Two years ago in Girona, a well-to-do town in Spain’s autonomous region of Catalonia, Mercé Escara hung a pro-independence flag from her balcony window. The administrator for her apartment building promptly asked her to remove it.
Visit Girona today, and a similar request would be met with total derision. Throughout the town centre, about one property in three displays at least one, if not several, estelada flags that symbolise the Catalan separatist movement.
Although there are widespread disagreements about the cause, no one in Catalonia can deny that the pro-independence movement in Spain’s richest region is on the rise – signified by the pro-nationalist march on 11 September that brought well over a million people on to the streets of the Catalan capital, Barcelona.
Seizing on the political traction for the separatist movement, the conservative Convergence and Union (CiU) party that governs Catalonia has brought regional elections forward by two years to Sunday. They are likely to strengthen the position of the nationalists, reinforcing the mandate of Catalonia’s regional leader, Artur Más, to press ahead with a referendum on independence despite the ban on secession that is written in the Spanish constitution. However, if Sunday’s vote triggers this move, Spain’s economic woes will be compacted by a fresh constitutional crisis.
The mere suggestion of the referendum has set Catalonia’s ruling coalition on a collision-course with Spain’s main central political parties, and created a political headache in the most turbulent of economic times for the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, and his ruling centre-right Partido Popular (PP) government.
“These elections are not just the most important of our lives, they’re the most important of the last three centuries,” Carles Puigdemont, Girona’s mayor and President of the Assembly of Municipalities for Independence, told The Independent. His reference to the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century, in which Catalonia’s fighters were crushed by those of Spain and France, is still a source of ire for Catalans. “As Catalans this is a historic responsibility,” he says.
Catalonia’s history, language and culture have long been a key part of separatist sentiment, but money is at the heart of this new fervour.
Mr Puigdemont argues that although Catalonia produces 20 per cent of Spain’s GDP, it does not receive the appropriate level of investment from Madrid. He complains that Catalonia “only receives nine per cent of investment in transport infrastructure”, laments “the failure to turn the N-2, the busiest A-road in Spain that runs through here, into a motorway”, and objects to the fact that, in a country with one of the most extensive high speed train networks, his region’s railways “still need a change of gauge at the nearby frontier with France”.
But all of this has to be endured, he says, against a backdrop of “permanent, endemic Catalanophobia in [Spanish] political circles”.
“It’s over...” he says. “We’ve supported Madrid governments on the left, on the right... but we’ve decided to try to have our own state. We owe it to our children, so that in the future they can work in all kinds of jobs, not just service industries like tourism. Madrid doesn’t understand that – it isn’t capable – but we do.”
Mr Puigdemont talks tough, but hardline nationalists are less convinced that his party, the CiU, which traditionally took a more long-term, softly-softly approach to independence, has any genuine interest in a separate Catalonia. The party’s leader, Artur Más, has particularly come under fire for referring to Spain as “our country”.
“Artur Más is too ambiguous. He talks about Catalonia forming its own state [but] he never says the word ‘independence’,” says Joan Vericata, a former CiU voter who now supports the small Solitaritat per la Independencia (SI) political coalition. “He doesn’t put dates on anything and we [must] take advantage of the wave of pro-independence feeling that’s here right now in Catalonia... we have to move fast.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, the PP’s pro-Spanish President in Girona, Enric Millo, says nationalists are cynically exploiting economic recession, and that any moves towards a referendum must be blocked.
“The pro-independence moving is apparently growing because the recession affects a lot of families and a lot of Catalans are suffering from the consequences of unemployment,” Mr Millo says. “And, in the midst of all the desperation, a certain person appears looking like the Messiah with his arms open, seemingly guaranteeing the Promised Land [as Mr Más appears in CiU campaign posters] and that independence will cure all ills against this hypothetical enemy, Spain. Which is, of course, absurd.
“The fact is, Catalonia wouldn’t be able to pay for its own pensions, or handle the part of Spain’s debt that corresponds to it. Nationalism is a toxic smokescreen for all of this [regional] government’s errors.”
Before the elections were announced, Mr Más faced almost daily protests against his government’s cuts in public spending. Mr Millo is convinced that without the recession this fresh wave of “separatism would sink like a soufflé”.
“The recession provides extra fuel for separatism,” Mr Puigdemont admits. “But it’s not the original source. We have our own language, our own culture, it’s in our DNA.”
Others believe a poor negotiating strategy by Spain has been responsible for the steady rise in Catalonia’s pro-independence movement.
“If the Spanish had given into a few of the nationalists demands, like say, a Catalan football team, or greater fiscal rights, then they wouldn’t be in such a strong position now,” says Germá Capdevila, a Catalan political columnist and editor of L’Esguard magazine. “As it is, now they have raised the stakes on both sides and the nationalists are going for broke.”
The only area that both the pro and anti-nationalists seem to agree on is that these are the most important elections in Catalonia’s democratic history. However, the PP argues that a referendum held only in Catalonia would be illegal under the Spanish constitution. To be legal, it would need to be conducted across Spain.
“According to our laws a referendum is possible,” says Mr Millo. “But… our constitution establishes a principle of unity amongst all the regions and all the regions have the right to give an opinion.” Assuming the referendum took place and was pro-independence, the nationalists’ next step would be to take their case to Brussels, which has been decidedly lukewarm towards Catalan claims for a separate state.
“What will they do if there’s a majority in favour of independence, in Catalonia? They can’t not listen to us,” says Mr Puigdemont.
“Personally, I don’t think there’s any way back and we shall end up with a Catalan state I can’t imagine what Spain can offer us now that they haven’t offered us over the last 30 years.”