‘We’re doing this to show we’re a republic’

A year on from Catalan referendum, tensions still simmer over independence from Madrid

Anna, a 42 year old with tattooed arms and aviator sunglasses, is standing on a bridge looking down on the AP7 motorway between Tarragona and Barcelona. On the railings in front of her a large yellow banner, in view of the motorists below, states: “Catalonia, new European state.”

“Coming up on to the bridges is a way of making ourselves visible, because a lot of foreign people, a lot of tourists, drive along here,” she says.

About 25 people, young and old, are spread along the bridge. Some are brandishing the estelada, the red-and-yellow-striped flag with a single star that symbolises Catalan independence. Others are waving excitedly as cars approach, many of which beep their horns. Pop music pumps out of a large portable speaker and a teenage girl is passing around vermouth served in plastic cups.

This is a Committee for the Defence of the Republic (CDR), one of dozens of small groups that have sprung up over the last year or so to defend what they believe is a mandate for Catalonia to break away from Spain. That mandate, they say, was obtained on October 1st last year, when the Catalan government organised a referendum on independence, despite the opposition of the Spanish government and the courts. Turnout was estimated at only 43 per cent, but an overwhelming majority of those who did take part voted for secession.


“We’re doing this to show that we’re a republic,” says Anna, A single mother, she takes part in these weekly motorway bridge demonstrations every Saturday morning, with her daughter in tow.

Anna has also taken part in more dramatic actions with CDRs, including a protest that involved opening toll barriers on a motorway last spring so that cars coming through didn’t have to pay. She has even used holiday time from her job as a teacher working with the mentally disabled to pursue her political activism.

“If we voted and we won and we’re a republic, we’re not going to stop until they accept it,” she adds. “The problem they have in Spain is in accepting reality. If we vote and win, why don’t they want to accept that?”

Democratic right

That question goes to the heart of Spain’s territorial crisis. Pro-independence Catalans insist they have a democratic right to vote on independence, but unionists, in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, say the constitution does not allow it.

Tensions surrounding this issue had been brewing for many years, but they erupted during last year’s referendum. In many voting stations police interrupted proceedings, seizing ballot boxes and, in several now-notorious instances, attacking voters. By the end of the month, the Catalan parliament had issued a unilateral declaration of independence, but it was little more than a symbolic move as the Spanish government immediately introduced direct rule, a measure that remained in place until this June.

Meanwhile, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont and some of his colleagues fled abroad and nine leading independence leaders who stayed behind have been in prison ever since, awaiting trial for charges that include rebellion.

Outside Catalonia, all these developments suggested to many Spaniards that the Catalan independence movement had been cowed and forced to reconsider its previous boldness.

But, a year on from the referendum, separatist feeling is still as strong as ever. The pre-trial imprisonment of the politicians, in particular, has fuelled the movement’s sense of grievance and given it a renewed focus which is visible on Catalonia’s streets, where activists adorn public spaces with yellow ribbons to demand the freedom of these “political prisoners”.

"When it comes to human relations, the [rest of Spain] haven't got the slightest idea what co-existence means," says one 71-year-old man on the motorway bridge, who prefers not to give his name. As Els Segadors, the Catalan anthem, blasts out of a loudspeaker behind him, he angrily explains that Spaniards have a lower "level of culture" than Catalans.

Such animosity reflects how polarised positions on the Catalan issue have become.

Opposing positions

A regional election held in December gave pro-independence parties 48 per cent of the vote and a slender majority in the Catalan parliament, with unionist parties of varying stripes taking the remainder of votes and seats. Polls show that support for each side has barely shifted in the months since, suggesting that the two opposing positions have hardened.

In June, a new Spanish government took office, led by Socialist Pedro Sánchez. It allowed the nine prisoners to be moved to Catalan jails, reinstated a bilateral working group between Madrid and Catalonia, and has stated its intention to improve the atmosphere surrounding the territorial crisis. But the separatist and unionist voices either side of the new government make that difficult.

In August, Catalan president Quim Torra told supporters of independence that "we have to attack the Spanish state" and that the secessionist movement is "more determined than ever to achieve the Catalan republic".

Meanwhile, the two leading right-wing parties, Ciudadanos and the Popular Party (PP), have been accusing the Sánchez government of appeasing separatism and are urging him to reintroduce direct rule.

A bubble mentality has taken root on both sides. For many in the pro-independence camp, this means casting their own predicament and the threat posed by their adversaries in the most drastic terms. Torra, for example, has compared the independence cause to the US civil rights movement; meanwhile, separatists frequently accuse Ciudadanos and other pro-union organisations of being covert fascists (one conspiracy theory claimed that a photograph circulating online of a young man performing the pro-Franco salute was of Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera – it wasn't).

Violent by nature

"Both sides are pulling each way so hard that there's no moderate ground in the middle," says Lola García, a journalist and author of El naufragio (The Shipwreck), an account of the Catalan crisis. "That impedes any negotiation."

One of the biggest points of discord centres around violence. The rebellion charge against the jailed leaders hinges on the notion that they carried out or instigated violent acts. Some pro-union politicians and media have argued, despite scant evidence, that the independence movement is violent by nature.

“Non-violence is important for us, above all because of how the international community sees us,” says the pro-independence activist Óscar Cid, in response to such allegations.

Some pro-union politicians and media have argued, despite scant evidence, the independence movement is violent by nature

Every day for the last two months, Cid has come to Mas d'Enric prison, on the outskirts of Tarragona. He brings his saxophone along and plays to a small crowd that gathers here to campaign for the release of Carme Forcadell, the former speaker of the Catalan parliament who is awaiting trial. The mood is both festive and outraged and many of those present offer the view that they are trying to break away from a "fascist state".

“However much direct rule they throw at us, however many police they deploy, we’re still on our feet,” says Cid, when asked if last autumn’s Catalan independence movement ended in defeat.

“We’re still fighting, with joy and with a determination to push our country forward,” he says. “We haven’t lost.”

From ‘fascism’ and ‘supremacism’ to a softer approach

“I think we have to be very careful when using some words – Spain is not a fascist state,” says Jordi Solé, MEP for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), one of the leading pro-independence parties.

“The same way I don’t like it when people call those who want independence ‘supremacists’ or ‘Nazis’ or whatever,” Solé says. “It’s stupid, it’s nonsense and it’s not of any help when trying to find a way out of this situation. But I do think that within some state structures and some parties there are still attitudes that remind us of Franco.”

ERC has performed a curious shift over the last year. As the mainstream political party with the longest secessionist tradition, last October it urged Catalonia’s then-president Carles Puigdemont to issue a unilateral declaration of independence.

Now, with the party’s own leader, Oriol Junqueras, in prison, ERC has become less strident and more moderate than Puigdemont’s Catalan Democratic Party (PDeCAT) regarding how to pursue the goal of separation.

ERC’s spokesman in Congress, Joan Tardà, recently underlined this new approach when he said: “If there is any secessionist out there who is naive or stupid enough to want to impose independence without taking into account the 50 per cent who are not in favour of independence, it’s clear that they are absolutely in the wrong.”

With Puigdemont and Torra still preaching the kind of unilateralism that led to last year’s chaotic autumn, the relationship between them and ERC has become fraught.

Solé welcomes the more conciliatory approach to the Catalan standoff of new prime minister Pedro Sánchez. However, he does not accept Sánchez’s insistence that the solution to the crisis lies in improving Catalonia’s existing powers rather than offering a referendum on independence.

“If this is the final offer from Mr Sánchez, then I’m afraid he hasn’t learned anything from what has been happening in this country, in Catalonia, in the last seven or eight years,” he said.

* Friday: Guy Hedgecoe talks to Catalans seeking to maintain unity with Spain