Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions

Catalan separatists hold their annual march in Barcelona on Sunday, but won't be joined this year by their leader, whose support for dialogue with Madrid has divided the movement.

Catalan separatists to march on national day despite divisions
Demonstrators wave Catalan pro-independence "Estelada" flags during a protest marking the "Diada" in Barcelona on September 11, 2022. Photo: Josep LAGO/AFP

The annual “Diada” on September 11 marks the fall of Barcelona to Spain in 1714 and has traditionally drawn vast crowds.

Under the slogan, “We’re back to win: independence!” organisers hope to mark the comeback for a movement still reeling from the failed 2017 independence bid and then the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our reliance on political parties is over, only the people and civil society can achieve independence,” said the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), an influential association which, over the past decade, transformed this once-minor anniversary into a massive annual event.

READ MORE: Why does Catalonia have its own ‘embassies’ abroad? 

But the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement, has been very critical of dialogue started between the Catalan government of Pere Aragones, a moderate separatist, and Madrid.

It said the “October 1 victory,” when separatists organised a 2017 independence referendum despite a ban by Madrid, and the pro-independence majority in the Catalan parliament “must not be wasted in dialogue with the Spanish state and on internal squabbles”.

This year, Aragones has decided not to attend the march.

Last year, his presence drew derisive whistles from some of the 108,000 people who turned out to demonstrate at what was one of the smallest turnouts in a decade, police figures showed.

“It wouldn’t make much sense if my presence there was used against the government I run,” he told regional public television on Wednesday, referring to his separatist coalition which groups the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

Aragones belongs to ERC, which favours a negotiated strategy to achieve independence via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC wants to maintain a confrontational approach.

Other ERC government members won’t attend Sunday’s march, while JxC representatives will.

A movement in crisis

Gone are the years when vast crowds would paralyse the streets of Barcelona, when the Diada drew more than a million participants in the run-up to the 2017 independence bid. 

Five years on from that frenetic autumn, when the Catalan government made a short-lived declaration of independence, triggering Spain’s worst political crisis in decades, the context is very different.

Those behind the bid were arrested, tried and sentenced to long jail terms by Spain’s top court, although they were later pardoned.

READ MORE: Spanish intelligence did spy on Catalan separatists with court approval: report

Others fled abroad to avoid prosecution, leaving the separatists sharply at odds over how to move forward.

ERC — a small player in Spain’s national parliament, but which has offered crucial support to Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s minority government — says it is fully committed to dialogue.

That hasn’t changed despite recent revelations that the Spanish intelligence service had spied on separatist politicians. But the hardliners are running out of patience, disappointed with politicians whom they see as reneging on their promises.

“We at the ANC don’t understand how the Catalan leader is happy to pose for photos with the leadership in Madrid but doesn’t want to do the same with hundreds of thousands of Catalans who want independence,” the group said.

Sunday’s march will be a delicate moment for a very weakened movement.

“The context has changed radically following the pandemic and now with the war in Ukraine,” said Ana Sofia Cardenal, a political scientist at Catalonia’s Open University, suggesting people have more immediate preoccupations.

“The mood among the people is different now, even among those who back Catalan independence,” she said. They want “the politicians to resolve the problems” that people are facing in daily life.

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Business anxiety grows as Spain-Algeria trade deadlock lingers

Six months after Algeria cut ties with Spain following a spat over disputed Western Sahara, trade between the two countries remains paralysed, much to the dismay of the worst-hit companies.

Business anxiety grows as Spain-Algeria trade deadlock lingers

With sales blocked, investment frozen and projects at a standstill since June, businesses are struggling.

“We can’t export or import anything, all our operations are on standby,” said Julio Lebrero, head of Aecomhel, a Spanish company specialising in the manufacture of machinery for public works.

The firm, which owns 40 percent of the Algerian group Europactor, conducts almost all of its business operations in Algeria, which has left it in a difficult position.

“We haven’t brought in a single euro over the past six months, which is completely unsustainable,” admitted Lebrero, who said he was “very worried”.

Dozens of other small-and-medium sized Spanish firms (SMEs) are in the same boat, their business activity slowed because they cannot sell their products in Algeria.

Similar struggles have beset SMEs in Algeria whose businesses are dependent on raw materials and spare parts that are “made in Spain”.

The problem began in mid-March, when Spain suddenly reversed its decades-long stance of neutrality on the Western Sahara conflict, saying it would back Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed region as it sought to end a lingering diplomatic spat.

READ ALSO: Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

Spain’s move, widely seen as a victory for Morocco, infuriated its regional rival Algeria, which has long backed the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement.

In response, Algiers suspended on June 8 a cooperation treaty with Madrid which had been signed in 2002, later moving to restrict commercial transactions and to freeze bank operations.

The freeze on business ties, announced by Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Establishments (known by its French acronym, ABEF), has had “a major impact on business transactions” between the two countries, said Alfonso Tapia, head of Omnicrea Consulting, which specialises in the Algerian market.

‘Everything has stopped’

To get around the problem, some firms have managed to supply their products through third countries, but that has proved impossible for small companies given the added cost.

Spain has paid a high price, with trade ministry figures showing exports to Algeria reached just €138 million ($145 million) between June and September, compared with €625 million for the same period a year earlier — a loss of some nearly €500 million in just four months.

And the slump has hit everything from agribusiness to chemicals, as well as textiles and the construction industry.

“Everything has stopped,” Djamel Eddine Bouabdallah, head of the CCIAE Algerian-Spanish trade and industry association, said, adding that some companies had even been forced to close.

The only exception is gas. Spain depends on Algeria for natural gas and deliveries by Algeria’s state-owned energy giant Sonatrach have continued untouched, albeit at a higher price.

As to how long the situation would continue, nobody knows. In June, the Spanish government appeared confident its relationship with Algeria was solid. But since then, it has said little.

State of uncertainty

For the companies hit by the freeze, Madrid’s silence does not bode well.

“We’ve asked the authorities to come up with solutions, but they’ve not come back to us,” said a spokeswoman for ANFFECC, which groups Spanish producers of ceramic glazes, pigments and glass-like materials.

In this sector, which is very dependent on the Algerian market, the freezing of business ties has already cost it some €70 million.

READ ALSO: Algeria suspends co-operation with Spain over Western Sahara dispute

And many fear it could lead to a permanent loss of market share to its French and Italian competitors.

“The Spanish government is acting like there’s no problem, they have left us completely on our own,” said Lebrero.

His view is shared by another Spanish business owner who, speaking on condition of anonymity, denounced the “passivity” of the government and accused Algiers of blowing “hot and cold”.

In a statement at the end of July, Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Establishments announced the end of the restrictions with Spain.

But nothing changed, leaving companies in a state of uncertainty. “There are currently negotiations ongoing between the two governments, because they cannot leave the situation like this,” said Bouabdallah, his words echoed by Alfonso Tapia.

“The current situation is no good for anyone. We need to get back to normality,” he told AFP, calling for a “quick resolution” of the deadlock.