While opposing factions argue over attendance figures at the Yes rally, Catalonia musters 1.6 million for the cause , writes Peter Geoghegan
EARLIER this month, I spent an afternoon outside the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I didn’t go to admire the haunting spires of Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece – impressive though they are – but to look at a rather different spectacle: the crowds of waving Catalan independence supporters that peaceably surrounded the cathedral as part of a massive “human chain” to mark Catalan national day on 11 September.
At 17:14, the year Barcelona fell to Bourbon forces spelling the end of Catalan autonomy, what sounded like a starter’s pistol fired. Outside the Sagrada, thousands linked arms amid chants of “In, inde, independencia”. A middle-aged man’s T-shirt carried a blunt message: “Catalonia is not Spain”. Posters, in Catalan, called for “Independence to Change Everything”. Drones flew overhead, employed not by the Spanish government but by independenistas, to photograph the “Via Catalana” as it stretched, arm-in-arm, for 250 miles from the France border to the neighbouring region of Valencia. It was a remarkable feat of logistics, organisation and political mobilisation.
How Yes Scotland must envy their Catalan cousins. A reported 1.6 million turned out in this show of separatist strength. Some flew Catalonia’s regional flag, but more waved the esteldada, the starry standard favoured by independence supporters.
Polls lend weight to the suggestion that if anywhere in Western Europe is likely to declare independence in the coming years it is Catalonia. Support for independence has risen from barely a fifth in 2007, to more than half now. Possibly more importantly, Catalan’s sense of identity seems to be shifting, too. In 2009, less than 20 per cent said they felt “Catalan only”. Now that figure is 31 per cent, according to research published by the Catalan government. The number feeling “more Spanish than Catalan” has fallen in consort.
And yet Catalans can seem like reluctant independenistas. Among the throng on 11 September, and at a nationalist-led, torch-lit procession the previous evening, I met plenty who said they would settle for increased autonomy for their regional parliament. But there seems little optimism that power brokers in Madrid will acquiesce.
“If Madrid wanted to diffuse or confuse this independence movement they would immediately offer a federal package to Catalonia,” says British-born writer Matthew Tree. “But they can’t do it because they have been whipping up anti-Catalan sentiment and making political capital from it.”
Certainly the government in Madrid has given little indication that they are willing to offer a serious autonomy package to Catalonia. In May, Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, whose CiU party is the main player in the governing coalition in Barcelona, wrote to Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy asking for permission to hold a referendum on independence. Rajoy, who has had his hands full with a flat lining economy, a moribund banking sector and a series of corruption scandals, replied last week.
“The ties that bind us together cannot be undone without enormous cost,” he wrote, rejecting Mas’ request. “We need to work together to strengthen these ties and move away from confrontation.”
The two leaders met in secret for talks in August, but there still seems to be little sign of a deal emerging. Meanwhile, the momentum towards full independence seems to build.
Spain’s ongoing financial crisis has added fuel to the Catalan independence fire. Nationalists argue that the region, one of the country’s most economically productive, is being asked to shoulder too large a burden. Unlike the Basques, Catalonia has no real fiscal autonomy. In 2012, Catalonia’s fiscal deficit – the difference between what it pays to Madrid and, after taking some funds to pay state costs, the money it gets back – was €16bn (around 8 per cent of the region’s GDP), according to the Catalan government.
Madrid’s clumsy meddling with the language system in Catalonia’s schools has acerbated an already tense situation. Since the fall of dictator Franco more than 35 years ago, Catalan has been given priority in the region’s education system. However, last year, Jose Ignacio Wert, Spain’s education minister, unveiled proposals that all coursework in Catalan schools must be offered in Spanish and Catalan “in balanced proportions”. For many Catalans, even those with little interest in constitutional change, these pronouncements evoked divisive memories of the Spanish Civil War and their language’s suppression under Franco.
It is by no means guaranteed that Catalonia will get a vote on independence – or, even if a referendum did take place, that Catalans would say Yes – but pressure for a vote is growing. A referendum is unlikely, but a non-binding “consultation” is possible.
Some Catalan nationalists believe that holding a vote – even a non-binding one – so close to the referendum here would be a boon for them. “It would be useful for us if the world could see both referendums at the same time – one conducted in a peaceful, legal way in the UK, the other opposed by the Spanish government. That [contrast of] attitudes would be really benefit us,” Alfred Bosch, leader of the Catalan left-wing ERC party in the Spanish congress, said recently.
How Scottish nationalists, particularly the SNP, would react to a Catalan vote so close to the referendum is unclear. Formal relations between the Scottish and Catalan administrations have cooled, with the SNP reluctant to upset Madrid and Catalan independenistas wary of being closely associated with a No vote in Scotland.
One thing does seem certain: the longer Catalan calls for greater autonomy are ignored, the louder the rumble for full independence will grow. As Matthew Tree said: “If this isn’t sorted out now, it will just go on and on and on. The cat is out of the bag now”.