Catalan independence movement gathers pace

BARCELONA, April 27 — Romance was in the air in my home town of Barcelona on Wednesday, when the locals celebrated Sant Jordi’s Day — Catalonia’s patron saint St George — in the traditional manner of men buying a rose for women, who reciprocated with the gift of a book for their menfolk.

The day serves as a Catalan equivalent of Valentine’s Day, and on a bright and sunny Wednesday afternoon, strolling down the tree-lined avenue of Passeig De Gracia, with impromptu one-day-only book and flower stalls cramming the pavements, was a festive experience.

However, a little below the surface there lurks a far less benevolent sentiment in the hearts of many residents, whose calls for independence from Spain are gathering momentum all the time.

Away from Spain, few people are particularly aware of the Catalan independence issue. For the vast majority of outsiders, Barcelona and its surrounding countryside, tucked in behind the Pyrenees mountain range, is the north-eastern corner of Spain — as simple as that.

Locally, though, you will hear a very different story. The majority of Catalans do not regard themselves as Spanish at all, pointing to their separate language and their strong sense of history and culture — with the rose and book-giving traditions of Sant Jordi’s Day, which does not take place in any other parts of Spain, a fine example.

Indeed, the feelings of many natives were summed up on Wednesday by one of the most high-profile supporters of Catalan independence — and a potential future president of the state, if such a position ever becomes available.

Pep Guardiola is a former football Barcelona player and manager who is now in charge of European champions Bayern Munich. By coincidence, his team happened to be playing away to Real Madrid on Sant Jordi’s Day, prompting an unsuspecting German journalist how he felt to be “back home” in Spain.

Guardiola’s reply was simple but succinct: “Catalonia is my home, and it is not Spain.”
One of the main arguments in favour of independence is the Catalan language, which is entirely distinct from Castilian Spanish rather than just a dialect, as many people initially believe.

Catalan is one of four existing “Romance” languages to have derived from Latin, along with French, Italian and, yes, Castilian Spanish.

Catalan’s use throughout the province is ubiquitous, even in the tourist-friendly capital Barcelona, where all administrative paperwork is conducted in the local language and, for example, it is also the first listed in restaurant menus; visitors looking for the famous local side dish of bread with tomatoes may be surprised to see “Pa Amb Tomaquet” rather than the
Castilian version of “Pan Con Tomate”.

Appeals for independence are nothing new. Historically, in fact, Catalonia was an entirely distinct nation for many centuries, enjoying great wealth due to its vast naval power and control over Mediterranean trade routes. For a brief time, its expanse even stretched as far as Italy and Greece, and some parts of modern-day southern France still regard themselves as Catalan.

People cast mock ballots on Catalonia’s secession plan during Sant Jordi’s day in Barcelona April 23, 2014. Spain’s recent economic slump has renewed Catalonians’ agitation for independence. — Picture by Reuters
People cast mock ballots on Catalonia’s secession plan during Sant Jordi’s day in Barcelona April 23, 2014. Spain’s recent economic slump has renewed Catalonians’ agitation for independence. — Picture by Reuters

Catalonia’s status was gradually eroded due to a series of inter-marriages between Europe’s royal families, and independence was lost for good in 1714 when Barcelona was besieged and defeated in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Since then, Catalonia has officially been part of Spain — sometimes more begrudgingly than others. The most bitterly contested period was during and after the Spanish Civil War, which was eventually won by General Franco whose republican zeal led him to ban the public use of the
Catalan language and heavily suppress any expression of Catalan identity.

Since his death in 1975, however, the Catalan culture has reasserted itself, with the latest peak in patriotic sentiment provoked largely by the financial crisis endured by Spain in the last five years.

The catalyst is the fact that Catalonia, with its tourism and industry, generates a lot more revenue and, therefore, pays a lot more taxes than other parts of Spain, leading Catalans to feel aggrieved that they are effectively subsidising the failing parts of the country.

The most visible appeals for independence are launched via Catalonia’s most successful and most famous export: Barcelona’s football club.

Fans (of the team and of independence) use home games — especially against Real Madrid — as an opportunity to state their case in front of the watching world, while pro-independence chants sweep around the stadium after 17 minutes and 14 seconds of every half of every game, referencing 1714, the year of annexation to Spain.

Despite the popular support, independence remains a long way off. The Spanish government is firmly opposed to the move, fearing the break-up of Spain (the Basque region, for one, could follow suit if Catalonia is successful) and the loss of vital revenue. Considering that opposition, it was no surprise when Spanish politicians rejected with a huge majority an official Catalan appeal to hold a referendum on the subject. Undeterred, Catalan officials are determined to push ahead with a vote later this year, which will now be called a “consultation” rather than a “referendum” to avoid provoking Madrid’s ire with an unconstitutional act.

Ultimately, though, the independence movement will probably prevail. For many Catalans, celebrating their own patron saint, speaking their own language and cheering on their own football team just isn’t enough: they want their own country.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.