Catalans mark national day with calls for 'freedom'


Tens of thousands will demonstrate – but many might settle simply for a bit more autonomy, writes GUY HEDGECOEin Madrid

WHETHER IT’S the extravagant, dreamlike architecture of Antoni Gaudí, the enormous Camp Nou football stadium or the absence of matadors in its bullring, Barcelona constantly reminds visitors that it is unlike anywhere else in Spain.

Today, as Catalans celebrate their national day, the Diada, they will send out a powerful message that they want to distance themselves even further from Madrid and the rest of the country.

September 11th marks the anniversary of the defeat, in 1714, of Catalan troops at the hands of Philip V of Spain, who had been laying siege to Barcelona for months.

Every year, Catalan nationalists gather to commemorate this date, but today is different.

With tens of thousands of people expected to take part in a massive demonstration on Barcelona’s streets, it will be one of the biggest outpourings of regional sentiment Spain has seen since the return to democracy in the late 70s.

“We didn’t drop our heads on September 11th, 1714, and we won’t do so now,” said Josep Antoni Duran i Lleida, of the CiU mainstream nationalist coalition that governs Catalonia, in the lead-up to this year’s Diada.

The red-and-yellow stripes of the northeastern region’s pro-independence flag have been fluttering in windows across the city in recent days, and activists have even hung a giant one from the top of a building in Güell park, which was designed by Gaudí.

Flyers have been handed out to locals and tourists alike, with the message in English: “We have a dream – freedom for Catalonia.”

This whirlwind of pro- independence activity is being led by radical political parties and a recently formed civic movement, the Catalan National Assembly. They have made secession from Spain the focus of this year’s Diada.

The Spanish economy, which is mired in recession with a jobless rate of 25 per cent, goes a long way to explaining this swelling of nationalist feeling.

Catalonia is suffering the same economic hardship as the rest of the country.

Despite being an industrial powerhouse with an economy the size of Portugal’s, Catalonia recently had to ask the central government for a €5 billion bailout to help it finance a €42 billion debt.

Many in Catalonia fear that this rescue will allow Madrid to rein in the region’s existing economic freedoms.

The regional premier Artur Mas blames the austerity drive of the central administration of Mariano Rajoy for many of Catalonia’s difficulties, such as its inability to pay many civil servants.

“While austerity is locking people up in a room without a view, burying their resources and hopes, independence offers them the hope of a political dream,” noted Catalan broadcaster and columnist Josep Ramoneda.

But the current nationalist wave is also due to other, less economic factors. In 2010, Spain’s constitutional court struck down several clauses of a new statute granting Catalonia new powers. The direct effect was relatively minor, but the idea that Madrid was meddling made Catalan nationalists furious. The same year, the Catalan parliament voted to ban bullfighting. Many believed that shunning such a traditional Spanish pastime was a political move by the region to assert its own identity. There have also been legal wrangles over use of the Catalan language.

The arrival eight months ago of a conservative Spanish government, which many see as having centralising tendencies, has done little to calm tensions.

Just over 50 per cent of Catalans favour independence, according to a recent poll overseen by the regional government. However, many of those who demonstrate through Barcelona’s streets today will not be calling for a complete break with Spain.

“The reality of independence would be extremely difficult to implement,” says political scientist Fernando Vallespín, who points out that what many Catalans really want, including those running the regional government, are the same exceptional powers to collect taxes that the neighbouring Basque and Navarra regions enjoy. “This is a game of poker between Catalonia and the rest of Spain – there’s a clamour for independence, but many in Catalonia would in fact settle for just more autonomy.”