refugees but hadn’t been allowed to do so by the Spanish state.

That’s why the four of them have come from nearby towns to witness this historical moment in which Catalonia had become independent. Or had it? “Well, we still lack the international recognition...” conceded Uró.

This recognition isn’t coming for certain. “For (the) EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor. I hope the Spanish government favours force of argument, not argument of force,” tweeted Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, shortly after the declaration. “As you know, Catalans always favour the force of arguments. #peace #democracy #dialogue,” Carles Puigdemont tweeted back in English.

But then the Catalan leader couldn’t keep up with all the official statements coming from European countries. “The UK does not and will not recognise the Unilateral Declaration of Independence made by the Catalan regional parliament,” said Theresa May. Germany, France, Italy and Portugal all issued similar statements, as did the US and other European bodies.

The Griffells and Uró were unfazed by this, though. “We were very pro-European,” says Miquel. “But now we are OK with going ahead with this without the EU, the world doesn’t end in the EU.”

Another country that isn’t recognising its independence is of course Spain. How far were these friends willing to go to defend what they consider their new country? “We’ll defend out institutions peacefully, holding our hands up, and we are ready to be hit by [police] batons; but we really hope there’ll be no shooting,” says Miquel.

“We’ll be cannon fodder,” adds his brother Joan Carles. “We don’t have any weapons ourselves”.

In the evening, Rajoy emerged from the Spanish government’s emergency meeting to say Puigdemont and the whole Catalan government were fired, that there will be elections to the regional Catalan Parliament on the 21 December, and that the so-called Catalan embassies, offices open by the Catalan authorities in other countries, will be suspended.

At the same time, the state prosecutor was building a case to charge Puigdemont, and probably other Catalan officials with rebellion, according to reports – a crime punishable by up to 30 years of jail time.

While many in Catalonia as well as in the rest of Spain were following Rajoy’s announcement, which supposedly meant the end of this short-lived independence, thousands of people had taken to Sant Jaume square in Barcelona wearing and waving pro-independence flags.

This is where the Catalan government building and the Barcelona City Hall face each other, and where many stayed overflowing onto the adjacent streets until late in the night celebrating what they saw as the birth of the Catalan Republic.

Apart from this hotspot, the harshness of the political statements and the fact that for many this was a historic day is in stark contrast with the eerie normality of the rest of Barcelona. Locals, who come from Catalonia, the rest of Spain, and from other countries, as well as tourists, enjoyed a warm late October evening by filling terraces and having dinner and drinks.

The online world is another matter, of course, and the political conflict is being played out on the Spanish-language Wikipedia – the online encyclopaedia anyone can edit, and in which Catalonia was going back and forth from an independent country to a Spanish region by the minute, as pro-independence and pro-unity users tried to impose their version.

Then came the next day, Saturday 28 October, the first full day of Catalan independence or the first full day in which Catalan self-government had been suspended since Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship, depending on your allegiances.

“There are right now two different legitimacies,” says Alberto Marcet, a 25-year-old pro-independence Barcelonian who is now based in London and, taking advantage of being here on a visit, has come to Sant Jaume square to wait for an official statement by Puigdemont.

On top of both the Catalan government building and of the Barcelona City Hall the Spanish flag was waving next to official Catalan one. “I’m having mixed feelings, as independence is not just something you declare but something you exercise, and the fact that there hasn’t been an international recognition complicates matters.”

He adds: “People can’t understand why this can’t be solved by voting, as they did when it came to the Scottish independence and to Brexit.”

Around him, the square is full of media crews and TV cameras, more so than of visible pro-independence supporters, as almost no flags can be seen.

One woman is passionately defending the right of Catalans to decide about their independence in front of quite a few cameras when another woman passing by tells her: “You are Spanish whether you like it or not!” “No, I’m not, I’m Catalan,” the first one shouts back, to the joy of the TV crews.

Then the Catalan public television broadcasts the first official speech by Puigdemont after the Spanish authorities fired him. He doesn’t mention this particular issue and so doesn’t make clear whether he accepts his dismissal.

Instead, in a message recorded and with the European and Catalan flags behind him, he calls for Catalans “to have patience, perseverance and perspective”:

“We are clear that the best way to defend what we have achieved up to today is the democratic opposition to Article 155… And we have to do it without repressing or threatening (others), and without abandoning ever, ever, not in a single moment, a civic and peaceful attitude.”

It’s now up to the Spanish authorities to work out how to enforce their declared takeover of the Catalan institutions.

“We will defend our institutions in the same way we defended our schools and ballot boxes (on the 1 October referendum), we will defend our parliament and our government in a peaceful way and whatever it takes,” says Olga Amargant, a 45-year-old lawyer who is the one person on the square wearing a pro-independence flag. “After seeing what happened on referendum day, now we know we could even risk our lives”, she adds.

Around her, tourists are walking around, taking selfies and chatting in many languages. The TV crews sit down looking bored, and life goes on in a bizarrely normal manner the moment one steps outside the square.