Barcelona: city of culture, history - and independence
2017-08-04 11:17:46 -
By Michael McGowan

I have just returned from Barcelona, the capital of the north-eastern Spanish region of Catalonia, which attracts visitors from across the world to what’s a thriving, bustling and exciting European city.

Barcelona attracts so many because of its culture, history, sport and its Mediterranean climate. And it is now in the headlines again because of a controversial referendum on Catalonia’s bid for independence from Spain, scheduled for 1 October.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest regions both culturally and industrially, with its own distinct Catalan language and a stimulating history which goes back to Roman times.

Barcelona is renowned for fine architecture, including the work of Gaudi and the Gothic Quarter in the old city, and is perhaps best known internationally for its soccer team, whose home stadium has a capacity of some 100,000, making it the largest in Europe.

Right now, events in Barcelona commemorating the Spanish Civil War, when the city and Catalonia were strongly republican, are non-stop. The complex history of the war includes early collectivisation by the trade unions of public services and enterprises, and the takeover by anarchist groups when the republican government lost authority. The anarchists lost control of the city to their own allies, the communists, and eventually resistance of Barcelona was overcome.

The brutal coup d’état of General Franco had a devastating and lasting affect after the defeat of the Republican government. The autonomy of Catalonia was abolished and the use of the Catalan language in public was suppressed. However, Barcelona remained the second largest city in Spain, industrialised and prosperous despite the devastation of the civil war.

The voice of secessionists in Catalonia who have long claimed it should break away from Spain have only grown louder since the restoration of democracy in the late 1970s. They argue that Barcelona and the region pay more to Madrid than they get back.

Later this year, their dream of an independent Catalonia will be in the hands of the region’s electorate when they are posed with the question: ‘Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?’

Catalonia’s ruling coalition has vowed to declare independence “immediately” if a majority of voters back it in the October referendum.

The Spanish government and constitutional court stand opposed. And voters, for the most part, are split down the middle on the issue of independence, amid allegations of corruption among independence leaders.

The poll is naturally being compared to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, though the difference here is that only the people of Catalonia will vote in a poll that does not have the blessing of the national government.

Madrid understandably sees the referendum as a threat to Spain’s national unity, and the country’s constitutional court has already quashed a resolution approved by Catalonia’s parliament calling for the referendum.

In Barcelona, I met local people who were concerned that Spain has threatened elected officials with legal consequences if they are involved in arrangements for holding the referendum, as well as civil servants who were upset about the possibility of losing their jobs.

It’s a complex issue, much like the history of the Spanish Civil War that scarred Catalonia and wider Spain so deeply, as stated by Irish President Michael D Higgins at a meeting in Dublin’s Liberty Hall Theatre to mark the anniversary of the conflict. It cannot be explained simply as a war between good and evil, he said, or Catholicism and communism, or democracy and fascism.

President Higgins honoured those who had fought for democracy in Spain, and there is no doubt that those who travelled to Spain from across the world to fight for democracy and oppose fascism were part an act of global solidarity the world so rarely sees. Whatever the outcome of Catalonia’s independence plans, here’s hoping they consider that greater unity of purpose.

Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.
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