Will Separatists Split Spain? Tough Approach By Madrid Escalates Tensions

The conflict between Madrid and Catalan separatists is escalating. With raids and arrests last week, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is trying to prevent an independence referendum, but preparations for the vote are still underway.

The Catalonian flag and a call for independence
Björn Göttlicher/ DER SPIEGEL

The Catalonian flag and a call for independence

By and


It's a recent Tuesday afternoon and Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont has just finished explaining his plans for independence when his assistant offers to give us a tour of the seat of government. Puigdemont works out of the Palau de la Generalitat, the Palace of Generality, in Barcelona's historic center. Parts of the building, one of the prettiest structures in a city that has no shortage of beautiful architecture, are more than 600 years old.

The assistant shows off the courtyard in the oldest part of the building, the filigree columns and the shining marble floors which, he adds, "are still original." He points out the George Crosses that decorate the building, for centuries a symbol of the Catalans' ability to defend themselves, but also of the self-confidence with which the region defends its freedom from the central Spanish government. He takes us to the orange grove, where the government hosts receptions and, he says, will continue to hold them once Catalonia becomes independent. He calls our attention to the façade's pillars, which, he says, are made from marble brought by the Romans to the coast of Catalonia from ancient Troy.

Antiquity, the Middle Ages, Christianity, the Renaissance and Modernity. The entirety of European history comes together in this building, and Puigdemont's assistant leaves no doubt that this edifice, this city and this land has earned more than it is getting from the Spanish government. That is what is at stake in the referendum called by the separatists: the return of Catalonia to the European stage.

But it's also possible that we are witnessing the final gasps of what was once a great dream.

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Early the next day, police forces conducted searches of ministries, party offices and warehouses. They arrested 14 people, including a deputy minister, and they confiscated over 9 million ballots. Letters to election helpers had already been seized earlier. That night, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy delivered a televised address calling on the separatists to cancel the referendum.

Boxing Match

Puigdemont and Rajoy have been sparring with each other from a distance for several months. The two have provoked each other the way boxers do before a major fight -- with the showdown set for Oct. 1, the day the separatists intend to hold the referendum. The raids on Wednesday were Rajoy's attempt to prevent that ballot from going ahead. Puigdemont has said that he remains determined to hold the referendum, but without organizers, ballots and election helpers, carrying it out will be difficult.

The separatists are hoping that the referendum will trigger a political process ultimately resulting in independence. But the Spanish government under Rajoy is refusing to make any concessions. For months, the government has refused to even acknowledge the other side's demands, instead relying on judicial means, carrying out searches and court proceedings -- as if the separatists were a criminal organization.

It is difficult to deny that Catalonian independence would be a highly risky move. For the Catalans, it is entirely unclear what economic effects it would have for Barcelona. For the European Union, though, it could herald hte arrival of Europe's next major challenge, with separatists in Corsica, Flanders and northern Italy all ready to pounce should Catalonia manage to gain independence.

Will Catalonia's independence referendum be Europe's next big challenge?
REUTERS

Will Catalonia's independence referendum be Europe's next big challenge?

The government's heavy-handedness seem destined to give a shot in the arm to the protests. Indeed, tens of thousands of people took to the streets last Wednesday. With anger rising, violence is also a potential outcome, though separatists have rejected it. Rajoy, though, is taking no chances and has placed a stay on vacation days for police units in Catalonia.

Essentially Madrid has staged a mimi-coup against the government of a state that hasn't yet come into existence.

For his part, Puigdemont, 54, a former journalist from Girona, a city located near the French border, hasn't even been the head of the Catalan government for two years, but he has led the independence campaign so prudently that he has received support from outside of Catalonia as well. He's considered to be an aesthete. During his time as mayor of Girona, he bought an art collection for the city for 3.7 million euros that includes works by Picasso and Miró and added the costs to the municipal water bill.

But it now appears that he may have stuck his neck out too far and underestimated just how far the Spanish government is willing to go to ward off a threat to the country's integrity.

'New Reality'?

On Tuesday, Puigdemont was still self-confidently stating his vision for Catalonia. Just a short time before, Rajoy had lost a vote in the national parliament intended to shore up support for the government's actions against the separatists. Puigdemont said the referendum would take place no matter what. It won't be easy, he said, but the European Union would ultimately accept Catalonia as an independent country -- because it would have no other alternative than to accept the "new reality." Catalonia's economy, he said, is too strong to be ignored.

Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont: It won't be easy, he says, but he believes the European Union would ultimately accept Catalonia as an independent country.
Christiane von Enzberg / DER SPIEGEL

Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont: It won't be easy, he says, but he believes the European Union would ultimately accept Catalonia as an independent country.

"We Catalans want to be respected the way we are," he said. He noted that the region had established a good autonomy agreement that was nullified as illegal by the Constitutional Court in 2010. "That was a slap in the face to the Catalan people. The message was: You can't be who you are." He also promoted the openness of his movement, saying, "Catalans are those who live and work here and love our country."

In that sense, Catalan nationalism is highly unique. It doesn't focus on differentiation like other forms of nationalism. A full 70 percent of Catalans have a parent who was born somewhere else and Catalans don't see that as a problem, but rather as a cultural enrichment. The nationalists view Catalonia as a hard-working, prosperous and cosmopolitan region that is ruled by a backward, authoritarian central government in Madrid.

A Shared Wish for Independence

The separatists' political alliance is extremely broad. Puigdemont's movement is called Junts pel Sí, or Together for Yes, and is itself a pick-and-mix group of EU-friendly, center-right parties and the leftist ERC, which shares a faction with the Green Party in the European Parliament.

In addition, there are also the left-wing radicals with CUP, a party that still has a red star in its logo -- and not just for sentimental value. The party's political platforms include calls for free apartments, electricity and water, a guaranteed minimum income for everyone and the nationalization of all banks. The only thing that holds this rainbow coalition together is the shared desire for an independent Catalonia.

One thing that Catalan nationalism does share with the other regionalists in Europe is that it is largely a provincial phenomenon. There are supporters in Barcelona, but the backbone of the movement is outside of the city. The separatist communities form something of a crescent around their capital city.

It's focused on small towns like Argentona northeast of Barcelona, with its 12,000 residents. The Estelada flag of independence supporters, with its yellow and red stripes and a white star on a blue background, can be seen flying from balconies and in windows all over the place.

"Yes" signs can be seen on billboards, the fronts of buildings and on the rear windows of cars, next to each other and often on top of each other. The trees in pedestrian zones are wrapped in plastic tape with the word "democracia" on it. And a massive pro-refugee sign can be seen in the town square with the words, "Shame on Europe. Argentona opposes the mistreatment of refugees." Catalonia's separatists may be radical, but they are not right-wing radical.

Eudald Calvo, a 31-year-old with designer stubble, tennis shoes and a colorful textile wristband has served as Argentona's mayor for two years as a member of the CUP party. "I'm a communist," he says. "And an independentista," as the separatists call themselves -- because independence fighter sounds better than nationalist. Calvo is just waiting for the police to show up at his office and present him with a subpoena. Even just granting an interview to a journalist is technically illegal, because mayors are prohibited from attending to referendum business during working hours.

Spain's public prosecutor has even announced that he will summon for questioning all 700 Catalan mayors who want to open their polling stations up for the vote. Calvo says the mayors have been told they will face charges of civil disobedience, abuse of office and misappropriation of tax money.

Calvo says they still haven't come for him, but that it's only a matter of time. He then points outside the window of his office, where a sign hangs with the words "Referendums Are Democracy." He says he's not afraid of getting arrested. "If I have to go to jail, then they will also have to arrest the 750 mayors, plus members of parliament, members of the government and others," he says. "Suddenly, Spain would then have 2,000 political prisoners. I can't imagine that."

That's why he believes the referendum will take its course. "If they use violence to prevent the referendum, we will not respond with violence," he says. "But imagine this in practical terms. If a few police are standing in front of the polling stations and then hundreds of people come. Will the police prevent it?"

Separatism Grew Out of Crisis

Many young people have joined the independence movement. They represent Generación Cero, the generation that has come of age in the crisis years of mass unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young people. Many of them dream of a new and better society, a new beginning and even a revolution.

Today's Catalan separatism isn't really the product of centuries of longings that are now finally manifesting themselves. It grew out of the Spanish economic crisis and the rejection of Catalonia's new autonomous status. Madrid and Barcelona agreed to the Catalan statute of autonomy in 2006. But the Constitutional Court in Madrid, instigated by the conservative party of Mariano Rajoy, overturned it right at the peak of the crisis. The decision prompted many Catalans to lose their trust in the central government.

Catalans also feel they have to give too much up to Madrid. Catalonia is Spain's strongest region economically, with important companies based here. But a considerable portion of the tax revenues flow to Madrid. Experts believe that the resulting deficit is the equivalent of 5 to 8 percent of Catalonia's economic performance.

But these conflicts won't disappear. The harder Rajoy's line against the separatists, the more intense the conflicts are likely to become -- especially given that his actions remind many Catalans of the repression they experienced under former Spanish dictator Franco.

Puigdemont's predecessor as Catalan leader, Artur Mas, 61, governed the region for a half a decade and is considered to be the intellectual father of the separatist movement. Despite the raids, seizures and arrests, he said in his office on Thursday, "preparations for the referendum are continuing." Mas smiled, folded his hands together and said the ballots could be printed within 24 hours. There's something else that's more important, he said: "We have ballot boxes. We have the polling stations. And the people will soon know where to go on the day of the vote."

Mas said the Spanish government had already succeeded in alienating half the population and the mood could continue to shift. "The democratic movement now has more support than ever before," he said. "Even Catalans who are decisively against independence are opposed to this police state."

The last arrow in Rajoy's quiver would be a dramatic one. He could try to activate Article 155 of the constitution, which would place Catalonia under the forced administration of Madrid. But Rajoy, as head of a minority government, would risk losing power if he did so. He has already been accused of threatening democracy -- and not just by those who sympathize with the Catalans.

So far, though, Rajoy hasn't budged an inch from his current position.

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