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Catalonia independence movement causing pain in Spain

As the Spanish economy falters, rumblings of secession are growing louder, especially in prosperous Catalonia, writes Dan Hancox

Supporters of Artur Mas's independentist Ciu Party watch the results of the Catalan regional election on a big screen outside the Hotel Majestic in Barcelona. CiU secured fewer seats than expected, and lost many it had previously held. Dave Stelfox for The National
Supporters of Artur Mas's independentist Ciu Party watch the results of the Catalan regional election on a big screen outside the Hotel Majestic in Barcelona. CiU secured fewer seats than expected, and lost many it had previously held. Dave Stelfox for The National

It seems strange for a nation famed for its exuberance, but Spain's national anthem, La Marcha Real, is one of only two wordless anthems in the world.

While odd, this reluctance to declare what Spain stands for and where it came from speaks volumes about the country's discomforting recent past, and its increasingly volatile present.

La Marcha Real was not always wordless. Until the country's fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, died in 1975, it was full of the patriotic bombast that characterises most national anthems. The words were removed in 1978, during the country's uneasy transition to parliamentary democracy. As a mark of this uncertainty, nothing was written in their place.

In 2007, ahead of the Beijing Olympics, amid a resurgence of national confidence bolstered by the so-called Spanish economic miracle, a nationwide competition was held to find new official lyrics for their athletes to sing.

The winning entry began with the words "Viva Espana" (long live Spain) and immediately became so controversial - in part for its erasure of regionalism - that the plan was hastily set aside.

In terms of unified national meaning, Spain is, a young man named Carlos told me, "a desert". But for more than 30 years, it had been an entirely habitable desert - one in which the country's vibrant, distinctive regions, with their own unique cultures, histories and languages (most notably in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and to a lesser extent, Galicia), have happily coexisted.

But the depth of Spain's current financial crisis now threatens to drive Catalonia towards independence.

On January 23, the regional government, a partnership between two pro-independence parties, led by the bourgeois nationalist CiU, and the more left-wing ERC, passed a declaration proclaiming the Catalan people a "sovereign political and legal entity", the first stage towards holding a referendum on independence in 2014.

They will face a tough fight to get it, because such a referendum is, according to the Madrid government, illegal under the post-Franco constitution. "Sovereignty implies, literally, that there is nothing that ranks higher than the democratic will of the people," the ERC leader Oriol Junqueras said after the vote. "The right to decide cannot be shared with another legal entity."

Polls throughout 2011 and 2012 generally found a pro-independence vote of about 50 per cent in Catalonia, and an anti-independence vote of about 20 per cent (compared with 30 per cent in favour and 50 per cent opposed in the mid-1990s). The game-changer, when it happened, was a demonstration. On September 11 last year, to commemorate the National Day of Catalonia, the streets of Barcelona were awash with red and yellow stripes. Such scenes happen every year, but this time the numbers were unusually high: even the Barcelona police, who are normally inclined to underplay the figures, estimated that about 1.5 million people took part.

In the aftermath, in small towns across Catalonia, the commonly-named Plaça d'Espanya (Spain Square) was changed to Plaça de la Independència (Independence Square).

The leader of the regional government, CiU's Artur Mas, seized on the moment and called for a snap election on November 25, hoping to establish a larger electoral mandate for a referendum.

If Catalonia wanted to leave, Madrid was not willing to let it go. In October, the Spanish army colonel Francisco Alamán Castro caused an uproar when he said "the basis of Catalan nationalism is a hatred of Spain", going on to say that secession would happen "over my dead body. Spain is not Yugoslavia or Belgium. Even if the lion is sleeping, don't provoke the lion, because he will show the ferocity proven over centuries".

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Hurtling towards Barcelona on the high-speed, high-cost AVE train, little changes as you enter Catalonia. There are no flags, no red-and-yellow striped banners and no border police, but gradually a sense of difference emerges. The sparse landscape slowly becomes less lunar and more verdant. Soon it's less empty, too. Grey cylinders and cooling towers peek up through tree-lined hills, peach-coloured tower blocks sit incongruously in the foothills, and, as you get closer to Barcelona, Catalonia's capital, electricity sub-stations and warehouses sprout from among the trees.

Barcelona itself is a city in a state of high political agitation. Walking around its medieval streets, I stumble upon protests about healthcare cuts, about the ever-increasing rates of unemployment, and even a thunderously noisy demonstration by police officers against budget restraints.

On November 14 last year, Spain, Italy, Greece and Portugal held general strikes against austerity and the euro zone crisis. The surge in interest in Catalan independence is a direct result of this same crisis: why, ask the Catalans, must we continue to pay for the woes elsewhere in Spain, when it is our industry that offers the Spanish economy's last bastion of hope?

This imbalance has a long history: for more than a century, in times of economic hardship in Spain, Catalonia's advanced industrial base has provided employment for the more impoverished, rural parts of the country.

As a result, the region has seen substantial internal migration, most notably in the 1950s and 1960s. But back then, Franco was still in power, Catalan culture was repressed, and anyone daring enough to voice pro-independence political opinions risked being killed.

The prospect of independence now presents some difficult questions for Catalonia's numerous left-wing groups. If you abandon Spain and the crisis of capitalism there, you are also abandoning its victims to the mercy of the ruling Partido Popular (PP). At an election rally for the left-wing and green ICV-EUiA coalition in the Sants district of Barcelona a few days before the vote, the speakers erred towards the idea of strength through unity.

The flags in the hall had red and green rather than the Catalan red and yellow stripes, and the special guest speaker was Alexis Tsipras, leader of Syriza, the left-wing party that came out of nowhere to almost win last year's fractious Greek election. His arrival in the hall was heralded by loud music and scores of flags, an entrance more befitting a rock star than a politician.

Tsipras and his Catalan comrades called for a radical solution not just for Catalonia, not just for Spain, but for all of Europe.

"Liberal capitalism is destroying southern Europe - destroying workers' rights, public services, public health," he said. "We don't have to blame the people of the north - it's the fault of big capital and the fault of Mas, Rajoy and Merkel."

Every one of the 500 or so seats was filled. People were clinging to curtains and lining the aisles, spilling out in each direction. On more than one occasion, the famous Spanish Civil War-era slogan "No Pasaran!" rang out spontaneously, right fists pumping the air. Translated, No Pasaran means "they shall not pass", which was originally a reference to Franco's fascists.

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Resistance, independence and freedom-fighting runs in the same Catalan rivers that were the arteries of its industrial revolution. "We have historical memory of struggle in our people," declaimed the ICV-EuiA leader at one point, "and a historical obligation to fight the crisis."

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The following night, an intense election campaign culminated in what was billed as an historic CiU rally at the 24,000-capacity Palau St Jordi - a final push before election weekend, the last, determined drive to help Artur Mas on his fated journey to be not just president of the Catalan regional parliament, but president of the independent nation of Catalonia.

It's this part of Barcelona, high up on the Montjuïc hill overlooking the city, that was selected as the site for the so-called Olympic Ring of venues and parks, and as such it's intrinsically bound to the events that transformed the city, and indirectly, the entire region. Hosting the 1992 Olympics did many things both to and for Barcelona, but most elementally, it catalysed its transformation into a world city - the 11th most visited in the world, with tourist numbers increasing by more than 130 per cent in the last decade alone.

For such a cosmpolitan city, the approximately 20,000 assembled inside Palau St Jordi were almost entirely white. The Catalan bourgeoisie were out in force, wearing tweed and pastel-coloured trousers, talking on iPhones clad with Catalan flag covers. There were a few small children with colouring books, and great seas of well-dressed middle-aged families. On some of the seats, red and yellow cards had been laid out in preparation for later. As a politician, Artur Mas has a Clinton-like polish to him - and the event was unashamedly styled after a glitzy US election rally.

As the hall gradually filled up to near capacity, the music video for Lady Gaga's Judas played above everyone's heads, on big screens, alternating with videos of Mas speaking from the podium. It's a strange and accidental visual collage - but a reminder that the CiU is striving to declare Catalonia different in a world where cultural exchange has long since overtaken them.

"Thank you for being here - it's important to us," said a smiling older man in a brown suede jacket, grasping my hand. "I think Galicia and Andalucía should have the right to decide for themselves whether they want independence - like Scotland," Mark, an earnest CiU activist in his twenties, told me. "It's a similar struggle," he continued. "But there you have a long democratic tradition, whereas here," he tailed off, curling his lip. Asked why the EU flag was so ubiquitous in the hall, Mark said:. "Because we want to be accepted by them if we gain independence … It's going to be a long fight - there are years until a referendum."

Elsewhere, there were preppy students in ironed shirts and smart golf jumpers, young women wearing necklaces studded with stones as big as their eyes, the young men grinning with straight white teeth.

None of the people I met were inclined to spit rage against Madrid, or Spain, or the Spanish - only the PP, for financially penalising their relative wealth, and more, for the denial of their sovereignty.

The PP were competing in the regional election too, under the slogan "Catalonia si, Espana tambien" (Catalonia yes, Spain as well). It's this that gets under the skin of a lot of Catalans. They don't hate Spain, they just feel distant from it - culturally, politically and even in terms of personality. "We are less open than the Spanish," a Catalan woman named Gemma told me later that weekend, "more like the English, more guarded."

When the pre-speech entertainment began, it was unashamedly traditionalist.

Eight men in red frocks, white blouses and green and white leggings performed a flag dance with four EU and four Catalan flags, while 12 drummers in red berets kept time. Then the elaborate card trick was performed, 5,000 people holding up their red, yellow and blue cards to make a massive Catalan flag filling an entire side of the arena.

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As a teenager, the Catalan flag had always held positive connotations for me: a region so great that George Orwell wrote a book-length homage to it, the home of FC Barcelona, the architect Antoni Gaudí and the artist Joan Miró i Ferrà; but more than anything, the flag was a symbol of resistance to Franco. Something changed in that arena though - suddenly the red and yellow stripes started to look like what they were: icons of nationalism, as strident and exclusive as any other form of nationalism.

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On the night the election results came in, I waited for Carlos on a street called Carrer Py i Margall - named after the president of the short-lived Spanish First Republic of 1873 - the closest any nation in the western world has ever come to having a quasi-anarchist head of state.

The street name was appropriate: the local area, Gracia, contained a firmly established base of local political organisation; a community organised to look after itself. From this same lineage emerged the CUP, a new grassroots political party channeling the same spirit as the "indignados" (the outraged) or "15M" movement that set the world alight (and inspired Occupy Wall Street) in May and June 2011.

Carlos was already excited - the exit polls were in, and suggested the CUP were going to get their first ever seats, while the CiU, far from increasing their mandate, had actually lost 12 seats. As CUP supporters milled in the street outside an anarchist social centre, one of the candidates, David Fernàndez, walked past, clasped Carlos's hand and slapped him on the shoulder, beaming - with his huge sideburns, red hoodie, jeans and trainers; he couldn't have looked more different to Artur Mas.

So what had gone wrong for Mas and CiU? "Maybe that Latin American stuff doesn't work here!" laughed Raymundo, referring to the attempts to elevate him as a populist people's hero. Carlos agreed: "I saw those posters and I did wonder 'is that going to play well here?'."

In a city with one of the strongest traditions of anarchism in the world, many of Carlos and Raimundo's friends had not been won over from the anarchist "never vote" position - but clearly, others had; they won 126,000 votes and three seats, exceeding expectations.

"The way to open these state powers is through local organising," explained Carlos. "It's not these nationalist mythologies: it's democracy." To that end, the new CUP representatives have pledged to serve only one term each, and base their decisions on the opinions expressed by local assemblies.

Something will have to change. In a poll for the Spanish Centre for Sociological Research a few weeks later, 67.5 per cent of Spaniards said they were unhappy with the way democracy works in Spain. It's this disdain for the Spanish state in general, rather than merely the effects of the economic crisis, that brought eight million indignados onto the streets in 2011, and informed their rallying cry, "real democracy now".

When Spain's first democratic constitution after the death of Franco was being drafted, in the late 1970s, allowances were made for regional autonomy - and even though notoriously independently-minded regions like the Basque Country and Catalonia were much more gung-ho, a uniform solution was prescribed: "Café para todos", went the expression - coffee for everyone: every region would be treated the same by the central government in Madrid.

As the election results came in, Carlos read out a tweet from one of his friends, heralding this new era of uncertainty: "It says 'Cafe para nadie'," he laughed: "coffee for nobody! It means no one can impose the orthodoxy of the state any more."

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After a week of sunshine, nerves and excitement, Barcelona woke the next morning with a collective hangover: puddles on the pavement, an indistinct mop of grey above, a nation neither freed, nor decided.

I left Catalonia in a fug of damp uncertainty, heading south past giant chimneys and tarmac glistening in the rain, farmers' bonfires steaming in the late afternoon gloaming, and brilliant white shafts of light breaking through the slate grey sky.

"No han entendido nada" (They have understood nothing) gloated the front page headline of the PP-friendly ABC newspaper, on top of a picture of an unhappy looking Artur Mas. The election results may have been disappointing for the CiU and Mas, but their pursuit of independence continues.

Next year marks the 300th anniversary of the siege of Barcelona, the historic Spanish defeat of Catalan self-determination commemorated as Catalan National Day. That year, 1714, is such an important date for Catalans that FC Barcelona fans have taken to chanting for independence after exactly 17 minutes and 14 seconds of their home games against Real Madrid. Will a declaration of sovereignty by Mas, the next step on the path to 2014, mark the disintegration of Spain?

Even with Spain crippled by 26 per cent unemployment it still seems unlikely that all of Catalonia will leave the union. Crucially, the thing that has helped make its capital, Barcelona, the city it is in 2013 - an exciting, vibrant global metropolis, full of immigrants from the rest of Spain and a thousand points beyond - seems to contradict the push for independence.

Indeed, in an age of heightened globalisation, the flag-waving of the CiU just feels slightly antiquated or as Carlos put it: "I'm Catalan, Andalucian, Asturian and Texan - why should a red and yellow flag define me anymore than the other three do?"

Dan Hancox is a regular contributor to The Review.