Analysis: Could Madrid do more to convince Catalans?

"Authoritarian repression," "a violation of our basic rights," "the fall of democracy."

Analysis: Could Madrid do more to convince Catalans?
Pro-independence demonstrators in Barcelona. Photo: Josep Lago/AFP

While these sound like accusations levelled at a dictatorship, they are in fact words used by Catalonia's separatist leader Carles Puigdemont to describe the Spanish government's crackdown on a banned independence referendum he wants to hold anyway on October 1.

These and other declarations have grabbed the headlines as Catalan separatist leaders multiply interviews and statements in an attempt to gain international support for a break with Spain.

Worried that it is being portrayed as the bad guy, Madrid went on the offensive just weeks before the planned vote, with foreign reporters invited to briefings with government figures to get their version of the story across.

On Tuesday, Enric Millo, the central government's representative in Catalonia, apologised to journalists “because it would have made sense to meet earlier,” before speaking about the situation for more than two hours, refuting claims his government had never tried to negotiate or it was waging “repression”.

Polls show that Catalonia is deeply divided over independence, but an overwhelming majority would like to vote in a legal referendum to settle the matter. The Constitutional Court has ruled it illegal though, hence why Madrid is trying to stop it.

Key members of the team organising the referendum were detained last week and then set free pending further investigation. This sparked angry protests in Barcelona, other Catalan cities and even Madrid that were relayed on televisions around the world.

VIDEO: Angry protests break out in Barcelona after police detain Catalan officials

Websites promoting the referendum have been shut down, and thousands of police have been deployed to help guard polling stations and stop people from accessing them on Sunday.

Madrid points out that the decisions have all been taken by judges and prosecutors.

But still it has been accused of taking “political prisoners” — as declared by Pablo Iglesias, leader of the far-left Podemos party — online censorship and other rights violations.

The problem, says political analyst Ana Salazar, is that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his ministers have focused solely on the illegal nature of the vote, leaving their narrative rather “flat.”

In the meantime, the Catalan executive's tale includes all the elements of a good story — “victimisation” and a sense they are fighting a “noble cause,” says Salazar.

The Catalan government has not gained the support it needs from foreign leaders, at least publicly.

And the only way it will succeed is by trying to convince them “that the Spanish state is oppressing” the northeastern region, says Salazar.

In Catalonia, resentment is growing.

“They haven't tried to convince people that they want us to remain with the rest of the country,” complains Eva de las Heras, a 51-year-old Catalan consultant.

She says she was not pro-independence until last week, when the arrests angered her so much she changed her mind.

“People are hurt, this is about pride, about feelings,” she said.

Madrid has also made clumsy moves. The decision for instance to charter a ferry decked with a giant drawing of Looney Tunes characters including Tweetie Pie to house police sent to Catalonia was met with derision.

The hashtag #FreeTweety became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, and the little yellow bird an emblem for Catalan separatists' fight to vote.

READ ALSO: Spain ships in police to Catalonia… on a Loony Tunes boat

Analysts say the government has not poured effort into convincing Catalans as it doesn't want to give an illegal referendum legitimacy by launching a campaign.

As such, the situation is markedly different from last year's Brexit vote, which London had agreed to.

But Caroline Gray, an expert on nationalist movements in Spain at Aston University, says both those in Britain's “Remain” camp and Madrid were over-confident.

“The Remain campaign thought they would win the referendum,” she says, and they lost, with Britain choosing to leave the EU.

“Rajoy seems to have the attitude that if I don't respond to all this, then eventually it will blow over. 'If I keep saying no, support will die down for independence'.”

But it hasn't, and fears are growing that the Catalan society will be left damaged.

“Public relations can't heal a divided region and nor, alas, can Madrid's fumbling response to the challenge,” The Observer summed up Sunday in an editorial.

“It is time for both sides to pause and ponder the damage. It's time to pull back.”

Feature by AFP's Marianne Barriaux.

For members


14 Barcelona life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Barcelona is a popular city for foreign residents in Spain thanks to its coastal location, many international companies and great lifestyle. However, navigating life here can take some getting used to, so here are our top Barcelona life hacks to help make things easier for you.

14 Barcelona life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Barcelona life hacks. Image: Michal Jarmoluk / Pixabay

Invest in a good water filter

Barcelona tap water doesn’t taste the best, particularly in the areas around the Old Town such as El Born, the Gothic Quarter, Barceloneta and Raval. The water is also very hard, meaning that it leaves limescale on appliances such as your kettle.

Using a good water filter can improve the taste and make sure that limescale doesn’t build up. It’s also much more economical and healthier than buying bottled water every time you want a drink.

Use the Rodalies trains to get across the city faster

Many people when they first move to Barcelona just use the metro and don’t bother using the Rodalies trains. While it’s not always necessary, for certain journeys it can make getting across the city much faster.

For example, if you need to get from Sant Andreu or Clot to Sants to connect to one of the intercity trains, it’s only two or three stops on the Rodalies, as opposed to more than 10 on the metro, as well as changing to different lines.

Don’t try and get anything important done in August

This is probably true of most of Spain, but if you need to get anything important done, whether official paperwork or renovations on your apartment, don’t try and get them done in August.

The whole city goes on holiday for the month of August, including office personnel, builders and handypeople. If you need to get any of this done, it’s best to get it done before the holidays or to wait until September.  

Don’t buy drinks from sellers on the beach or in the park

You’ll find many people selling drinks on the city’s beaches and in the main Ciutadella Park. While it can be tempting to buy these, especially when it’s so hot, you need to be aware that these cans of drinks are often stored inside drains or under manhole covers, meaning that they’re not the cleanest.

A few years ago, El País took the mojitos sold by hawkers on the beaches to a local lab. The results came back a few days later to show that they contained high levels of fecal matter and bacteria in them.

Barcelona’s Chinese supermarkets are a great source of ingredients

Although you can now find many more foreign ingredients in local supermarkets than you could just a few years ago, there are still many that you may miss from back home, particularly South East Asian and Indian ingredients.

Barcelona has several excellent Chinese supermarkets, where you can find a range of ingredients, everything from sesame oil and Thai curry paste to Indian spices and affordable peanut butter.

Don’t take valuables out with you to certain areas, particularly at night

Unfortunately, bag snatchings and pickpockets are still commonplace in Barcelona. While the thieves mainly target tourists, foreign residents often find that they are targets too.

The trick is to blend in like a local, look like you know where you’re going and don’t take valuables with you to areas such as the Gothic Quarter, Raval or the Rambla, especially at night. Bag snatchings in El Born have also increased in recent years, so keep your wits about you around there too. 

Find your favourite beach outside of the city

Barcelona’s beaches may have been one of your prime reasons for moving here, but you’ll find that you actually prefer the beaches outside of the city.

Overcrowded, dangerous and a lot dirtier than other beaches in the area, the beaches in Barcelona are unfortunately not all that they’re cracked up to be. You’ll often find that after you’ve been for a swim, your valuables will not still be on the sand where you left them. Head just 15 to 20 minutes outside of the city however and you’ll find the beaches are far nicer and safer.

Find a beach outside of the city centre to go to. Photo: makunin /Pixabay

Try to join several different clubs or groups

Barcelona is a very transient city, meaning that people are moving here and leaving all the time. As a result, you’ll often find that most of the friends you made when first moving here have now moved away and you’ll constantly need to make more. If you join several clubs and groups, you’ll find that making new friends all the time is a lot easier. 

Don’t buy a single transport ticket

It’s never really worth buying a single transport ticket in Barcelona, because you’ll end up spending much more money per journey than you would if you bought the T-Casual (10 journeys) or the monthly T-Usual metro card instead.

You can also buy 10-journey bono tickets for the Rodalies trains, which will also save a lot of money if you’re making regular journeys out of the city. 

Try and avoid shopping at Port del Angel on Saturdays

Port del Angel is Barcelona’s main pedestrianised shopping street. While it’s great and has all the high-street fashion shops you want, it can be a nightmare shopping here on Saturdays.

If you do need to shop on a Saturday, try Rambla Catalunya or one of the shopping malls instead, which won’t be so crowded.

Be prepared for festivals and events

Barcelona holds so many festivals and events that it can be hard to keep up. In normal (non-Covid) years, there is one every other week.

Because of this tickets sell out quickly and there are many fun cultural events that you might miss out on. Keep your calendar up to date, so you know what’s going on, and make sure to book tickets for anything you want to see, well in advance. 

Tipping isn’t necessary at all bars and restaurants

Tipping isn’t all that common in Barcelona, unless perhaps if it’s a particularly nice restaurant or if there’s a large group of you that the waiter has had to look after.

You’ll find that it’s not expected either, except maybe at some of the city’s very touristy restaurants.  

READ ALSO: Why do Catalans have a reputation for being stingy?

Do lots of research before renting an apartment and if it sounds too good to be true, then it is

Unfortunately, there are lots of property scams in Barcelona, so try and do as much research as you can beforehand. Never pay money upfront before you’ve seen the property and received the keys.

Also, be aware that many landlords will not return your deposit at the end of your stay.

Many people get around this by not paying the last month’s rent, but this can also make things difficult for the good landlords who may genuinely need to deduct something for damages, so speak with your estate agency on the best thing to do in this situation.

READ ALSO: What you should know about renting an apartment in Barcelona

Hire a gestor or lawyer to help with immigration and tax issues

You’ll save yourself a lot of time and hassle with immigration and tax issues if you hire a professional to help you in Barcelona, where getting a cita previa (appointment) for official matters can often be difficult, in part because these law firms often bulk book them.

However, there are certain processes that you won’t need an immigration lawyer for such as getting a residency certificate if you’re from an EU country or exchanging your green residency certificate for a TIE if you are British and moved here before the end of 2020.

READ ALSO: BREXIT: How to apply for a TIE residency card in Spain