Barcelona keeps cool as Madrid halts independence celebrations

Separatists are mostly phlegmatic after Madrid’s imposition of direct rule and promise of elections. But they are angry about Spain’s past mistakes

After the real and figurative fireworks, the popping of cava corks and the tears and flag-waving that greeted Friday’s short-lived declaration of independence, Barcelona awoke on Saturday as a fair approximation of its old self.

The thousands of independence supporters who had jammed the streets may have been at home licking their wounds, nursing hangovers and mourning the stillborn Catalan republic, but life – and commerce – went on.

The only clue to the tumultuous events of the previous day was the battery of TV cameras trained hopefully on the facade of the government palace in the Plaça Sant Jaume.

Around the corner on the narrow Carrer del Bisbe, tourists hurried past the beggars in wheelchairs as a busker sang arias and hawkers laid out their fans, castanets and selfie sticks.

Behind the business-as-usual atmosphere, however, lies uncertainty and the sense that the political unrest of the past six weeks is taking its toll on both pockets and nerves.

One local businessman, whose shop on the Plaça Sant Jaume sells FC Barcelona strips, statues of flamenco dancers and bulls, was looking out on to the square and crossing his fingers for a better day. “Business is down at least 50%,” he said. “It’s just demo after demo here and people can’t get into the shop.”

Supporters of Catalan separatism celebrate in Plaça Sant Jaume, Barcelona, on Friday after the regional parliament’s declaration of independence from Spain.
Supporters of Catalan separatism celebrate in Plaça Sant Jaume, Barcelona, on Friday after the regional parliament’s declaration of independence from Spain. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Given that Friday’s declaration of independence in the Catalan parliament was swiftly followed by the Spanish government’s imposition of direct rule, he was hoping for a rapid return to the days when tourists outnumbered protesters.

“I just want it all to get back to normal as soon as possible. The sooner, the better.”

Fernando Selvaggio, who has run his antique stall outside the cathedral for the past 40 years, sat smoking a cigar while he waited for customers to arrive.

Having lived through the Franco dictatorship, he was not overly concerned by recent events – “If I was, I wouldn’t be here” – but neither was he happy with the way the Spanish authorities have acted. Like many Catalans, the 77-year old is still angry over the Spanish constitutional court’s 2010 decision to hobble a statute that would have yielded the region still greater autonomy.

“I’ve only been in favour of independence for the past six or seven years – since they struck down the statute,” he said. “It was a good statute but they squashed it. Spain has the power and they’re using it.”

Many of the current problems, he added, could have been avoided if the Spanish government had agreed to a referendum instead of leaving the Catalan government to stage a unilateral one.

“They’re not very democratic; democrats let people vote. If they’d agreed to let people vote, it might have been a win for the No camp.”

Jesús López Rodríguez, a 51-year-old administrator from Barcelona, was also feeling a little flat. “I was really in the mood to celebrate something last night, but I didn’t manage it,” he said. “I couldn’t enjoy the independence declaration even though it was what I wanted.

“I was curious to see what the atmosphere was like in Barcelona last night, so I went into the centre late but I didn’t see much euphoria; just kids drinking and trying to have a good time. Those of us who normally go on the marches weren’t around.”

López Rodríguez, who witnessed the violence as Spanish police officers tried to stop the referendum on 1 October, knows the coming weeks will be long and difficult.

“It’s obvious that the Spanish government will start cracking down very hard. We’ll try to resist peacefully but it’s going to be a merry-go-round of tensions. The Spanish government is holding the reins and it’s all going to be very complicated.”

His bittersweet sentiments were shared by Anna Comas, an interior designer from Calella, a coastal town 36 miles north-east of Barcelona. Her happiness at the independence declaration was soon tempered by the response from Madrid.

“I was working but then I headed into the town square to celebrate. If I’d known what was going to happen, I would have taken the day off. We’ve got a lot of doubts, but I like to think things have been properly planned.”

Although she trusts in the now-removed government of Carles Puigdemont and its promise to make Catalonia a sovereign country she remains trepidatious: “I’m still a bit scared.”

But those who favour staying in Spain see things rather differently.

Max Borrell, a 17-year-old Catalan student, has never believed in the notion of a unilateral independence declaration.

“By making a unilateral declaration we have renounced the support of the EU that we need if we are to achieve dialogue. That said, the sentiment and the desire that motivates part of the population to leave Spain aren’t going to disappear. I think we have a long and difficult road ahead.”

Alex Ramos, vice-president of the pro-unity group Societat Civil Catalana, argues that the Spanish prime minister had no choice but to reach for article 155 of the country’s constitution.

“The independence declaration was a disappointment and Spain, like any other state, had to react to maintain its territorial integrity and safeguard its constitution,” he said. “The Spanish government’s reaction was intelligent because they’re going for elections on 21 December rather than in six months’ time – that should calm things down so we can return to normality.”

Normality, however, remains a relative concept in Barcelona. On Saturday morning, tourists were taking it in turns to shoot selfies beneath the statue of Ramon Berenguer III, the celebrated 12th-century count of Barcelona.

Separatists had decided to offer the memorial a colourful makeover, tying an estelada flag around Berenguer’s neck like a long bib and thrusting another into the mouth of his proud horse.

At the Arc de Triomf, the tractor protest of a fortnight ago has given way to the bottles and marquees of the 37th annual Catalan wine and cava show.

Its organiser, Jordi Redón, said there had been a roaring trade on Friday night in people coming to buy sparkling wine for the brief celebrations. But he said future sales could be slower if people elsewhere in Spain chose to punish pro-independence Catalans for their separatist clamour. “There could be a lowering of sales levels in Spain if people use it as a weapon to punish Catalans,” he said.

“But there have aways been some people who say they will boycott Catalan products whenever there are demands for more autonomy or a better deal. It’s a mistake, though, as lots of Catalan products actually use a lot of ingredients from elsewhere in Spain, like tomatoes.”

In the autumn sunshine of the cathedral square, a little removed from the escorted groups and street sellers, two young German tourists sat drinking coffee and trying to process exactly what had happened on Friday.

“We booked the trip in late September and we’d hoped that things would have calmed down by now; we thought there would have been dialogue,” said one.

“I didn’t expect this reaction from the government. It was a bit weird yesterday when all the helicopters were flying overhead and there were suddenly a lot of police in the city.”

The friends had stumbled on the celebrations outside parliament and found themselves surprised by how happy and quiet the rally had been. “I hope,” she added, “that there won’t be any violence.”

Additional reporting by Stephen Burgen


Sam Jones

The GuardianTramp

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