Spain heads for showdown over Catalan independence referendum

Spain is on tenterhooks as the crisis between Catalan separatist leaders and the central government reaches fever-pitch ahead of an independence referendum banned by Madrid on Sunday.

Spain heads for showdown over Catalan independence referendum
Photos: AFP

The showdown is one of Spain's biggest political crises since the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco four decades ago and it has Catalonia deeply divided.

So how did the situation get so out of hand?

Catalan separatists called the referendum on September 6th despite a ban by Spain's Constitutional Court and with little debate allowed in the regional parliament.

Since then, web closures, detentions and the seizure of millions of ballots don't appear to have dampened the enthusiasm of the separatists in this wealthy northeastern region which is home to 16 percent of Spain's population.  

When the organisers have been fined thousands of euros, activists have raised funds.

Ballot papers seized?They have called on people to print more.  

And when internet sites promoting the referendum are blocked, others re-open.

READ MORE: Spanish curbs on Catalan referendum 'appear to violate fundamental rights': UN experts

Determined to block the illegal vote, the state has deployed thousands of police to Catalonia, some of them housed in ferries in the ports of Barcelona and Tarragona.

One of the boats is decorated with giant Looney Tunes cartoon characters, including Tweety.

Cue the hashtag #FreeTweety, which has become a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, the little yellow bird becoming an emblem of Catalans who want to vote.


But the potential independence of Catalonia, roughly the size of Belgium and contributing 19 percent of Spain's economy, is no laughing matter.  

The consequences are hard to predict, leading to comparisons with Britain's decision to quit the European Union, which was made at a referendum in June 2016.

“It's like the Brexit, just as stupid,” says Beatriz Migens, a 43-year-old from the southern city of Seville, on the high-speed train from Madrid to Barcelona where she spends two days a week for work.

In Madrid, Rodrigo Marrero, a lawyer from the Canary Islands who works in the Spanish capital, says: “If Catalonia left, it would be like losing a limb.”  

“Everyone I know is dismayed, we talk of nothing else.”    

READ ALSOMillions of ballots seized ahead of Catalan vote

For his part Ferran Mascarell, who represents the Catalan executive in Madrid, says there has long been resentment among Catalans who feel that Madrid holds them in contempt.

But the impact of Spain's economic crisis, followed by the Constitutional Court's partial cancellation in 2010 of a statute giving Catalonia greater autonomy, turned this into outright anger, he adds.

“It's the result of a revolt of the middle-class against the state, which isn't doing its job right.”

But those who oppose independence, particularly the Ciudadanos party, believe it is about more than that.

They claim that some politicians have used the struggle for independence as a way to divert attention from corruption cases in Catalonia and mismanagement of the region.

'We will vote'

Catalonia has its own language and culture but out of its 7.5 million inhabitants, more than half come from elsewhere, such as those whose parents or grandparents migrated from other parts of Spain.

And on the subject of independence, Catalonia is divided almost down the middle… even within families.

But more than 70 percent of Catalans want to settle the matter once and for all in a legal referendum, according to opinion polls.  

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, though, refuses. He has repeatedly said any such referendum would contravene the very Constitution that Catalans overwhelmingly ratified in 1978.

He is also reluctant to open a Pandora's box in a fragile decentralised Spain where regions have differing levels of autonomy.  

ANALYSISCould Madrid do more to convince Catalans?

Still, after managing to emerge from a damaging economic crisis and put a stop to attacks by Basque separatist group ETA, Spain's image has taken a hit.   

For weeks, the state, its judges and police forces have pulled out the stops to stop the Catalan vote.

Protests have broken out in Barcelona and other Catalan cities — all peaceful except that several police vans were damaged.  

Firefighters, dockers, farmers and school children have shown their determination with slogans like “Votarem” (Catalan for “we will vote”) or “love democracy.”

Madrid has however emphasised that even if Catalans manage to vote en masse on Sunday, it will not be a referendum with any semblance of legitimacy.    

There is no electoral census, the board set up to oversee the vote has been dissolved, and parties against independence have called on their followers to boycott Sunday's vote.

   By Michaela Cancela-Kieffer / AFP

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