Barcelona’s Barri Gotic is ablaze with banners. Virtually every balcony in the gothic quarter seems to be adorned with some sort of flag. Some people fly La Senyera, the state-sanctioned flag of Catalonia, but far more fly L’Estelada, the rebel flag of independence. Eight months since Catalans voted for secession from Spain in an unofficial referendum which wasn’t endorsed by the Spanish government, Madrid and Barcelona have never been further apart.
Wandering the narrow alleys of Barcelona’s labyrinthine city centre, it’s easy to be swayed by the populist, separatist mood. As David Cameron discovered during the Scottish referendum, independence campaigners have all the best tunes. ‘Free all political prisoners!’ declare the slogans on the Barrio walls. These are Catalan politicians, languishing in Spanish prisons. Naturally, their imprisonment has been a godsend for the separatists. There’s even a yellow ribbon you can wear (as worn by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola) to show your solidarity with these heroic martyrs of democracy.
Well, that’s one way of putting it. Talking to people in Madrid, a month ago (where the buildings are festooned with Spanish flags) I got a very different answer. The Catalonian referendum was unconstitutional, they told me, and strictly speaking they’re quite right - but constitutional experts rarely make successful politicians. Those rebellious Catalans may have lost this particular independence battle, but they’re winning the public relations war.
Talk to Catalonian separatists, especially here in Barcelona, and they’re quick to cite the Scottish Referendum. The British government gave the Scots a vote, they say, so why can’t the Spanish government grant them the same right? The answer, I suppose, is that it’s getting on for 300 years since the Scots and the English fought a civil war. In Spain, it’s barely eighty. Any Spaniard over fifty can remember what it was like to live under General Franco.
Another big difference is that Catalonia, unlike Scotland, is a net contributor to the national budget. Catalonia is Spain’s economic powerhouse. Secession would make Spain’s poorest regions even poorer. The biggest loser would be the Spanish state. For generations, jobless youngsters from all over Spain have moved to Catalonia in search of work. Their sweat and toil helped to make Catalonia wealthy. Don’t their families in La Mancha and Extremadura deserve a say in whether Catalonia should remain a part of Spain?
Yet denying the Catalans an official vote may well do more harm than good. Why not call the separatists’ bluff, and let them hold another referendum? After all, in the opinion polls they’ve never enjoyed a clear majority. It seems likely that in last year’s rogue referendum, a lot of loyalists stayed away. If the Madrid government sanctioned a second vote, wouldn’t these loyalists turn out in force? Madrid’s heavy-handed treatment of the rebels is the best recruiting sergeant the separatists could hope for. Wouldn’t a state-sanctioned referendum solve this nagging question once and for all?
But as Britons have discovered, referenda are rarely quite so simple. What question do you ask on the ballot form? Do you include all the ifs and buts? Who gets to decide the question: Barcelona or Madrid? Is EU membership an integral part of the independence package? If EU membership wasn’t forthcoming, would Catalonia subsequently require yet another poll?
Meanwhile, Catalonia’s previous president, Carles Puigdemont, remains in Berlin, fighting extradition - though why the Spanish government want to bring him back is anybody’s guess. In his absence, the Catalans have elected a new president, the ultranationalist Quim Torra, a man who’s made some outspoken comments about independence in the past. ‘He has shown enthusiasm for Estat Català, a quasi-fascist outfit in the 1930s,’ reported The Economist, last week. ‘He has also expressed a visceral hatred of Spaniards. In 2012 he wrote that those who live in Catalonia but do not embrace its culture were ‘carrion-eaters, scorpions, hyenas, wild beasts in human form.’ Last week Torra apologised for these and various other pronouncements, but he hardly seems like the best man to build bridges with Madrid.
Yet even if the Catalans had chosen a more conciliatory leader, it’s hard to picture a compromise which would work for both sides. Spain appeased its Basque separatists by giving the Basque Country control of its own finances. Such a solution would probably satisfy most Catalans, but Catalonia is far richer than the Basque Country. Letting Catalans raise and spend their own taxes would leave a huge hole in the national budget. If the Basque Country is Spain’s Northern Ireland, Catalonia is its South East England.
It’s the little signs that suggest Catalonia is irrevocably settled on divorce. Catalan football fans I spoke to favoured Liverpool over Real Madrid in the Champions League final. Support for the national team has always been tepid. Barcelona is their national team, rather than La Roja. Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium is emblazoned with the slogan ‘Mes Que un Club’ (more than a club). Even in cyberspace, Catalonia is creating a separate identity. Some of its most important websites carry the suffix ‘cat’ instead of ‘es.’
Yet to this outsider, these Catalans still seem Spanish – maybe more Spanish than they know. Yes Catalonia is different from the rest of Spain, but so is every other part of Spain, from Andalucia to Galicia. Every part of Spain has its own identity, its own traditions, its own languages. Vibrant and often volatile, that variety is what makes it such a complex, intoxicating place. It’s thirty years since I first came to Barcelona, the first place I saw in Spain, and after countless return visits it remains my favourite Spanish city. I’d be sad to see it separated from the rest of Spain, but I fear it soon will.
Outside the church, men and women (mainly women) are queuing with red roses, an offering for Santa Rita, the patron saint of impossible causes. The queue stretches across the Plaza, and out into the sidestreet beyond. How many of them are praying for a solution to this political impasse? Not many, I wouldn’t wonder. They’ve probably got far more pressing concerns than the abstractions of Catalan independence. And in a world beset by all sorts of practical problems, from terrorism to unemployment, Catalonia and Spain should really be preoccupied by more pressing matters too.