How do you solve the Catalan problem?

Published by The iPaper (30th October, 2017)

Every day, the streets of Barcelona seem filled with flags. They are unfurled and flown, waved and worn, amid the splendour of one of Europe’s finest cities. I have even seen several dogs draped in the rival colours of such striking similarity from the two camps. The mood feels almost like a football tournament, with songs and people posing for photographs as they stroll among the tourists on Las Ramblas on their way to the latest protest.

Yet at stake is the future of a country. Even writing that simple sentence will annoy one side. They argue there are two countries: Catalonia and Spain. Certainly there are two cultures, two histories, two languages. And this morning there are also two governments after the unilateral declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament on Friday, followed instantly by imposition of direct control from Madrid.

The simmering issue of Catalonian nationalism and desire for statehood among many of its 7.5 million citizens has suddenly reached boiling point as two leaders struggle for supremacy. Mariano Rajoy, the plodding Spanish prime minister renowned for risk aversion, has sent in his deputy to run the country’s most prosperous region as businesses take flight and many tourists stay away. Carles Puigdemont, a former journalist with clearly superior media skills, has defied his dismissal from running the autonomous Catalonia region and demanded passive resistance from his people.

Some town halls in nationalist hotspots such as Puigdemont’s home city of Girona have already taken down the Spanish flag. There is talk of treason charges against the sacked president and 70 Catalan MPs who voted for independence, which carries a maximum 30-year jail sentence. Already, two nationalist leaders are behind bars, while the Catalan police chief was demoted in the middle of the night after his soft response to the illegal independence ballot earlier this month. His stance contrasted with shameful brutality against voters meted out by paramilitary national forces.

Much depends now on reaction of the local police and other public servants. Will they be loyal to the deposed Catalan president or a new, imposed ruler? I have spoken to police officers, firemen and teachers who vowed to support Puigdemont, although they accept that most nationalists may put careers and families before the cause. Posters stuck on walls warn that there can be no independence without civil disobedience. There is talk of human chains around public buildings in support of the separatists, but will thugs in uniform then inflame the issue with another violent response?

So far, this crisis has been largely calm despite huge street crowds on both sides. There are an estimated 300,000 pro-unity protesters in Barcelona as I write today, many cheering the police helicopters flying overhead and chanting for Puigdemont to be jailed. His provocative behaviour is like an orange flag to a bull for them.

Yet his revolt could fizzle out with defter handling. Already, the nationalists say they will not participate in the election forced on them in December. There has always been a ‘silent majority’ opposed to secession in official polling, with support slipping back before this furore as the devastating impact of the 2008 global financial crisis finally waned.

But tensions are rising. Most Catalans may not have wanted independence, yet they cherish an autonomous status that has been temporarily terminated. On Friday, I asked some nationalists who was their least favourite politician. The instant answer was Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría Antón, the deputy prime minister. Next day, she was announced as Madrid’s enforcer for their region.

Rajoy’s response has been far from sure-footed, reflecting contempt among conservatives for uppity republican Catalan nationalists. Critics routinely contrast his blocking of ballots for Catalonia with David Cameron’s defeat of Scottish independence in a referendum. As one Balkan woman living in Barcelona told me from bitter personal experience, it is easy to see such this situation exploding, especially if the separatist leaders are turned into jailed martyrs and paramilitary national police smash up more heads.

Nationalism is an ugly yet powerful force, fanned by populist politicians. They pose as patriots while promulgating division, seducing voters with simplistic, sepia-tinted solutions to highly complex global problems. It is impossible to ignore how much of the debate in Catalonia sounds dismally familiar to British ears, with all that chatter about taking back cash and control from distant elites.

Yet one big difference to Brexit, of course, is the dark shadow of the Spanish Civil War and a descent into facist dictatorship that looms so large over this family dispute. The scars of General Francisco Franco and his crushing of Catalonian culture run deep, especially among older generations who seem most fearful about this current crisis. One grandmother whose father was jailed by Franco told me that she fears they will suffer again – although, tellingly, she switched to supporting separatism after seeing police attack elderly voters. Even younger Catalans talk about ‘fascists’ in Madrid while street nationalism on both sides remains potent and potentially ruinous.

It seems strange to discuss such issues in a modern European city, especially one as alluring and wealthy as Barcelona. Yet these disruptive events show again the scale of dissent and unrest confronting Western societies. Nationalism may be a malign creed, yet the map of Europe has never been immune to change. And more important than borders are the underlying causes of communal despair, of economic dislocation  and of electoral alienation that demand resolution. This can be achieved only by solving core problems, not by creating divided communities, nor by crushing insurgent leaders. This is the real challenge posed by Catalonia.

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