Divided Catalonia: Calm, negotiated solution ‘not going to be the case’

Catalans in turmoil as they find themselves split on geographical, class and ethnic lines

Demonstrators from far-right Spanish groups light flares and chant slogans after marching from Plaza Espanya square in Barcelona in mid-October. The group marched on Spain’s National Day chanting anti-separatist slogans to protest Catalonia’s push for independence. File photograph: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Throughout most of his life, José Luis Godes never considered himself a Catalan nationalist. A Barcelona bank worker until he took early retirement, he leaned to the left politically, worrying more about social justice than national boundaries. But after years of neutrality on the issue, he has recently been converted to the Catalan independence cause.

“There could be a peaceful, calm, negotiated solution to this, one without winners and losers – a cultured, intelligent solution – but unfortunately that’s not going to be the case,” he says of the ongoing Catalan crisis.

“When it’s radicalised like this, there’s no way out, one side or the other wins.”

Believing that one day, those on the side of Catalan independence will emerge as the victors, he has joined them.


“I’ve never been a nationalist,” Godes (59) says. “But if I have to decide, I’ve gone for [Catalan] nationalism. Because I’ve had enough of the other kind.”

The “other kind”, he says, is Spanish nationalism, which he believes has been particularly aggressive in recent weeks.

He cites the attempts by the Spanish government and judiciary to prevent the October 1st independence referendum, with raids on Catalan administration buildings and arrests of officials in the build-up to it. On the day of the vote itself, there were the now-infamous scenes of Spanish police using violence to stop Catalans from voting.

Direct rule

Then, on October 21st, the Spanish government took an unprecedented step by triggering a plan to implement direct rule in the region.

As Godes’s journey from agnostic to believer in an independent republic suggests, the Catalan sovereignty issue is a complex one. With the Catalan and Spanish governments deeply entrenched in their positions in recent weeks, the divisions this crisis has dug are often deep.

However, the dispute is not only between the northeastern region and the rest of Spain. Within Catalonia itself, schisms are equally evident.

Ever since the independence movement entered the political mainstream, in 2012, polls have suggested that Catalans are fairly evenly split on the issue, with those in favour of remaining part of Spain in a majority. The most recent figures published by the regional government, in July, showed 41 per cent wanting secession and 49 per cent opposed to it.

Those who want to break away are not one homogeneous section of society, nor do they all have the same motives. Before the current independence drive, mainstream nationalists were mostly content to remain as part of Spain, occasionally even lending their parliamentary support to the central government in Madrid.

During that time, backing for independence tended to hover around 20-25 per cent. The members of that hardcore of separatism were often found living in the region’s rural interior, a long way from Madrid, both geographically and psychologically, and their desire for an independent state leaned heavily on an emotional detachment from Spain.

Those areas are still dominated by the pro-independence Junts pel Sí coalition and the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), an anti-capitalist party which advocates a Catalan republic.

“There’s a clear concentration of pro-independence voters in the [Catalan] interior, in the Pyrenean area,” says Josep Borrell, formerly a Socialist minister in the Spanish government and a president of the European parliament. Borrell, an outspoken critic of independence, is himself from the Pyrenean town of La Pobla de Segur.

In the past decade or so, support for secession has expanded beyond those highland areas. It became seen as an appealing alternative when the Spanish economy ran into trouble between 2008 and 2013, but also as a response to the perception that the central government of Mariano Rajoy was unsympathetic to Catalan culture and society. Yet its growth has been nuanced, says Borrell.

“Catalan society is divided geographically, it’s divided along ethno-linguistic lines […]it’s divided socio-economically.” The pro-independence slogan “Un sol poble” (“One people together”), he says, is erroneous.

Sometimes those divisions are linked. While the rural highlands are a hotbed of secessionism, Barcelona and the highly populated metropolitan area surrounding it are much more unionist.

Economic opportunities

That is mainly attributed to the fact that the city and its environs are home to many non-Catalan migrants who moved to the region seeking economic opportunities and who rarely learn the Catalan language fluently.

Their children are technically Catalan and may speak the language, but have roots elsewhere in the country, giving them a distinct perspective on the region’s relationship with the rest of Spain. It’s a phenomenon that combines Borrell’s geographical and “ethno-linguistic” factors.

“Catalonia is a region which over the last 40 to 60 years or so has received a lot of immigrants,” says electoral analyst Kiko Llaneras, of think-tank Quantio. “And those who are first-generation arrivals in Catalonia or who are children of first-generation arrivals are, for the most part, not in favour of independence.”

Data provided by the Catalan government shows that only 12 per cent of the region’s residents who were born elsewhere in Spain are in favour of breaking away. That figure rises to 29 per cent for Catalans whose parents were both born in another region, and reaches 75 per cent in favour among those with two parents and four grandparents all born in Catalonia.

Firm opponent

While José Luis Godes is Catalan-born and bred, his wife, Amelia Esquinas, is from Córdoba, in the southern region of Andalucía. She is a firm opponent of independence, and although in her case that is due to an intellectual mistrust of the secessionist project, she says family background does influence many of her fellow first-generation Catalans.

“In the rest of the country they don’t want to hear anything about an independence referendum,” she says. “And across the Barcelona industrial belt there are a lot of immigrants who aren’t the slightest bit interested in independence either.”

She links this trend to the legacy of the dictator Francisco Franco, whose 36-year rule ended with his death in 1975. Although he repressed the languages and cultures of Catalonia and the Basque Country, Esquinas points to the fact that he reinforced the industrialised status of both regions. Their resulting economic development outstripped that of more rural regions such as Andalucía and Extremadura, whose workers started migrating to the northern industrial hubs.

“Other regions felt neglected,” Esquinas says. “Franco divided us and he continues to do so.”

Many of those migrants to Catalonia – and their children – are low earners, helping to explain another aspect of the independence drive: it is a middle-class phenomenon, rather than a working-class uprising. The Catalan government’s figures show that only 29 per cent of Catalans who have “a lot of difficulty” in making ends meet support independence, while 51 per cent of those who are “comfortably off” favour it.

Looking beyond the migrant factor, Llaneras says those with lower incomes or who are out of work are likely to worry more about their own financial situation than Catalan sovereignty.

Relatively affluent

But this middle-class support for independence also has economic motives. In 2012, when the Catalan government first announced its intention to pursue independence, many in the region who had until then been relatively affluent were feeling the effects of Spain’s deep economic crisis.

“Separatists now are no longer a bunch of radical kids on the margin,” wrote financial commentator Jordi Sacristán, at the time. “Separatists now are the middle classes who are watching as their standard of living drops and they start to lose basic state services.”

Since then, the Spanish economy has recovered, but much of the Catalan bourgeoisie remains convinced of the need for independence.

A glance at those who queued to vote at polling stations on October 1st, or at those who have been turning out on the streets to demonstrate recently, shows the independence cause has a firm hold among younger Catalans. Although the movement tends to cut across generations, many young people have been encouraged to join it by shedding the baggage of history which still weighs on their forebears.

While José Luis Godes has embraced independence relatively late and his wife Amelia rejects the idea altogether, their 31-year-old daughter, Alicia, is fervently in favour.

“The younger generations are freer of the legacy of Franco than the older ones,” Godes says. “Those of us who are older were fed that concept of ‘Spain – united, great and free’,” he adds, citing a Franco-era slogan. “Younger people don’t have that.”

While his wife and daughter have opposing views on the Catalan situation, Godes insists the three of them are able to discuss it calmly. But he forecasts at least one of them will be dismayed in the end.

“In a confrontation, unfortunately it’s rare for there to be a solution that everyone is happy with,” he says.