Catalan independence: 'Politicians are acting like children with a box of matches'

Fiona Govan
Fiona Govan - [email protected]
Catalan independence: 'Politicians are acting like children with a box of matches'
Raphael Minder and his book exploring the Catalan independence drive.

The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain, by NYT correspondent Raphael Minder, is published just a month before Catalan leaders will push ahead with an October 1st referendum on independence that has been ruled illegal by Madrid.


The book has been described by historian Paul Preston as an "even-handed and compellingly readable work explaining the past and the possible future of a dangerous situation" and is making headlines in Spain for its exploration of an issue that threatens to throw Spain into constitutional crisis.

Here the author tells The Local what he learnt about the modern conflict dividing Spain and how it is being mishandled by politicians in both Madrid and Barcelona.

What made you devote a year or more of your working life to the issue of Catalonia?

In 2015, I got an email from an editor at Hurst, a British book publisher, who told me he had been following my coverage of Spain and Catalonia for the New York Times and asked me if I was interested in writing a book about Catalonia. So I didn’t trigger the project, but I was happy to work on a book about an issue that was already at the heart of my journalism and was clearly going to stay at the top of Spain’s political agenda. 

So who, or what, is to blame for the rise of the independence movement?

The question implies that there is something fundamentally wrong with wanting independence. If there is a question of blame it should instead be focused on how this conflict has been managed, mostly by the politicians in Madrid and Barcelona. And there, I see room for blame on both sides. The two sides are no longer talking to each other but past each other. They are no longer focusing on concrete issues that used to be on the table a few years ago, like how Spain’s financial resources should be distributed, but instead swinging from a very technical and legal debate about what the Spanish constitution allows or not to an almost philosophical debate about what constitutes democracy. The first debate is for constitutional lawyers and the second one is for political theorists - neither is for political leaders to resolve.

In the course of talking to the two-hundred or so people you interviewed for the book, did you get a sense of what unified them in a Catalan identity?

I think Catalans share a language, culture and sense of their own values and history - all of which are feelings that have  been increasing as the political conflict has deepened and a new generation of Catalans has reached maturity and voting age, having been educated in post-Franco Spain and in Catalan schools. It’s also clear to me that these young people face the same uncertainties as those everywhere else. They are either looking for a clearer sense of their own identity in what is a “glocal” world - or they have the idea that their working future, if it’s not in Barcelona, is as likely to take them to Berlin or Paris as Madrid. In fact, Madrid has largely failed to convince young Catalans that Spain’s economic recovery is for real and will benefit them.

Photo: AFP

In the book, you talk about the Diada of 2012 being a seminal moment in the Catalan independence movement. Having just been at the sixth Diada, how have things changed?

The massive Diada of 2012 took almost everybody by surprise, including of course the political leadership of Catalonia. Since then, it’s felt less spontaneous and more staged every year, but it’s remained an impressive show of force, always done without anybody smashing a window. I don’t think such a peaceful and well-organized gathering can take place in many cities in the world. And what impressed this year is that such a large crowd took to the streets of Barcelona without any sense of anxiety, less than a month after the terrible terrorist attack on the Ramblas

You present a very balanced view of the Catalan independence issue, looking it at through historical, cultural, political and social angles but do you feel that the experience brought you to a closer understanding of what may happen next?

As of today, I’m in the dark about what will happen next - and that shows just how serious the crisis has become. I feel a greater understanding for the underlying issues, but I’ve got little understanding for the current dogfight between politicians who are acting like children with a box of matches. There is room to resolve this issue and return to the negotiating table, but there is also a genuine risk that the situation will slip out of control and produce some unprecedented acts of repression as well as civil disobedience. 

Surveys consistently show that a slim majority of Catalans do not want to break away from Spain, yet their voices are drowned out by the clamour for independence. How likely is another civil war?

I really hope no civil war can occur and I also encourage everybody to avoid any warmongering at such a sensitive time. And as the Diada has shown every year, Catalan society is mature and pragmatic. Those who are unhappy with independence stay at home or go to the beach, but they don’t take to the streets to confront separatists or start riots. I think separatists are very aware that their push only keeps credibility if it remains violence-free. 

The book explores how the reshaping of Catalan identity is being played out everywhere, from football stadiums to the world of haute cuisine. Photo: AFP

As an outsider, and someone who lives the majority of time in Madrid, you could be open to criticism for viewing the issue from the ‘Madrid bubble’. So how have Catalans themselves received the book?

If you write about Catalonia now, you’re clearly walking into a minefield and leaving yourself exposed to criticism, sometimes virulent. But the same happened to correspondents who were writing about the Basques at the height of the ETA violence and the same happens when I write about other sensitive topics, whether bullfighting, Franco's legacy, the Catholic Church and obviously football. 

So far, however, I have found most Catalans have responded well to the book. They’re happy  that somebody is at least trying to understand their part of the world and has bothered spending a lot of time visiting not only Barcelona but also the Catalan hinterland, where separatism is strongest. In this book, they can see that I spoke to a very wide range of people - and not just politicians - and they seem to find at least parts of the book that support their arguments, however different. The test for a balanced account is if the amount of praise and criticism is also evenly balanced. So far, so good. 

I can only hope that people actually first read the book before deciding whether or not it falls short of their expectations - and in the age of tweets and social media, that's not a given, sadly.

You mention in the foreword that your experience as a Swiss national provoked your interest in Catalonia, how so?

A few years ago, I remember listening to a Madrid businessman telling me that a state of 7.5 million Catalans was not viable because of its small size and isolation if kept out of the European Union by Spain. His comments made me smile, because that fits exactly the description of Switzerland. At the same time, I’ve also been fascinated by how deep and passionate the disagreement has become and I smile to myself when I hear separatists tell me that they can’t get along with Spaniards who despise their Catalan language. I know people in Geneva who consider Swiss German to be an ugly and useless dialect but that doesn’t mean they cannot do business together, serve in the same army, or vote together. 

Does Catalonia really matter to the world? 

We know how the news cycle works. We’re obsessed with hurricane Harvey only until Irma arrives. Catalonia is not near the top of the world news agenda at a time when North Korea is testing nuclear missiles or Islamic terrorists are targeting major Western cities. 

But having said that, it’s hard to ignore a dispute that is close to spinning out of control in a peaceful and democratic country like Spain, just as that country is also trying to lead Europe’s economic recovery. I think people outside the Iberian peninsula have plenty of reasons to watch Catalonia and feel baffled, confused and worried about what is happening between Barcelona and Madrid right now. 

What difference would it really make if it was independent or not?

That’s a tough one to answer. Catalans, like the rest of the Spanish population, have made huge progress in recent decades, even if you take into account the massive blow of the 2008 financial crisis. People have real economic problems now and of course struggle to find work, but I spoke for this book to elderly people who lived in the countryside after the civil war - and that really was hardship. 

The cosmopolitan and vibrant Barcelona of today, which is also one of the world’s biggest tourism hubs, has nothing to do with the grey Barcelona of the 1970s. And I don’t see a place like Barcelona taking a huge leap forward or backward depending on whether it’s part of an independent Catalan state or not.

But it’s also true that much will depend on the terms under which a hypothetical independence would be negotiated. Just as we’re seeing with the uncertainty surrounding the Brexit talks now, it’s very unclear on what kind of terms Catalonia would be able to split and how Brussels would react. If Madrid orchestrates a full-on campaign to punish Catalonia for civil disobedience, it could make life more difficult for Catalonia, at least in the short term.

Catalonia has called a referendum for October 1st. Photo: AFP

Why do you think this book will be of interest to people who don’t live in Catalonia or Spain and aren’t obsessed with the politics there?

I think Catalonia resonates on several levels with other preoccupations across Western society. After Brexit, people want to know if Europe is heading for more union or more fragmentation. The people in Scotland, Flanders and other parts of Europe have also been engaged in separatist debates. Californians who voted against Donald Trump en masse can relate to Catalans who argue that the central government no longer represents them. And Americans can understand disputes over Catalan flags and statues of the Spanish king given the current debate over Confederate symbols.

Raphael Minder has been the New York TImes correspondent for Spain and Portugal since 2010. The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain is published in English this month and is available through Follow the author on Twitter: @RaphaelMinder


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