by Flora Mory
“How do I ask for a lighter? Fuego, right?“ This was not a creative attempt to flirt with the guy I approached on the street of Barcelona, but a sincere attempt to light my cigarette while improving my poor Spanish. The man vehemently shook his head and responded: “Foc!! It’s Foc! Here we speak Catalan!“ This is not an unexpected response if you walk the streets of the authentic and popular district of Gràcia. However, never has the Catalonian nationalism been as apparent as during my fourth and latest visit of Barcelona this October. Most balconies are decorated with the red, orange and blue Catalan flag, most of which today carry a white star to declare support for the official independence of Catalonia. The increased enthusiasm is no surprise in light of the upcoming regional elections in Catalonia, which could lead to independence for the region. During mass demonstrations in September, calling for Catalonia to be “a new state in Europe,” the intensity of the separatist claim manifested itself.
The recession of the Spanish economy appears to be one of the main forces driving new dynamism of the Catalan separatism. Catalunya (Catalan) or Cataluña (Spanish), the region of which Barcelona is the capital, is amongst the economically stronger regions of Spain. A lot of the discourse in the context of the crisis revolves around the argument of Catalan public figures stating that the economic policy of the central government does not fit the Catalan reality. Catalonia, is not only economically more developed, but also an important net giving region of Spain. Following the demonstrations and the failure of negotiations between the regional government of Catalonia and the central government of Spain about the financial framework, the president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Artur Mas, called for early elections to be held on November 25th. Before the dissolution of the regional assembly, it gave the green light to a referendum to ask Catalans whether they would like independence from Spain. Recent polls suggest a slight majority in favour of independence.
In times of growing unrest over the economic crisis, the question of independence polarizes the Catalan society. While the Catalan Catholic Church would side with the Catalan people if they vote for independence from Spain, non-separatist Catalans marched through Barcelona on October 12th of this year. Those in opposition to Mas’s move to call for early elections and the referendum argue that an institutional challenge, such as independence, would lead to even more instability in times of economic turmoil. They may be right, if the newfound strength of separatist ideas relies on the assumption that the economic unrest is caused by the rest of Spain and that therefore the solution is getting rid of the cause. After all, the state of the regional budget is not that splendid either: the region of Catalonia recently requested a 5 billion euro bailout from the Spanish state.
The handling of the Catalonia issue is amongst the most pressing challenges to the crisis-ridden Spanish state. Its response to the independence ambitions will be crucial, as it may fuel sentiments in favor engaging in the path of leaving Spain. The results of the regional elections on November 25th might serve as a good barometer to see whether the majority of Catalans prefers a flag with or without the white star.