Catalonia is hitting the headlines across the world today as its rumbling political crisis comes to a head on the day of the contentious referendum. As the polls open, a tense standoff between the Catalan government and the Central government in Madrid is descending into predictable violence. In the last couple of weeks it feels as if there has been no other topic of conversation, both online and on the street. The walls of my neighbourhood are plastered with referendum posters, Estelada flags are everywhere and the nightly cacerolada is deafening.
My daughter’s school (a designated polling station) has been occupied by a group of parents and supporters to prevent it being shut down by police. As I write, videos are starting to emerge of Spanish Policia Nacional and Guardia Civil forcibly shutting down polling stations in other schools. I can only assume ours is next. Regardless of where the blame for this mess lies, we are where we are, and the priority now must be to avoid violence. We can only hope that sanity prevails and that no-one gets seriously hurt.
As a relative outsider, I’ve been struggling to make sense of this rapidly escalating crisis. While an all-out propaganda war rages in the media and online, any rational arguments about the pros and cons of Catalonia becoming an independent republic have been drowned out as each side demonises the other. The debate has become increasingly polarised – the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality predominates on both sides. Twitter is awash with vitriol and flag icons denoting allegiances. The issue has become a wedge, dividing friends, neighbours and families.
In our age of instant information, each side competes to frame the situation to suit its own narrative. The Catalan separatists have been handed a huge propaganda victory by the heavy-handed response of the government in Madrid. The spectacle the of peaceful citizens of a western democracy being denied their right to vote by police in riot gear has played very well for the separatist politicians and activists, whose claims of victimisation by an oppressive state seem credible to a foreign audience short on details and new to the story. The Partido Popular strategy seems to have been to play to their Spanish nationalist base, rather than to reach out to Catalans who may be dubious about the legitimacy of this referendum and its likely consequences. Judging by my conversations with locals in the last few days, this strategy has backfired – even those who were ambivalent about voting before the recent crackdown are now determined to do so.
The scale of the failure of the government in Madrid to manage this crisis should not be underestimated. Of course, like the Remain camp in the Brexit debate, they were at a disadvantage from the beginning – legal and practical details are dull and complicated compared to the heady aroma of revolution. But they did have the law on their side – all they had to do was portray the central government as the adult in the situation, offering stability and the possibility of incremental change to give Catalans an alternative to the revolutionary separatists. Instead, they dug in – sending in the Guardia Civil to raid businesses and arrest officials, shutting down websites, and insisting with table-thumping intransience that the vote would not take place. Videos circulating of crowds cheering “a por ellos!” (go get ‘em!) at Spanish police deployments setting off for Catalonia were a spectacular own goal. It is as if their strategy was devised by the Catalan separatists, so well does it play into their hands.
It would be easy, therefore, to be swept up in the momentum of the separatist narrative, but as much as I cannot help but admire the quiet determination of the parents of my daughter’s classmates, as they peacefully resist the order not to vote, the revolutionary rhetoric sticks in my throat. Myths abound – to speak to some people, you would think that Catalonia is about to be transformed into Denmark overnight. Others say, recklessly, that some short-term pain is necessary and worth it to further the cause. The fact that leaving Spain means also leaving the EU is ignored or denied and democracy is defined solely in terms of voting, with no mention of the rule of law. The idea of an independent Catalan republic as unquestionably desirable and inevitable has become mainstream, when only a few years ago it was considered an extreme view. Worst of all, to question the narrative that the Catalan separatist movement is anything other than progressive, inclusive and democratic is portrayed as nothing short of fascist.
The few moderate voices calling for a negotiated solution, like Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, have been declared traitors by the purists. The appetite for revolution has been whet, and any attempt at cold, sober assessment of the practical and legal arguments is ignored or derided. On social media, Catalonia is portrayed as an oppressed nation suffering under a quasi-fascist dictatorship, when in fact it is not only the richest region Spain but also one of the most autonomous in Europe. A sense of perspective is sorely needed. It appalls me how easily we can be convinced to throw away what we have for a half-baked promise of a totally undeliverable utopia.
Spain and Catalonia are not alone in falling back on identity politics. Across Europe, politicians have failed to deal with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash and the economic stagnation that followed. The resulting public disillusionment and anger has been stoked into flag-waving nationalism of the kind Europe hoped to never see again. Brexit in the UK, the recent electoral success of the far-right in Germany, and near-misses in France, Austria and the Netherlands all show which way the wind is blowing. When people feel insecure, cheated, and angry, they look for someone to blame. Self-serving politicians waste no time in creating enemies to fulfil this purpose. In the UK, it was the EU and immigrants who took the blame. In Catalonia, it has been the Spanish state.
So here we are. Today the story about Catalonia on the pages of the international press is going to be about police brutality in the face of peaceful, democratic resistance. Images of Spanish police firing rubber bullets on the streets of Barcelona are sickening – the government in Madrid have disgraced themselves and deserve the condemnation they will undoubtedly receive from home and abroad. But simplistic narratives should be resisted. Rejecting the Partido Popular’s incompetence, corruption and brutality does not necessitate swallowing the separatist narrative whole. As much as separatists want to portray Catalan nationalism as distinctly democratic and inclusive, it is in fact about defining insiders and outsiders, and emphasising divisions above shared interests. Nationalism is a dangerous beast, much easier to unleash than to rein in.
There are alternative views of the way forward for Catalonia, but the violence today will serve only to deepen divisions, making Catalans feel that there is no alternative but to back the radical separatists. But pointing out the rather dull, rational reasons why reckless nationalism is not the answer feels like shouting into the wind. The tide is flowing in the other direction, and populations across the western world are rejecting the lessons of history to leap into a new era of populist nationalism. Nothing good will come of it.