Rhetoric and tensions peak as Catalan elections approach
Manuel Serret’s memories of the tensions between Catalonia and the Spanish state stretch back to the early 1960s.
When he was a small boy, he walked into a cafe near Barcelona with his father, who greeted the owner in Catalan. A civil guard who was standing nearby slapped the boy’s father in the face for not speaking in Spanish.
Such was the environment under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, whose centralising regime repressed the cultures and languages of the northern regions of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia.
Franco died in 1975 and Spain has long since embraced democracy and decentralised. More recently, though, Serret (59), now an unemployed factory worker, has witnessed what he sees as echoes of the old repression, albeit in a less violent form. Once, he says, his young daughter was upbraided by a man on a train for speaking in Catalan with her friends while on a school visit to Madrid.
“If they’d been talking in French or English, nobody would have said a thing,” Serret says, “but the fact my daughter was speaking in Catalan was the problem.”
In the last few weeks, those tensions have reached a new peak as Catalonia’s government, led by the mainstream CiU nationalists of Artur Mas, has embarked on what the central administration in Madrid sees as an illegal process of breaking away from Spain.
On Sunday, Catalonia holds regional elections. A bitter campaign has been dominated by the independence question, with Mas promising a referendum on the issue if re-elected.
Meanwhile, a video by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) warns of 30 per cent unemployment in a hypothetical independent Catalonia.
“There have always been tensions between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, but things have become more extreme lately,” says historian José Álvarez Junco. “The real novelty right now is the support for independence that we’re seeing within Catalan society.”
That support was even visible on the football pitch. When Barcelona hosted Real Madrid in October for Spain’s biggest game, El Clásico, just before kick-off tens of thousands of home fans held up Catalan flags to form a massive mosaic, sending a pro-independence message around the world.
This kind of “anti-Spanish” gesture, and comments by Mas such as accusing Spain of being “a cork” which blocks Catalonia, have riled centralists.
In a bid to prevent a head-on collision between Madrid and Barcelona, dozens of Spanish intellectuals signed a manifesto backing a “federal” solution for Catalonia, rather than full independence. This is an alternative that Socialists in the region have also proposed.
However, that initiative has done little to calm the rhetoric. The Spanish foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, has said that the independence referendum would amount to “a coup d’état”. Meanwhile, Marcelino Iglesias, a senior Socialist, compared Catalan nationalism to the “hyper-nationalism” of Nazi Germany.
One association of retired and active members of the military even warned that war should be declared on Catalonia if the region breaks away.
Such talk has caused alarm in Catalan nationalist circles. However, writer Alfred Bosch, a congressional deputy for the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left, plays down the concern. “This is a marginal kind of expression by people who are nostalgic for other eras and the military dictatorship under Franco,” he says.
While a Spanish invasion of Catalonia may be unlikely, if the independence process goes ahead, fellow separatists in the northern regions of Galicia and the Basque Country will take heart, particularly in the latter, where pro-independence parties dominate.
Junco sees the PP government of Mariano Rajoy in Madrid as contributing to the mounting tensions. The party’s centralising instincts, he says, have traditionally alienated many Catalans and it tends to have difficulty negotiating with regional nationalists.
The government will watch closely the result of Sunday’s election. A clear win for Mas could hand him a mandate within Catalonia to push ahead with the independence plan, despite Madrid’s resistance.
However, newspaper accusations in recent days that he has a bank account in Switzerland with dirty money in it appear to have hampered his campaign. If he fails to secure a majority, as polls suggest, he will have to depend on other parties to pursue his goal.
Whatever the outcome, Serret, who has watched Spain’s relationship with Catalonia for five decades, believes independence will come, albeit slowly.
“These tensions are worrying,” he says, “but this process has to be peaceful, we can’t have a situation like Yugoslavia. All we want is for the rest of Spain to treat us well.”