After seven years covering the Arab Spring, landing in Barcelona on September 20th felt like observing a familiar landscape. That very same day, the Spanish police arrested 14 Catalan officials, it raided several offices of the Catalan government, and as a reaction, dozens of thousands of people took the streets of Barcelona to protest. More than 12.000 policemen -most of them Guardia Civiles, the Spanish paramilitary police- have been deployed in Catalonia to prevent the organization of a self-determination referendum on October 1st. They are based in tourist cruisers decorated with Warner Bros cartoons. Barcelona, the rebellious and irreverent city, global capital of anarchism in early 20th century, has been swept again by the winds of revolt.
Tensions had been simmering for a while in Catalonia, a region with 7.5 million inhabitants that represents 18% of Spain’s GDP. Last September 11th, Catalonia’s national day, around a million people marched in Barcelona to support the referendum, considered illegal by both the Spanish government and courts. That was the sixth year in a row that more than 10% of Catalonia’s population demonstrated to defend their right to hold a self-determination vote, a degree of mobilization unseen in Europe’s contemporary history. However, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, from the conservative and nationalist Popular Party, chose to ignore them, as he had done every previous year.
Rajoy’s attitude may seem foolish to international observers, but it is coherent with his political trajectory. In the mid-2000’s, after having lost the elections to the Socialist Party, he stirred catalanophobia as a means to get back to power. He led a campaign against a new autonomy law that granted more powers to Catalonia, which included a boycott to Catalan products and collecting signatures against the law. Once approved by the Spanish and Catalan Parliaments, his party pressed the judges of the Constitutional Court to strike it. And he was successful. Some of its main articles were declared “unconstitutional” in 2010. With those actions, Spain started to lose Catalonia.
“I have never been interested in politics and I did not support independence. But all those years, with the boycott, the signatures, etc, they touched my Catalan dignity. By time of the first big demonstration in 2012, I had already become independentist”, says Marta, a nurse aged 39 from Sant Adria de Besos, a working-class suburb of Barcelona. Her evolution is quite common among Catalans. Before 2010, Catalan pro-independence parties used to get between 10% to 15% of the votes and, according to all polls, most people declared to share a dual identity, feeling both Catalan and Spanish. Nonetheless, in the last regional elections, in 2015, the share of these parties rose to 48% and the percentage of those citizens who consider themselves “only Catalan” has spiked.
The last act of the divorce between Catalonia and Spain may have started on September 20th , the day that Rajoy decided to prevent the referendum by using repression. Since then, several web sites have been closed, police tried to raid the headquarters of a far-left Catalan political party without a judicial order and even some events organized in other parts of Spain to support the referendum have been forbidden. “This is not about independence, it is about our rights and freedoms”, stated the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, which is part of the coalition of Catalan parties associated with Podemos, Spain’s new left. Pablo Iglesias’ party is the only one among mainstream Spanish political parties that, in order to solve the conflict in Catalonia, proposes a legal referendum like the one held Scotland in 2014.
However, the game is not over yet. Spanish government still enjoys the support of the other EU governments, which are wary of an unilateral secession that could become a precedent just when the European project is in his most critical state. Moreover, the Catalan government is not free from mistakes, such as not building a real parthership with the left-wing parties in favour of a referendum, but not outright independence. The future of Catalonia and Spain will depend on the moves of every actor after October 1st. That day, most likely, the Spanish police will prevent the organization of a referendum with all guarantees. Therefore, the vote will become a mere act of defiance towards Madrid. On October 2nd there will be a new scenario, ¿will it be the start of a negotiation or a renewed confrontation?