Viladecans town hall is a faux-medieval castle. An ochre-coloured building situated in the middle of this small Catalan city, complete with tower, turrets and ramparts, it is tempting to see it as as a garish metaphor for Viladecans’s status as a stronghold of unionism.
With separatist feeling swelling in recent years, this town has one of the lowest levels of support for independence in the northeastern Catalan region. This is due in great part to its position in Catalonia's industrial belt, which over the decades has absorbed a huge number of migrants from other parts of Spain. Many of the inhabitants of modern-day Viladecans are the children or grandchildren of Spaniards from other regions, diluting their Catalan identity.
“If the constitution says that Spain has to be united, then one part of the country can’t just break away,” says pensioner José Alarcón. “Otherwise, we’d be like Yugoslavia.” Nearby, housewife Nina Rodríguez is worried. “All my friends and I think that if there is independence, we’ll leave [Catalonia],” she says. “A lot of people are getting ready to pack their bags.”
That may be jumping the gun somewhat, but just 20km to the east, in Barcelona, nationalist parties in the regional parliament have hurriedly been following their so-called “roadmap” towards the creation of a new republic. They have been approving motions and laws designed to lay the groundwork for Catalan independence, in defiance of the Spanish government.
"In Catalonia, we have a situation whereby people are accepting things that make no sense," Carles Ruiz, the Socialist mayor of Viladecans and an outspoken opponent of the independence project, tells The Irish Times. "If institutions stop being for everybody, whatever they think, then we lose the meaning of democracy, which is to represent everybody."
Ruiz believes the Catalan parliament is guilty of this failure to represent all its voters. In September 2015, a regional election was held which nationalists treated as a plebiscite on independence. The separatist Junts pel Sí (or Together for Yes) coalition won, but needed the support of the small, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) in order to clinch a parliamentary majority and, it claims, a mandate to proceed unilaterally towards secession.
Together, though, those parties gathered only 48 per cent of the popular vote. A recent poll by the Catalan government’s studies centre told a similar story: 44.9 per cent of respondents wanted independence; 45.1 per cent did not.
Yet, despite the knife-edge nature of support for the two sides on this issue, it is easy to feel that the pro-independence camp is the overwhelming majority. That is in great part because the separatist cause has organised itself effectively, uniting at both grassroots and political levels. Its message is cohesive and loud, most notably at its massive choreographed street demonstrations, such as the annual Diada, or Catalan national day celebrations.
The independence movement has also been proactive on the international stage, reaching out to sympathisers across the world. The Catalan government, meanwhile, handles the foreign press in Spain with an enthusiasm that contrasts with the inaccessibility of the Spanish central administration.
Much of the Catalan media is also “on-message”. The most blatant example is TV3, the publicly financed regional television channel, which broadcasts in the Catalan language in a way that often tends to suggest that the region has already gained independence. “The public media in Catalonia are controlled by the political powers and are at the service of the independence cause,” the journalist Sergio Fidalgo said recently, as he explained why he and other colleagues had complained about this issue to the European Parliament.
For the many Catalans who do not want to break away from Spain, this atmosphere stifles genuine, balanced debate. Less organised and less vocal than their opponents, if they are not a silent majority, then they are certainly a muted and very large minority. “If those of us who favour unity made as much noise as those who want independence, then Catalonia would be a madhouse,” says one civil servant in Viladecans who prefers not to give his name.
However, the town’s feisty mayor is sticking his head above the parapet. In July, Ruiz took the unprecedented step of presenting a symbolic motion to the parties in the town council, opposing “any illegal initiative by Catalan institutions” and specifically rejecting a blueprint for secession approved days earlier by the regional parliament. Ruiz’s motion was approved with the support of the conservative Popular Party (PP), the liberal Ciudadanos and leftist groups that oppose independence.
Ruiz’s Socialist Party does not take the often fiercely unionist line of the PP and Ciudadanos. Instead, it proposes a third way: reforming the constitution to give Catalonia increased control over its affairs, but not full independence. The mayor sees the separatist movement’s plan to stage a referendum on secession in autumn 2017 as overly simplistic.
“Spain’s problem is that a regional system was created which was essentially quasi-federal but the way in which it works is not genuinely federal,” he says, of a framework created in the late Seventies during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. “There hasn’t been a debate, there isn’t even the possibility of a debate. There’s one option: you either vote in favour or against and that’s it. It is totally binary and politics isn’t binary.”
Ruiz blames this dysfunctional regional system for fuelling a litany of legal disputes between Barcelona and Madrid in recent years. In October, for example, the constitutional court in the Spanish capital overturned a five-year-old Catalan ban on bullfighting, to the outrage of nationalists in the region.
The antagonism has also spilled over beyond the political and judicial spheres, with ugly results. On social networks, unionists and nationalists frequently clash, trading insults rather than arguments. And it can get physical. Miguel García, a member of the stridently unionist Ciudadanos, was attacked in the street recently, as he and others from the party handed out flyers in the town of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.
His assailant – who was arrested and is not apparently associated with any particular party – spat on the flyers, insulted their distributors and then started punching García (65). "He called us fascists, he insulted our mothers and he told us to leave Catalonia," García tells The Irish Times, lifting his shirt and showing a large bruise still visible 10 days later. The Ciudadanos headquarters in L'Hospitalet de Llobregat has been attacked or vandalised six times since opening two years ago.
García believes the tone of public debate has coarsened across Spain as a whole lately and that Catalonia has witnessed the worst of it. “There are people who need to be careful about the message they’re giving because they’re encouraging confrontation,” he says.
This is the first article of two. Monday: Independence from a failing Spanish state the only option, say Catalonia’s die-hard separatists