The political heart of Barcelona is the Plaça Sant Jaume, a square in the city’s Gothic district that is flanked by two imposing stone buildings.
One is the seat of the Generalitat, the regional government of Catalonia; the other is the Ajuntament, the town hall.
For decades, the space between the two has marked a political divide. In the years since Spain returned to democracy in the late 1970s, the Generalitat has been a bastion of Convergència i Unió, the centre-right Catalan nationalist party, while the town hall has served as the stronghold of Catalonia’s Socialist party.
The difference between the two goes far beyond the politics of left and right. CiU has always seen itself as the standard-bearer of Catalan nationalism, and is leading a campaign to hold a referendum on independence from Spain. In contrast, Barcelona’s Socialists say they support a more inclusive brand of Catalanism, and continue to support the union with Spain.
More recently, the gulf between Generalitat and Ajuntament has shrunk. In July 2011, the council elected Xavier Trias as mayor of Barcelona, the first CiU politician to lead the city since the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975.
The election of Mr Trias, a former doctor and regional health minister, highlighted the decline in the fortunes of Spain’s Socialist party. But it also offered a strong reminder that Catalan nationalism – and hostility to the Spanish state – is on the rise in region and capital alike.
Sitting in a light-filled meeting room dominated by a striking Joan Miró painting, Mr Trias says the old schism between Catalonia and Barcelona is much weaker than before.
On the issue of Catalan independence, he sees the city as on the same side as the Generalitat, which is currently led by his party colleague Artur Mas.
“As the capital of Catalonia, we are on the side of the Catalan parliament and the Catalan government,” he says. “We have to change our relationship with Spain . . . The first thing that has to happen is for Catalonia to be recognised as a nation. It can be a nation inside Spain or outside Spain – but it has to be recognised as a nation.”
Mr Trias brushes aside concerns the push for independence could hurt Barcelona, for example by making foreign investors think twice about putting their money into a city that could form part of a breakaway state. “I go all over the world looking for investors and I don’t meet anyone who is worried. When I go to Madrid everyone talks about this. But when I go to Davos to talk to investors, no one asks me about this . . . People just tell me this city is a marvel,” he says.
Indeed, there is little doubt Barcelona is admired around the world like few other cities. The Catalan capital boasts spectacular architecture and excellent food, a fantastic climate and enviable location. It has La Rambla, the Olympic Stadium and the Sagrada Familia; and it has Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona, probably the most popular football club in the world.
But Mr Trias insists that Barcelona has to move on. “We are a city that is known for sport, and known for tourism. But we also want to be known for culture, knowledge, creativity and innovation. And we want to be known as a city in which the people live well.”
The province of Barcelona has an unemployment rate of 21 per cent – substantially below the Spanish average but much higher than before the country’s economic crisis. Mr Trias sees unemployment as the city’s biggest problem, and admits the recent effort to encourage start-ups and lure technology companies will not be enough to solve the problem. On the plus side, the municipality has retained the financial ability to act: Barcelona’s budget is in balance and the city is able to invest some €450m each year. The result is not just a steady stream of infrastructure and building projects but the confidence to have another stab at organising the Olympic Games.
Barcelona, which captured the world’s imagination with the 1992 Games, is hoping to repeat that success by hosting the Winter Games in 2026. Mr Trias says the recent games in Sochi have helped convince doubters that the project is feasible. He points out that the nearby Pyrenees, where the bulk of outdoor events would be held, were colder and had more snow than the sites used in Russia last month. A second Olympic triumph would offer a boon to the region – and would also highlight rival Madrid’s failure on three consecutive occasions to host the Olympic Games.
Asked about Barcelona’s prickly relationship with Madrid, Mr Trias plays down the rivalry. “There is competition between us, that is evident. But there is also co-operation.
“We compete with Madrid for investment, but not just with Madrid. We compete with the whole world.”