According to legend, a dragon terrorized the population of a remote pagan village. The villagers would offer the dragon gold, sheep and even human beings to appease its anger, all to no avail. But a knight on a white horse came to the rescue, killing the monster with a spear and converting the village to Christianity in the process. This story, the legend of St. George, has been retold time and again as an allegory of victory over evil as well as of Christianity winning out over paganism and the devil.
The Spanish region of Catalonia is one of the many Christian regions to take St. George as their patron saint. To the Catalans he is Sant Jordi. Here, the knight spearing the wyrm has transcended his purely religious character to enter the broader culture and iconography. These days, many Catalans feel they are up against a new kind of dragon. This one, much like St. George's foe, uses its superior strength to force tribute from the population, giving nothing in return.
The relationship is complex between Spain's central government and Catalonia, an autonomous region that comprises 20 percent of the population but a full quarter of national GDP. Despite the analogies to the dragon, this relationship is not reducible to simple exploitation. But for the hundreds of thousands of people who participated in the rally on Catalonia's national day Sept. 11, freeing themselves from Madrid is the only way to achieve freedom and prosperity.
In recent years, however, Catalonia's push for secession has become particularly strong. This is mostly the result of Spain’s profound economic crisis and its effect on traditional political institutions. As Spain’s unemployment crisis deepened, and as frequent cases of corruption discredited the central government in Madrid, separatist sentiments flared up once again.
Some Catalan political parties are also responsible for this shift. The ruling Democratic Convergence Party tried to stymie the anti-establishment wave that was hurting Spain's traditional political parties by embracing independence. While anti-system parties like Podemos focused their rhetoric on criticizing austerity measures introduced by Madrid, Democratic Convergence Party chose to target Madrid's abuses regarding Catalonia and to advocate independence for the region.
The economic crisis and the discrediting of traditional political parties also led to the electoral growth of the Republican Left, a party that has been more traditionally linked to secessionist ideas. A smaller left-wing party, the Popular Unity Candidacy is also gaining greater favor in opinion polls and will be a key player when forming a government. These parties are a reminder of Catalonia's strong connection with both left-wing and republican ideas. (Barcelona was actually the capital of the Spanish Republic during most of the civil war.)
Fragment or Federalize?
Despite the rise in secessionist sentiments, not all Catalans support independence, and, even among those who do, support comes in varying degrees. In broad terms, there are three groups of people in Catalonia: those who oppose independence, those who want it but do not think will happen anytime soon and those who want it and think this is the time to achieve it.
Each of these groups is complex, and the lines between them often blur. The first group generally includes Catalans who think that Catalan and Spanish identities can coexist, as well as people who were born in other Spanish regions and speak Castilian. "Independence is something that the politicians invented to stop losing votes," a taxi driver from Extremadura once told me in Barcelona, summing up this view. Others support a reform of the Spanish constitution to, for example, give Catalonia more autonomy in the context of a federal Spain.
The group of people who want independence but do not think it will happen soon is much more heterogeneous. For many of them, the independence question presents a dilemma between their hearts and their brains. From an emotional point of view, they see Catalonia as a country that is clearly different from Spain and that should control its own destiny. From a rational point of view, however, they understand that unilateral secession would leave Catalonia outside the European Union and create all sort of political, economic and legal problems. Others are so skeptical about politics that they do not think the upcoming regional elections in Catalonia will change much. When discussing politics, the comment I've often heard is that "nothing ever changes in Spain."
The government in Madrid is missing an opportunity with the first two groups. Opinion polls show that, if instead of a binary option (secession vs. continuity), Catalans were simply allowed greater autonomy within a federal Spain, support for independence would drop. Not every Catalan who votes for a secessionist party really wants independence; many see it as a way of expressing dissatisfaction with Madrid. But one of the many tragedies of the current situation is that political constraints have pushed both the Spanish and the Catalan governments into a corner, severing the channels for dialogue and reducing room for compromise.
The third group includes mostly Catalan speakers who think that Catalonia has no choice but to become independent, even if it has to do so unilaterally. They would rather reach an amicable agreement with Madrid, but they think such a mutual understanding is unlikely. From their point of view, an independent Catalonia would struggle at first but has concrete chances of becoming a prosperous country. They use the Netherlands and Denmark — export-oriented nations with similar GDP — as their models for an independent Catalonia. Their main argument is that once Catalonia is fully in control of its wealth, the general standard of living will improve.
Hard to be Together
One of the most concerning aspects of the current bid for independence is the danger of a split within the Catalan society and between Catalonia and the rest of Spain. A large number of Catalans feel like prisoners within the Spanish state, while an equally large number of them are afraid of the unpredictable consequences of a break with Madrid.
Many Catalans have told me that they no longer discuss politics with their family and friends, because the issue of independence makes people's blood boil no matter what their opinion. A friend of mine who works at a primary school told me that teachers usually ignore the Spanish constitutional court's ruling that a quarter of teaching hours should be in Castilian. I have also noticed a certain tone of disdain in my Spanish friends in Madrid when discussing the situation in Catalonia. People in Madrid and other Castilian-speaking regions often find it hard to understand that many of the Catalans' claims and sentiments are legitimate.
The lack of understanding between pro- and anti-independence groups in Catalonia and between Catalans and the rest of Spain is worrying because, regardless of the outcome of the Sept. 27 regional elections, they will all have to continue living together. Probably the most encouraging aspect of the current situation is the complete absence of violence. The Sept. 11 pro-independence rally was a true celebration, with entire families demanding independence in a peaceful and respectful way. The years in which Spain went to war with itself and the times when separatism was synonymous with violence seem to belong definitively to the past.
That does not mean there are reasons for optimism. The regional elections will introduce a phase of extreme political complexity for Spain and Catalonia, and the governments in Madrid and Barcelona will have to act with caution. A unilateral declaration of independence is unlikely, but if secessionist forces gain control of the regional government, they will make a series of decisions that will force Madrid to react. The future of not only Catalonia but of Spain as a whole depends on the outcome of this delicate game of chess between the two governments.