Oriol Junqueras is a big man with big hands, and right now it is his hands that are doing the talking. Again and again, he threads the fingers of his left hand into the fingers of his right hand, pushing hard and turning his palms inside out. It looks laborious, and it is meant to be. Junqueras is using his fingers to tell a centuries-old story of conflict, nationalism and identity: one hand is Catalonia, the other is Spain. And, hard as he might try, one will never fit into the other. “This is a very old phenomenon,” he says. “These are two political communities that have great difficulty finding one another. Neither recognises itself in the other. They have different priorities. They have different visions.”
If Junqueras has his way, they may also — sooner rather than later — have different states. The Catalan politician is at the forefront of a campaign to lead his homeland out of the union with Spain and towards independence. The Catalan regional government, of which he is a senior member, has vowed to hold a referendum on secession on October 1. The vote is intended to show Madrid — and the world — that the region’s 7.5 million people desire and deserve a state of their own.
Catalonia has been part of the Spanish state for centuries, yet many Catalans regard themselves as a nation apart, with their own language, culture and history. The region is one of the country’s 17 “autonomous communities”, with powers over matters such as education, healthcare and welfare, and a police force of its own. Despite occasional rumblings of discontent, the arrangement was, until recently, broadly accepted by Catalans and Spaniards alike.
To Junqueras and his allies, however, the two never truly belonged together. “Catalonia wants to decide its own future — its political future. And it is faced with a state that says: ‘You can’t take those decisions. We will take them for you,’” he says. “So this is ultimately a question of democratic dignity, and of political dignity.”
In the space of only a few years, the cause of secession has moved from the fringes of Catalan politics and society on to centre stage. The current Catalan government is the first in more than 80 years to advocate secession from Spain. The same is true of the regional parliament, where pro-independence deputies are in the majority.
But the change is perhaps most evident on the street. In recent years, Catalonia has seen some of the largest demonstrations in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of marchers calling for secession every year on September 11, Catalonia’s national day. On other days, Catalans express their views from balconies and windows, thousands of which are covered with the distinctive red-yellow-and-blue estelada, the flag of Catalan independence. To know the political allegiance of a city, village or street in the region, all you have to do is look up.
There is, as yet, no majority in Catalonia for independence. Nor is it certain that Catalans will be able to vote later this year. Madrid has vowed to block the ballot, arguing that Spain’s constitution leaves no room for regional self-determination. The Spanish constitutional court takes the same line, meaning that the ballot, if it goes ahead, will have no legal effect. Yet no matter what happens in the coming months, the story of Catalonia’s recent push for independence remains a remarkable tale, and one that resonates far beyond the borders of Spain.
It is part of a broader awakening of national and nationalist sentiment across Europe: countries that until recently seemed content to hitch their fate to that of larger entities are clamouring to stand alone once again. Flags are making a comeback, as are demands for higher walls and harder barriers. There is a sense of fragmentation both within and between countries: Scotland has tried to leave Britain, Britain is leaving the EU and now Catalonia is trying to leave Spain. The seams that stitched together a broken continent are starting to unravel — not everywhere, but in enough places to give pause for thought.
The Catalan independence movement fits the broader pattern but it has its peculiarities. It remains, for example, staunchly pro-European and internationalist. Supporters hail from almost all political camps, from religious conservatives to far-left anarchists. Yet the parallels with other independence movements are also striking, not least the degree to which the political shift has been fuelled by Europe’s recent crisis and the economic pain and social dislocation it wrought.
“The economic crisis has brought us populism and nationalism — magical solutions for a complicated situation that is indeed desperate for many people,” says Inés Arrimadas, leader of the anti-independence Ciudadanos party in Catalonia. “In other countries they say everything is the fault of Europe. Here in Catalonia they say everything is the fault of Spain.”
Catalan leaders declare that they are determined to push ahead with a referendum, even if that means defying the government in Madrid. As far as they are concerned, the word of Spain is no longer law. “They can open criminal proceedings against hundreds of people. They can threaten us with prison. They can threaten to take back powers,” Artur Mas, the former Catalan president, tells me. “All this they can do. But what will they do if there are millions of people in the street? Who will they send?”
The looming conflict is not just about the future of Catalonia but also about the soul of Spain. Even harsh critics of the Catalan independence movement argue that Spain must change, and change profoundly, if it wants to keep the centrifugal forces at bay. For Spain, every estelada hanging from a Barcelona balcony is a reminder of its own historic failure to forge a single nation from the different tribes and tongues that populate the peninsula. Five centuries after the Catholic kings united the crowns of Castile and Aragon, Spain has to live with the fact that Basques and Catalans have not only preserved their languages but that many still see themselves as nations apart. For some Spaniards, who dream of a monolithic nation state à la française, this is hard to accept. For others, it offers an opportunity to overhaul old structures, both mental and constitutional, and turn Spain into a state that provides more room for different identities and nations, even the Catalan one.
For that to happen, however, Spain may have to extend yet more rights and powers to Catalonia. What is more, time for such an agreed solution is running out. Polls suggest that the number of Catalans who feel both Catalan and Spanish is shrinking over time; the younger generation, who have been schooled in Catalan and often have less contact with the rest of Spain than their parents, are among the most enthusiastic backers of independence.
Julia Vernet, a 21-year-old philosophy student at the Autonomous University in Barcelona, is a case in point. “I didn’t have to think a great deal about becoming an independentista. It was very intuitive,” she says. In her free time, Vernet leads the youth wing of the Catalan National Assembly, a grassroots independence movement. Though half her family hails from other parts of Spain, she was raised and educated in Catalan and feels increasingly disconnected from the Spanish capital. “I feel Catalan and I want a state that represents me . . . There is an abyss between politicians in Spain and myself — we speak different languages, and in different registers.”
If Catalonia ever does become independent, historians will probably look to September 13 2009, and the event that took place in Arenys de Munt that day, as one of the sparks that started the secessionist fire.
A hillside town of 8,600 inhabitants, Arenys can be reached by train and bus from Barcelona in little more than an hour. For much of the journey, the rail tracks run right alongside the glistening azure waters of the Mediterranean. Looking out towards the sea, I thought that there cannot be many places in the world that afford a better life than Catalonia: the beaches of the Costa Brava in summer, the peaks of the Pyrenees in winter, the glories of Barcelona all year round. Whether in economic or gastronomic terms, architecture or football, the region seems blessed. Yet the discontent was evident: with every kilometre, the number of esteladas increased. By the last stretch of the journey, there was an independence flag hanging from every second tree.
Arenys de Munt is a quiet, prosperous kind of place, with an unemployment rate below the already low Catalan average. It is also a bastion of the secession movement. Of the 13 local councillors, 11 are committed to independence. Many locals told me that in mind, if not in law, the town broke with Spain many years back. The sentiment was made manifest eight years ago, when Arenys became the first town in Catalonia to hold a symbolic independence referendum. “The police had to close the entrance into town because so many people wanted to come. There was a river of people coming up from the train station. They couldn’t vote, but they wanted to see us vote,” recalls Josep Manel Ximenis, a local activist and former mayor.
He remembers it all: the crowds, the demonstrators, the journalists and camera teams. And the moment when he climbed on to the podium to read out the results: 2,671 votes, more than 96 per cent in favour of independence. It felt, to Ximenis and many others, as if they were making history. “What more can you ask for, than to live that kind of moment?” he says, over coffee on the deserted town square. “We broke through the barrier. And we broke through the fear. All of a sudden, people said: if those people in Arenys can vote, why not me?”
For Ximenis, the vote was a deeply personal affair. All his life, the cause of Catalan independence had been viewed as the cause of outsiders, dreamers and fanatics. “We were always in the minority,” he says. “We had the reputation of being a bit crazy — aiming for something that was impossible to achieve, for Utopia.”
Ximenis grew up in a Spanish-speaking home. Both his parents came to Catalonia from other areas of Spain, part of a vast influx of migrants from poorer regions such as Andalusia and Extremadura. Even as a child, he felt a strong bond with the land that surrounded him. When he was 16, his cousins took him to a meeting of a small pro-independence party. “They said what I had been thinking for some time. So I became an independentista,” he recalls. From one day to the next, he spoke only Catalan, even with his own family. He became a banker but later abandoned his career and dedicated his life to politics — and the struggle for independence.
The plan to hold a referendum in Arenys triggered a backlash, with far-right demonstrators travelling from the rest of Spain to protest against the event. But the vote went ahead regardless, inspiring other villages and cities to follow suit. Over the next two years, another 553 municipalities and close to 900,000 Catalans took part in symbolic consultas. The results, unsurprisingly, were overwhelmingly in favour of secession. The steady stream of mini-plebiscites, informal as they may have been, helped to plant the idea of independence in the collective conscience.
“I always thought independence was impossible. And I always thought that we could come to an understanding with Spain — that we could live in one state without renouncing our identity,” Marta Encuentra, another Arenys activist tells me. “The day that I realised independence was possible was September 13 2009, when we voted here. I remember looking at my husband and saying, is it possible? Is it possible that we can make it?” She clicks her fingers. “It was like that. Suddenly, the people were waking up.”
After decades during which Catalan support for independence hovered between 15 and 20 per cent, secessionist sentiment started climbing rapidly in 2009. By 2011, according to the closely followed survey by the Catalan Centre for Opinion Studies (CEO), support for independence was above 30 per cent. Two years later, it reached an all-time high of 48.5 per cent. The share has fallen back slightly since, but remains within striking distance of the level independence campaigners need to win a referendum.
There is no single factor that explains this rapid rise but Spain’s harsh economic crisis certainly played a key role. The collapse of a decade-long construction boom was followed by a protracted recession, mass unemployment, austerity and a banking crisis — dealing a brutal blow to millions of Spaniards and to their faith in the country’s leaders and institutions. In Catalonia, tensions came to a boil in June 2011, when protesters surrounded the regional parliament, forcing ministers to reach the building by helicopter. The government, led by Artur Mas, faced intense pressure. Within a few months, however, all that rage and fury would find a new outlet: Spain.
“The people who protested against the Generalitat [Catalan government] that summer were the same people who joined the independence movement in the months that followed. The protest was deflected in a new direction,” says Javier Cercas, the Barcelona-based novelist. “The fundamental fact here is the crisis. What happened in Catalonia is the same thing that happened in Europe, and that happened in Spain. We suffered a crisis like in 1929, a crisis that changed the world. It brought us Trump and it brought us Brexit.”
Miquel Iceta, the leader of the Catalan Socialist party, which opposes independence, offers a similar diagnosis: “People are afraid. They are uncertain. So they think if they close themselves off in small communities they will be protected.”
Most supporters of independence agree that the crisis helped to loosen the ties that once bound Catalonia to the rest of Spain. Yet they insist that there was a far more powerful reason driving middle-of-the-road voters towards the independence camp: the stubborn refusal of Madrid to take the region’s growing frustration with the status quo seriously.
The man who embodies these frustrations better than anyone is Artur Mas. As president of Catalonia from 2010 to 2015, he has been the dominant political figure in regional politics over the past decade. Today, however, he finds himself shunted to the margins: in March, a Barcelona court formally barred him from holding public office for two years, over his decision to defy a 2014 ruling by Spain’s constitutional court ordering his government to halt preparations for an informal independence ballot. Mas is one of several Catalan leaders to have been penalised in this way, and the list is likely to grow as the conflict escalates.
Mas’s new-found role as a political renegade strikes many as ironic. As leader of the centre-right Convergència i Unió party, he followed the traditional Catalan approach to Spanish politics for many years: supporting the Madrid government of the day in exchange for financial or political concessions. In 2006, Mas signed off on a grand accord — the so-called estatut — that was designed to reorder the relationship between his region and the Spanish state, granting crucial new powers to Catalonia. The estatut was approved by both parliaments, and by the Catalan population in a referendum. Then, in 2010, it was struck down by the Spanish constitutional court. The uproar was immediate.
Sitting in his Barcelona office, Mas describes the ruling, and the political campaign that preceded it, as an “act of betrayal”. In his view, the estatut would have solved the rising tensions between state and region — over funding, education, the status of the Catalan language — for at least a generation. He made one final attempt to strike a deal with Madrid. In the summer of 2012, at the height of the financial crisis, he presented a plan to Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy that would have given Catalonia far greater financial autonomy. Like other wealthy Spanish regions, Catalonia is obliged to transfer a sizeable share of its tax revenues to financially weaker parts of the country. Just how much it loses is a matter of fierce dispute but even conservative estimates put it at close to €10bn a year. Mas was trying to respond to the perpetual Catalan complaint that “Spain robs us”, but his timing was poor. Rajoy, battling a banking meltdown, said no.
The Mas narrative — fiercely disputed by Spanish leaders — is one of increasingly frantic Catalan attempts to find accommodation with Spain, met by serial rejection. For Mas and his allies, the death of the estatut was a turning point: final confirmation that Catalan demands for more autonomy, rights and money would never be fulfilled inside Spain.
“People like me, we moved from a position where we were confident that the Spanish state could be transformed, that it could become a modern and pluri-national state, to a different conviction,” says Ferran Mascarell, who heads the Catalan government delegation in Madrid. “I now believe that it is impossible to change the Spanish state from the inside.”
Supporters of independence often display confidence — if not certitude — that a majority of Catalans share their secessionist dream. “Don’t look at the polls, look at the people,” Ximenis, the organiser of the Arenys referendum, told me. “In every Catalan, inside, there is an independentista.” The truth, however, is that there has never been a majority in favour of secession. The high point came in 2015, when 48 per cent of Catalan voters backed pro-independence parties in regional elections. The votes were enough to secure a majority of seats in the regional parliament but the election still fell short of the declared goal — to win the kind of outright majority that would be needed in a proper referendum.
The fact that Catalan independence leaders are once again trying to organise a ballot — rather than preparing for secession itself — highlights an uncomfortable truth for the movement. Some Catalans have now voted for independence on no fewer than three occasions: in a local referendum; in a region-wide informal independence ballot in November 2014; and in the 2015 regional elections. With a possible fourth plebiscite now in the works, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the secession campaign is running to stand still.
“There will be no independence,” Teresa Freixes, professor of constitutional law at Barcelona’s Autonomous University and president of Concordia Cívica, a group that opposes independence, states bluntly. “Independence is not viable politically, economically or socially. And legally it is just not possible. You can’t simply hold a referendum and proclaim independence — a state has to be recognised by the UN. And without recognition we would be just like the Western Sahara, or the Palestinians, or Northern Cyprus. Is that seriously what we want?”
Freixes’s family has been Catalan for generations (one of her ancestors is Francesc Maciá, who proclaimed an independent republic in 1931), yet she takes a dim view of the recent surge in separatist sentiment. More than anything else, she voices alarm at the claim that the will of the Catalan people, however defined, must take precedence over the articles of the Spanish constitution. “There is no law without democracy and no democracy without law. To set democracy above the law — that is what Hitler did. The will of the people, of his people, above the law,” she argues.
Like most experts on the Spanish constitution, she believes there is no legal way for Catalonia to break away from Spain without a major overhaul of the 1978 basic law. It would require dropping key passages, not least the reference to the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation” in Article 2, and establishing an explicit clause permitting regions to secede. But changing the constitution requires large majorities in parliament and the senate, as well as a nationwide referendum. The hurdles are high, and patience in Catalonia is low.
To report on the Catalan conflict from both Madrid and Barcelona often feels like stepping from one bubble into the other. There is an overriding sense of two combatants who exult in their own strength and righteousness but don’t so much as glance across the ring at their opponent. Neither is there much effort to expose one’s own historical narrative to critical scrutiny and ask whether long-ago victories, defeats and humiliations can really be wielded so glibly in defence of political positions in 2017.
On the Spanish side, politicians never tire of the assertion that Spain has been a nation state, united and content, for more than five centuries. The secessionist narrative, in contrast, draws a straight line from the fall of Barcelona to the Bourbon troops in 1714 and the repression of Catalan institutions that followed via Franco’s dictatorship to today’s refusal by Madrid to allow a referendum.
Both versions fall short, says the historian Joan Lluis Marfany: “History would be better left alone and out of the current [Catalan] question. It is being used by both sides to the detriment of both history and of the political situation.” The problem, he tells me, is that each camp looks at distant historical events through the lens of contemporary politics, and “projects back in history a kind of relationship that is anachronistic . . . History does not move in a steady direction. It is full of twists and turns.”
That partial loss of vision also applies to the present. In the Spanish capital, one can still hear decision makers describe the independence movement as a “soufflé” that will collapse at any minute. But the Catalan version has remained solid for five years. Then there is the conviction, often aired in private in Madrid, that the conflict could be resolved if only the Spanish government had the courage to crack down hard. A spell in prison for the ringleaders, and surely calm would be restored.
On the other side, independence supporters also seem determined to blend out any information that might disturb their narrative. A popular view is that foreign governments will rush to recognise a new Catalan republic once the deed is done, that a breakaway state will have no trouble remaining a member of the EU. Above all else, the independence movement is infused with a sense of complete optimism, an utter conviction that it is reaching its destination at last. “There is not a lot of road left,” Joan Rabasseda, the current mayor of Arenys, told me. “We are close. We are close.”
Comfortable in their respective bubbles, both sides have a habit of underestimating the strength of their opponent. As they look ahead to the looming clash over this year’s referendum, both seem certain that the other will lose their nerve at the last minute. It is a dangerous assumption to make, not least since so many in the Catalan independence movement seem to earnestly desire a full-on confrontation, with police in the streets of Barcelona and political leaders hauled off in handcuffs. In their view, the arrest of Catalan activists or any similarly heavy-handed response from Madrid would be the best — and perhaps only — way to draw international attention to the conflict.
For Cercas, the writer, the current stand-off is marked by “brutal irresponsibility”. He explains: “Isaiah Berlin said the first virtue of a politician is a sense of reality. If you press a button you must know what light will go on. You must know what will happen next. To press a button without knowing what will happen next — to provoke a clash without knowing what will happen next — is the maximum expression of irresponsibility.”
One of several prominent intellectuals to have come out forcefully against secession, Cercas nonetheless believes that Spain must, ultimately, provide a path to independence. “The Spanish state cannot be a prison. If certain conditions are met, there should be an exit path for those who aspire to independence.” But he also makes clear that such a path can only open up when a region — or nation — has shown over a long period of time that independence is indeed the choice of the majority.
That kind of exit path is not on the horizon, and neither is an offer from Madrid to recognise Catalonia as a nation within the Spanish state. Yet time for a negotiated solution is running out. Lurking behind the current stand-off is a hard reality — namely that support for independence is highest among the young, and lowest among the old. According to a March survey from the CEO research institute, only 35 per cent of Catalans above the age of 65 want an independent state. Among voters aged between 18 and 24, the share is 41 per cent. Only a quarter of the younger respondents say they are happy with the status quo.
Some believe that the gravest threat to Madrid’s hold on Catalonia is that unionism in the region may simply die out with its supporters. In the 1960s and 1970s, Catalonia’s population was swelled by arrivals from other parts of Spain. Even today, more than half the Catalan population says Spanish is the language of daily use. Their children, however, have mostly been through Catalan schools, exposed to lessons and texts that have little in common with the vision of Spain their parents grew up with. In some cases, schoolbooks replicate the broader Catalan narrative — of a nation apart, suppressed by Spain.
For some, like Miquel Iceta, the conclusion is evident: Spain and Catalonia must come to an accord as soon as possible: “A deal today is easier to do than in 10 years. And in 20 years, it might be impossible.”
It is likely that some of the most ardent independentistas are thinking in those terms even now. People such as Oriol Junqueras, who have already waited decades for history to move in their direction and can afford to wait a decade or two longer. He says he is committed to the referendum but I wonder whether he sees the looming clash not as a decisive moment but as yet another skirmish in a struggle that spans generations. Perhaps, if Madrid overreaches, another few hundred thousand Catalans will become convinced that their future lies in an independent state. Perhaps, if the Catalans hold firm, support for secession will finally break through the 50 per cent threshold. How many people do you need, how many votes do you need, before Madrid and its European allies finally give way? Will 55 per cent be enough? Sixty per cent?
Junqueras won’t say. These are tense times, and there is an official line to take. But as we leave his office, squeeze into the tiny lift and slowly make our descent into the blinding light of a Barcelona summer day, he makes clear that for him the struggle for independence will never end: “We will try, he says. “We will try. We will try. We will try.”
Tobias Buck is the FT’s Madrid bureau chief
Photographs: Alfredo Cáliz / Panos Pictures
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