“The violence was terrible and was committed by a small number from thousands of riot police on a predominantly peaceful public. I have heard rumours of military intervention, mass strikes and an escalation of uncertainty and possibly a freezing of economic activity in the region.”
Barcelona has been in the news for the past few weeks, partly thanks to the Catalan independence referendum led by the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont. It’s also down to what some critics are calling an overreaction by Madrid – and more specifically by Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.
Rajoy, leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party, had in the past vowed to his base that he would continue to do, all in his legislative power, to curb the rise of Catalan nationalism and those cries for independence. The move was a hit with The People Party in Spain but political landscape in Catalunya is one that makes dividing public opinion on independence neatly along the regional border impossible.
Set against the backdrop of four years of recession, and the removal of power from the equivalent of Catalunya’s constitution (when challenged by Rajoy’s People’s Party in the Spanish parliament), support for the Catalan independence polled at an estimated 57 per cent approval rating by 2012. It has been growing ever since.
It’s generally thought that the current stream of the independence movement dates back to Franco, when pro-Catalan institutions, government structures and even public use of the language were made illegal. What some claim Rajoy and Spain’s Central Government are missing, is that the independence movement’s core is the protection of Catalan identity and their right to vote for full autonomy.
In the wake of dramatic images online and over news media, I caught up with Shane Broderick, an Irishman who has been living in Barcelona for several years now. Shane was at some of the protests so I fired some questions at him about the general mood, the severity of the protests, and what (if anything) the future looks like for Catalunya.
A crackdown on what’s essentially a public opinion poll kind of suggests that something is wrong in Madrid doesn’t it?
The results of the referendum were legally binding, according to Puigdemont (the president of Catalonia and a pro-independence politician). There was major support for the referendum outside of the urban centres of Catalonia. Absolutely, it does indicate something wrong in Madrid, but this is neither news, nor is it the fault of more moderate parties in Spain. There is a massive anti-Rajoy sentiment throughout the entirety of Spain, especially the majority of Catalans, whether pro-independence or not. In the case of the police, Rajoy made the order, in spite of leading a minority government, and without the approval of parliament. This was as much of a testament to the broken system in Madrid as it was to the anti-referendum movement from Madrid.
Referenda tend to gather larger voter turn out than elections. Did you get a sense in the lead up to this what the Catalan buy in to this was?
It was a very simple formula, actually, from what I saw and spoke with people about. If one was pro-independence, they were getting out to vote, police or no. If they were against independence (or probably more reasonably, against leaving the Spanish state into a future of uncertainty) you either refused to vote, or showed up to the polling stations with the potential for violent confrontation. The latter option for pro-Spain voters was far less appealing and this reflected strongly in the polls. This was a very low turnout as a result, though the build-up for this referendum was many months and years and millions of Euros in the planning.
Previous polling suggested that a lot of Catalans were opposed, or at least indifferent to independence. What’s the mood like now?
I would agree with this statement, though the actions of Rajoy’s government pushed indifferent voters towards the independence side by the thousands. In this case it was an epic fortune of free propaganda for Puigdemont and the independence parties.
Since you’ve been there, have you been able to get any grip on people in Barcelona’s feelings about Catalan independence? Put differently; what do you think people’s general opinion towards Madrid has been during your time there and what, if any changes do you see now?
I have attended pro-independence rallies out of curiosity (with hundreds of thousands of attendees) and this is something that has been spoken about for years. It is a touchy subject for many people, but independence is not really a new concept for many and this is reflected in the way people speak about Madrid extracting more tax from Catalunya than other Autonomous regions due to its wealth. Some see Catalunya as a cow to be milked by Madrid, and others don’t really care.
The Catalan regional Government has claimed that a prelim pole is indicating a 90+ per cent rule in favour of independence (The Guardian). That seems high. Do you think it’s a reliable lead?
It is reliable in that the turnout was about 42 per cent, and the majority of people who risked polling were independent-ists.
Have the Catalan Regional Government made any indications of the kind of political system they would put in place in the event of full independence? Surely they’ll be looking to the EU for help?
This is a question I am unable to answer accurately, but it certainly has the economic capabilities to do so, and could probably make it work within a decade. The EU is in a tough position on this one, as Spain is an Economic powerhouse (in spite of its debt) and without the support of Madrid, the unanimity clause in all member ascension processes that currently exist, Catalunya will not get any help from the EU.
This is not to say that individual states will help due to trade advantages with Catalonia. The agricultural, tech and fuel industries here are powerhouses, as well as having many international headquarters here.
Images in newspapers and online have shown people bloodied and being pulled around by the hair. How widespread have incidents like this been around the city? Was this some bad cops or a plan by Spain’s Central Government?
This is probably the worst aspect that people are seeing, though the long-term economic effects will be far more wide-ranging and damaging for Madrid and Barcelona alike. The images and videos circulating on social networks are of a limited number of incidents. This is not to say that it is exaggerated anti-publicity of the Policia Nacional and Rajoy, but it certainly did sway public opinion of the polling and the independence movement. Near my flat, Escola Ramon Llul, a primary school for young children, was one of the “battlefields” of this violence, and the scenes were emulated throughout the city and other places too (like Girona). The matter of police was both highly criticised by many pro and anti-independence parties (except Rajoy’s People’s Party), and had quite a significant impact on public opinion, the turnout and the result.
The violence was terrible and was committed by a small number from thousands of riot police on a predominantly peaceful public. I have heard rumours of military intervention, mass strikes and an escalation of uncertainty and possibly a freezing of economic activity in the region. For now, though, business is trying to get on as usual, though tomorrow’s mass strike (last week) will be one of the more disruptive in Catalunya’s history.