Catalan Independence is Harder To Navigate Than Las Ramblas

Catalan Independence is Harder To Navigate Than Las Ramblas

Barcelona is tricky to walk through at the best of times. In a city of 1.7 million inhabitants and ten-trillion tourists, sometimes it feels like every single one of them is trying to push past you in the opposite direction, or walk in front of you at the pace of a concussed sloth. So after getting through ‘Las Ramblas’ — a pedestrian strip as well-known for being as slow-moving as it is picturesque — with 10 minutes to spare before I was due at work, I thought I was in the clear.

Then the yelling started.

A bunch of students were blocking the university walkway to burn a Spanish flag. And not content with pissing all over my shortcut, they wanted to film a vox pop. As I arrived, one took off his balaclava (but not his sunnies) to unleash a spiel of impassioned Catalan into a camera, while the rest held back the growing crowd. Some jeered, but most watched in silence. Meanwhile, I tried to Snapchat it and received a ‘Single Ladies’ finger-waggle from the closest protester. Noticing her Medusa-like stare, I awkwardly inched my phone back into my pocket.

For the rest of the day, I kept replaying it in my mind. I’d thought separatists were old people who hung Catalan flags from their balconies. Why were these young Beyonce folk getting into it then? Were they just trying to look edgy?

As it turns out, probably not. Up to 80% of Catalans would vote for independence.

However, elsewhere in Spain, many people are affronted by the idea that a region could be so unpatriotic that they want to leave, so the idea tends to be ridiculed (an attitude that’s supported by the federal government, who ruled Catalonia’s 2014 leave ballot unconstitutional). Add in the fact that Messi wins more Ballon d’Ors than Ronaldo, and it should come as no surprise that it’s a controversial issue.

El Clasico or proxy war?

Separatists argue that Catalonia is culturally unique, that it carries more than it’s fair share of the economy and that its people should have the democratic right to self-determination. The opposition claims these demands are driven by “selfish nationalism”, pointing out that every region in Spain has a distinct culture, and warning that independence movements like this could result in the Balkanisation of Europe.

Before I came to Barcelona, I thought Catalans wanted independence because they were arrogant dicks. This may have something to do with the prevailing attitude in the south of Spain — where I had just spent six months — but I had just accepted it, assuming an independentista must have the politics of a Brexit voter, the personality of a pissed of Parisian and a disdain for provincial Spain not unlike that of a Melbourne hipster’s for a Sydney Starbucks.

This is because in the south, when I’d asked people why Catalans wanted independence, I was often answered with a joking porque son gilipollas” (‘cos they’re jerks). Normally it would end at that, but then other times (after a few cervezas) people would realise they were talking to a hapless guiri (foreigner) and delight in unpacking exactly why they found the independence movement absurd. I agreed more with them than the separatists, but their tone of voice still sometimes left a sour taste.

Of course, many separatists possess a similar reluctance to understand the “don’t leave” point of view. And this mutual lack of compassion was probably down to ego (i.e. If I take the other side’s concerns seriously it will weaken my argument, so I better just pretend it’s total bullshit). However when I asked a (relatively) impartial dude from Galicia what the advantages and disadvantages of Catalan independence would be, and he said “Well it all depends on how they do it,” I realised that no one knows exactly what they’re for or against.  

Just as Brexit voters didn’t know whether they were voting for a “hard” or “soft” exit, if a Catalan independence referendum were to occur, the exact terms wouldn’t be worked out until afterwards. You might call it pointless — working out if Catalonia would end up in the EU, whether they would invoke the EU bailout mechanism (prompting the obvious response that if Catalonia isn’t willing to support the less prosperous regions of Spain, why should the EU support it?) and how much of the Spanish national debt they would take with them. If these factors were clarified, it would help people understand exactly what they’re voting for. 

Apart from the cynics just rolling their eyes, what’s wrong with that? Well, after Brexit, the portion of leave voters who regretted their vote was greater than the total margin of victory, largely because they “didn’t know the consequences of leaving the single market would be so bad”. Posing more specific referendum questions would have been a good idea. Although information about the consequences of leaving the single market was obviously available beforehand, maybe if “Brexit” had been defined in all (or some) of its nuance, people would’ve been more inclined to at least Google it before voting. 

Another factor at play is tradition. For the most part, it’s a healthy regional rivalry, but on the extreme end of the spectrum, there’s a disdain for all things Catalan (outside of Catalonia) and an exaggerated sense of regional pride within it. It’s a chicken-egg scenario, with (some) Catalans claiming uninformed outsiders ridiculing the independence movement is half the reason they support it. Conversely, many non-Catalans claim the conflict comes from Catalonia’s contempt for provincial Spain.

A separatist I met in Barcelona summed it up like this:

“There is much confusion and prejudice surrounding this topic, and many hidden agendas, so we end up with populist politics in which people’s ignorance is exploited.”

In the case of Catalan independence, talking to this guy didn’t change my mind, but it did make me realise it’s not as clear cut as I had previously thought. And if those in Spain who don’t want Catalonia to become independent continue to dismiss it as laughable, then the next generation of Catalans is more likely to support the movement out of spite, rather than listening objectively to the “don’t leave” case.

Cover by Francisco Gonçalves