Five years after the showdown with Madrid, the region remains split over secession – and even those who back it are divided on how to achieve it. Do the people still have the will to go it alone?
Despite being one of the few national days that commemorates a calamitous defeat – in this case the fall of Barcelona during the war of the Spanish Succession in 1714 – Catalonia’s Diada is seldom a sombre affair.
Each 11 September for the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands of pro-independence Catalans have turned out, often in family gaggles and with flag-trailing pushchairs and dogs, to show their strength and to issue a peaceful call for a split from the rest of Spain.
This year’s Diada, however, was different. Five years after the regional government’s headlong rush towards independence resulted in an illegal referendum, a unilateral declaration of independence and Spain’s worst constitutional crisis in 40 years, the secessionist movement is in a different, more despondent place. The crowd of 1.5 million that took to the streets of Barcelona a decade ago gave way to about 150,000 people, according to local police, though organisers put attendance at 700,000.
The Diada T-shirts, usually in the red and yellow colours of the Catalan flag, were a funereal black, and a splenetic placard articulated the sentiments of many pro-independence Catalans towards the regional leaders who have failed to deliver on their promises: “Botifler, no te votaré,” it read – “Traitor, you don’t get my vote.”
Much of the anger of hardcore independentistas is focused on the Catalan regional president, Pere Aragonès, for his willingness to find a negotiated solution to the political impasse. Aragonès was notably absent from the Diada march organised by the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), the powerful and influential grassroots group that has pushed relentlessly for independence in recent years.
Montse Planas, who had come to the Diada from the village of Caldes de Montbui, an hour’s drive north of the Catalan capital, said she felt let down by politicians in Catalonia and Madrid. “We’re carrying the fight on,” she said. “The politicians aren’t but we are. There’s no point negotiating with Madrid – we have to fight this ourselves and we will.”
There were no such complaints on 1 October 2017, when Catalonia’s then president, Carles Puigdemont, defied Spain’s government and courts by staging the unilateral referendum.
The sole enemy back then was the Spanish state, as embodied by the conservative government of former prime minister Mariano Rajoy, which insisted the referendum would never take place, and by the thousands of Spanish police officers, whose heavy-handed and violent attempts to stop the vote ended up on newspaper front pages around the world the following day.
For longstanding independentistas, and indeed for many of the less convinced, the police’s raiding of polling stations, beating of voters and firing of rubber bullets was unequivocal proof of the need to break away.
Hence the fleeting joy 26 days later when secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic – fleeting because it prompted Rajoy’s government to sack Puigdemont and his cabinet , assume direct control of Catalonia and order a fresh regional election.
To avoid arrest, Puigdemont fled to Belgium – where he remains to this day – while other pro-independence figures stayed behind to face the consequences, which, for nine of them, included prison.
Although Puigdemont and his lieutenants proved unable to deliver the new republic, they did succeed in attracting the world’s attention and forcing the issue to the top of Spain’s political agenda. What they comprehensively and consistently failed to do, however, was listen to the majority of Catalans who oppose independence.
As pro-independence Catalan MPs voted to proclaim independence on 27 October 2017, one centre-right local lawmaker turned to Puigdemont and asked: “How can you imagine you can impose independence like this without a majority in favour … and with this simulacrum of a referendum?”
Five years on, the question of validity still hangs in the autumn air. At the height of the crisis in October 2017, a survey by the Catalan government’s Centre for Opinion Studies found that 48.7% of Catalans supported independence, while 43.6% did not. According to a survey conducted this summer by the same centre, 52% of Catalans now oppose independence, while 41% are in favour.
Others point out that almost a fifth of the region’s population is made up of immigrants who are not eligible to vote in regional or general elections, while in Barcelona those born abroad comprise nearly 25% of the population.
Personality clashes and ever-widening splits on the best way forward have riven the Catalan government and the region’s three pro-independence parties: Aragonès’s Catalan Republican Left party (ERC); Puigdemont’s centre-right Together for Catalonia party (Junts) and the hard-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). The three share the common goal of Catalan independence – but little else.
In last year’s regional election, pro-independence parties won an overall majority of the popular vote for the first time – 51% – but the party that took the biggest share of the vote was the Catalan branch of the unionist Catalan Socialist party (PSC), led by the former Spanish health minister Salvador Illa.
Aragonès eventually became president but with only grudging support from his Junts coalition partners.
In the grand medieval surroundings of the Palau de Generalitat, the seat of the Catalan government, Aragonès defends his party’s decision to share the negotiating table with the socialist government of the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, despite repeated criticism from the other two pro-independence parties.
Sitting in a wood-panelled room, Aragonès chooses his words carefully. Unlike Puigdemont and his successor, Quim Torra, the incumbent president has opted to tone down the rhetoric. But his more pragmatic approach has not been helped by revelations, first reported by the Guardian and El País, that Catalan independence leaders have been targeted using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.
“There’s a part of the independence movement that doesn’t agree with this process of negotiation but I believe it’s necessary,” he said. “When there’s conflict in a democracy, you have to negotiate. There’s no alternative. People who oppose this will see in the future that this is the best way to arrive at a democratic solution.”
He recognises that his supporters are disillusioned and, while he demurs at former Catalan president Artur Mas’s suggestion that the movement went too far, too fast, he cautions patience. “We have to go on building a majority while faced with a state that doesn’t recognise this right [to self-determination], in order to attain a majority above 51%,” he said.
Although it has more in common with the leftwing PSC on social and economic issues, the ERC has consistently formed coalitions with centre-right parties.
“It’s impossible to reach agreement with the Catalan Socialist party because they don’t accept the principle of the right to decide,” said Aragonès. “At present, the Catalan Socialist party is the leading representative of Catalonia’s financial elite, who don’t want us to have sovereignty.”
For the regional president, social policy remains inextricably linked to sovereignty. “We can only carry out ambitious social policies such as a more equal distribution of wealth, equality of opportunity and the provision of better public services if we have the legislative and economic capacity to decide,” he added.
Altogether starker claims were made during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a spokesperson for the regional government claimed there would have been fewer death and infections in an independent Catalonia.
Across town in an office close to the still rising, still unfinished hulk of the Sagrada Família basilica, sits Jordi Turull, a deeply committed independentista with a dry sense of humour.
The secretary general of Junts, a party once labelled “the Catalan independence party of the right” by its coalition partners, has few warm words for Aragonès or his policies.
Turull takes the view that the ERC reneged on the agreement that the pro-independence movement as a whole, including unelected pro-independence groups such as the ANC and Òmnium Cultural, would participate in the talks in Madrid and not just the main political parties.
“This is why we’re considering our position in the government, because this wasn’t the agreement,” he said. “But we have to think carefully about this, because if we bring down the government, this affects everyone. That’s why we will do everything we can to improve what’s on offer. The Spanish state, whether the government is of the right or the left, has to prepare a roadmap towards a declaration of independence.”
In 2017, Turull was the spokesperson for Puigdemont’s government, which was dissolved when direct rule was imposed. Turull was re-elected as an MP in the election held in December that year.
In March 2018 he was proposed as president, but failed to win a first-round overall majority and before he could go for a simple majority in the second round he was imprisoned. “There were votes at the investiture on Thursday and Saturday, and on the Friday they put me in jail,” he said wryly. He was eventually sentenced to 12 years on charges of sedition and misuse of public funds, before being pardoned in 2021.
Turull puts little faith in the negotiations and believes the Spanish state will never allow Catalonia to become independent. “Let’s indulge in some science fiction,” he said. “Sánchez agrees to a referendum on Catalan independence but will it take place? No, because the top level of the judiciary won’t have it. Unlike other countries with fascist regimes, the judiciary was not reformed during the transition to democracy. The future of Catalonia won’t be decided at the ballot box but by the judges.”
While the independence movement is not habitually given to self-criticism, both Turull and Aragonès acknowledge they underestimated the Rajoy government’s response. The inevitable question is: what next?
“The people who were pro-independence in 2017 haven’t changed their minds but the movement is divided between those who want action and those who think there’s an opportunity to see if the Spanish state is willing to come up with a proposal about Catalonia,” said Turull.
Meanwhile, the talking continues. Aragonès says the goal is a government-approved referendum – something Sánchez is on record as saying he will never offer.
Also at this year’s Diada was PSC leader Illa, whose calm, bespectacled face became familiar to people across Spain through his regular press conferences as the country’s health minister during the pandemic.
Illa, who describes the 11 September gathering as “one of the thermometers” for measuring the Catalan situation, argues that while the turnout may have been lower, tempers were not. “There were fewer people this year than there have been in previous years – but there was still an important crowd and not just a handful of people,” he said.
“This group, or sector of society, is frustrated with its political leaders because they laid out a timeframe that was, in my view, impossible to achieve – or impossible to achieve in the way they said they would. That’s created frustration, and that predictable frustration gave rise to them calling them ‘liars’ and ‘traitors’.”
Illa, a measured and analytical politician who ran on a pledge to heal a divided Catalonia, offers three main explanations for the independence movement’s stalling momentum: the pandemic, Europe’s anxious focus on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and, moreover, the Sánchez government’s controversial decision to pardon Turull and the eight other Catalan leaders convicted over their roles in the independence vote.
“In my opinion, the most important thing that’s changed is the context,” he said. Illa also counsels that events in Catalonia in the past should not be seen in isolation.
“For me, what happened in Catalonia was in line with what’s happened all over the west in this second decade of the 21st century,” he said.
“And the fundamental factor behind all that – if not the only one – is the economic recession of 2008 and the populist movements it produced. You had Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the US and Syriza in Greece. And in Spain, we had Podemos, Vox and the Catalan independence movement: magic solutions to complicated problems. But that failed in 2017. And while I see it as a collective failure, those who pushed for it bear the most responsibility. Since then, you can understand Catalan politics – and to a large degree, Spanish politics too – as a collective digestion of that failure.”
Illa sees evidence of a depoliticisation of public spaces in Catalonia and says people in the region are more likely to talk about the cost of living crisis than the question of independence. He also noted that Aragonès is “a political professional”, unlike his predecessor Torra, whom Illa described as “an activist who did politics”.
Torra, a man with a long history of bitterly anti-Spanish pronouncements, was eventually barred from office by Spain’s supreme court for displaying pro-independence symbols on public buildings during a general election campaign.
Torra is not the only strident voice in the movement to have been taken to task for inflammatory comments. In February 2020, the American Jewish Committee accused the Catalan MEP Clara Ponsatí of trivialising the Holocaust and making “unacceptable” remarks after her speech in the European parliament compared Spain’s expulsion of the Jews in 1492 with its treatment of the “Catalan minority” and suggested the mass banishment had inspired Hitler.
Still, warns Illa, the current global and economic context and the cooler, calmer direction of travel under Aragonès does not mean the movement is totally enervated. In other words, no one should mistake the current splutterings for death throes.
“Whoever says this is over is mistaken,” he said. “We need to carry on paying attention and focusing, as the Spanish government is, and others here are, on looking for agreements and offering dialogue as the best solution.”
Ana Sofía Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University, agrees that external events – the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the energy and cost of living crises – have displaced the independence question in the lives and minds of people in Catalonia.
“But the response to this movement had also led to an awareness of the difficulties in achieving its aims,” she said. “And the farther away the goal gets, the more people lose heart and demobilise. We’re also seeing the consequences of that despondency in all the divisions within the movement and within its parties.”
But, like Illa, Cardenal said that while the issue of Catalan independence is unlikely to rise to the top of the agenda in the short to medium term, “that doesn’t mean it won’t resurface in the future because the fundamental problems are still there”.
And so the wait goes on for those still set on Catalan independence. Martí Pont, 25, was among those occupying the Ramon Llull school in central Barcelona when it was stormed by Spanish police on 1 October 2017.
Despite seeing police beating people and dragging them out by their hair, he and his fellow independentistas felt a turning point had been reached that turbulent day.
“We were very hopeful but nothing was clear,” he recalled. “We just knew that this time it was different. People were really angry with Spain and I think we were closer than ever to getting independence, but it was thanks to popular power, not thanks to politicians.”