SEPTEMBER 10 — A dangerous row is brewing in Spain, where the north eastern region of Catalonia is continuing its dogged pursuit of independence.
This is a long running story but now an ending might finally be in sight. Or, at least, a new beginning.
Although small in size, Catalonia is culturally, economically and symbolically highly significant, with its biggest city Barcelona enjoying a high profile and carrying responsibility for attracting a large chunk of the millions of visitors who flock to Spain every year.
It also has a strong identity, with many Catalans — who have their own language — firmly believing they are not Spanish at all, and that their return to being separate from Spain is long overdue.
For many centuries in the distant past, Catalonia was indeed independent and for a while enjoyed a dominant position within the Mediterranean, before later being consumed by Spain as a result of backing the wrong side in a complicated European war in 1714.
Now, spurred on by the economic crisis which gripped Europe a decade ago, Catalans want to regain their independence and will be marching on the streets of Barcelona tomorrow — the date of the annual national Catalan public holiday — to demand the right to hold a referendum.
In fact, the regional government has gone one further and already set a date for a referendum: Sunday 1st October, which could be remembered in history as the pivotal date for the birth of a new nation.
Or it might not, because the Spanish government, led by long-serving Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has responded to the Catalan referendum announcement by sternly pronouncing that such an event would be illegal and that anyone attempting to organise it will be prosecuted.
Predictably, the country’s constitutional court has taken the side of Rajoy and suspended the referendum law which was passed by the Catalan government last month, but the Barcelona-based officials are carrying on their campaign and intending to carry out next month’s vote regardless, despite the thinly-veiled threats issued by Rajoy to make mass arrests of anyone who gets involved.
The whole situation is a horrible mess, not helped by the fact that key figures on both sides refuse to actually talk to each other, instead resorting to waving around pieces of paper and pointing to legislation which they believe makes their side of the argument more valid than their opponents.
Here’s a suggestion for both parties: the definition of what constitutes a nation should be decided by people, not by obscure legal technicalities.
This point appears to have been lost to many of the main protagonists, with the pro-independence faction determined to bludgeon the whole deal through irrespective of what people actually think while their adversaries do everything within their power to stop them.
Rather than their games of political tub-thumping, those in authority should have the moral bravery to sit down in a room with their opponents and actually talk, in a calm and mutually accepting manner, about the issues involved.
And despite the arguments made by the Catalan nationalists confidently asserting the inevitably of their march towards freedom, this is certainly not a straightforward matter.
Catalonia — and especially its iconic central city Barcelona – is a multicultural hotpot, consisting of Catalans, recently arrived expats from places like the UK (such as myself), France, Germany and Russia, and immigrants from other parts of the Spanish-speaking world.
For every Jordi who hails from a long line of proud Catalans, there is a Jorge whose parents were lured to the area from Ecuador or Andalusia with the promise of agricultural employment, and a George from the UK or Australia who was attracted by the beaches, mountains and temperate climate.
Considering that diverse group of people, the result of a referendum would be far from certain and the Spanish government has less to fear than its desperate and threatening strategy makes it appear.
Rajoy, however, has been appalling throughout the saga, never once even attempting to mount a positive campaign and convince Catalans to remain in Spain for the right reasons.
Rather than proactively pointing out some of the many great things about his country and arguing for the positives derived by Catalans from being a part of Spain, he has from the word go consistently resorted to petty, mean and negative bullying tactics, hiding behind arcane paperwork so that he can avoid conducting a proper debate.
His spiteful attitude, I am sure, has turned many wavering Catalans away from Spain and towards independence, making them feel that the Madrid-based government cares nothing for their feelings when all it can do is threaten them.
Thankfully, so far the Catalan protest marches in favour of independence have remained entirely peaceful, and there is no imminent sign of that state of affair changing as hundreds of thousands prepare to parade through the streets of Barcelona tomorrow.
But nobody knows what will happen next, and there has to be a genuine danger that if Rajoy, for example, sends in the Spanish military to prevent voters from reaching the ballot boxes at next month’s referendum, the situation could turn very ugly, very quickly.
If Rajoy could only have the guts to attempt to govern as a caring human being, this whole issue wouldn’t have taken so long to reach a conclusion. The only thing that reasonable people want, and the only thing that everybody deserves, is the right to decide.
By closing his eyes and ears to any alternative arguments, Rajoy has only succeeded in weakening his own position. And if he continues to defend himself by stooping ever lower, the consequences could be disastrous.