Barcelona is still a big tourist draw, but growth has stalled and the proud Catalans have come to accept separation is not the answer, writes John McTernan
Barcelona is changing. Of course, all great cities change – it is why we love them. In the case of the Catalonian capital political, cultural and economic forces are pulling in very different directions.
The brash, bold confidence that has seduced visitors for decades is still there but the impact of the Great Recession on the economy is brutally visible along with tourists from round the world. Meanwhile the Catalan cultural identity is stronger than ever before. And the question of separation is front and centre of politics. How like and unlike our own beloved country.
The reality of modern Barcelona is a fascinating study. There is a significant failure in public transport. The train link to the airport is oddly disconnected. A hike from the old terminal, it is a drive – by motorway – from the glistening new international terminal. It doesn’t get you direct into the main rail terminus, it skirts by. Fair enough, but nor can you get easily from the rail network to the Metro. Interchanges aren’t us. A minor problem on a journey, but significant.
The airport and the railway are not just a transactional space – good enough if they work. They are the very entrance to the city – the face they show to the world.
The first thing that strikes you, though, is the triumph of Catalan as a language. In the airport, it is – with Castilian – one of two languages. Elsewhere it is the only one. Over three decades this has happened. From enforced Spanish speaking to bi-lingual signs to Catalan as default. When car parks use the Catalan Lliure to say there are still parking spaces free then the world has changed – not slightly but substantially. Shopkeepers listen to your halting Castilian but answer either in the international language of English (more properly Globlish – global English) or Catalan plain and simple.
It’s interesting to reflect what Scotland would be like with a viable alternative language. Synthetic Scots is precisely that, and Gaelic is too geographically concentrated. It is the pole of a different sort of resistance, an alternative possibility.
Yet, in the 21st century it is clearly not enough. The greater sense of cultural distinctiveness – within Spain – is balanced by an even stronger sense of economic integration. As Spain goes, so Catalonia does too – and perhaps even more emphatically since the Catalan economy is a driving part of Spain. The whole country falls because Catalonia falls and, viciously, vice versa.
The effects of the Great Recession are everywhere. It is a commonplace of economic discourse to talk about “haircuts” – the banks, the bondholders, whoever need to take a “haircut”. What it means is less money. A cut. The reality as that is passed down to real people in a real economy is to be seen everywhere in Barcelona. Prices have fallen, and fallen dramatically.
A beer for €1 (80p), a portion of tapas for the same price. Not on the main drag, the Ramblas, that remains as over-priced as ever. But in the surrounding areas, whether gentrifying like the Barri Gotic – the old red-light district, favoured by American sailors in the old days – or the newly trendy like the Raval.
As a visitor, it feels like going back in time 30 years to when Spain was a popular destination not just for the food, the weather, the people but because of the cheapness. And then, quickly, you realise that you haven’t travelled back three decades. But the living standards of people around you have gone backwards – and substantially.
This is the ultimate reality check – it sets all feelings of nationalism to one side. Whether you say you are Spanish or Catalan, the reality is that the Great Recession has not just destroyed an abstract like GDP, it has cut a real thing – your standard of living.
In addition, you can see the fraying of the Catalan settlement all around you. The glorious achievement is unsullied – a region, a country, that until democracy in the 70s was exporting labour is still importing workers. But it has reached the limits of the model. The grands projets worked – the Olympics left a lasting legacy of renovation and social housing. But the sporting infrastructure is under-used. The glorious Olympic swimming pool, with a world class gym attached, is hardly used today. Sometimes if you build it they still don’t come.
The global reach of the Barcelona brand brings both Russian tourists – Cyrillic signs are visible everywhere – and the new Chinese middle class. But they also bring vagrancy and street prostitution on a level which UK cities put behind them a long time ago.
In the Ciutat Vell (the Old City) there is a clear stand-off. From early morning prostitutes are soliciting for trade, in the evening they are still there when Muslim Spaniards gather to socialise and do business. And in the tenements above them, residents old and new drape banners calling for a neighbourhood clean-up.
Growth, in the end, needs growth. It is not a Ponzi scheme, it is just that expectations continue to increase. What was once a great gain becomes a new normal against which improvement is measured. Not just is it human psychology, it is what the last 60-odd years has accustomed us to. That pattern will return, I have no doubt, but the pause leads to a reflection and a focus.
How do we secure the economic and social gains to which we have become accustomed? In Barcelona the answer is not separation. For all the noise and theatre about a plebiscite, it is just irrelevant. With failing social services which cannot, or will not, handle the street homeless and police who do not clean up red-light districts, the question is who can give us what we need now.
It is no wonder Catalan civil society is increasingly taking the view “we need bread, not circuses”.
In a cold economic climate, Catalans are concluding they are better together.