On Sunday I woke up in the 19,000-strong town of Banyoles, in north-east Catalonia. Banyoles has long been festooned with pro-independence estelades – the Catalan flag invented in 1907 in imitation of newly independent Cuba’s – in expectation of the non-binding consultation on independence that was to take place that very day, there in the crisp, firewood-tinged air of this town that could be described as post-Spanish. However, I couldn’t vote in Banyoles myself, being a resident of Barcelona. I arrived in that city at 3pm.
The polling station for my neighbourhood was my kids’ old primary school. I picked up a voting slip and headed for the assigned table, where volunteers took my passport and ID card and carefully checked everything was in order before allowing me to cast my vote. Two tables down, my Dutch partner was going through the same process.
Indeed, many foreign residents voted yesterday. As did many Spanish-speaking Catalans. Centuries of waves of immigration have meant that ethnic criteria have no place in the Catalans’ concept of their collective identity, for the simple reason that everyone’s got an immigrant somewhere in the family.
When I walked out of the polling booth, I felt a huge sense of relief. For 30 years, explaining the reality of Catalonia – its diversity, its sense of being a country, its own language, its literature, its culture, its very existence – to foreigners has fallen on deaf ears. Or in this case, wilfully deaf ears – because so little information about Catalonia has been allowed to leak into the outside world, it has often been viewed with suspicious disinterest by foreign observers. By voting for its independence, then, we all felt we had done our bit to inch Catalonia out of the hiding place where history, aided by Spanish central power, has squirrelled it away for so long.
Despite the consultation being declared illegal by Madrid; despite various threats to voters from various Spanish ministers; and, above all, despite the fact that the consultation would have no legal impact whatsoever, 2,250,000 people turned out to vote – 80% of them for independence.
The Catalan president, Artur Mas, will soon be taking the next logical step: a formal request for a binding referendum on the Scottish model. His Spanish opposite number, Mariano Rajoy, will almost certainly turn him down – Rajoy is, after all, already threatening to arrest him – after which a one-issue election would be organised by the Catalan parliament. Depending on the results, this could lead to a unilateral declaration of independence, followed by a referendum.
If the latter were to be successful, negotiations would begin with the UN, the EU and other organisations to achieve international recognition for Catalonia. And within a matter of months, Europe would have another “new” country to add to the others that have popped up in the past two decades – with one important difference: Catalonia would have achieved its independence – inextricably linked to a desire for a socially just, fiscally transparent and culturally unimpeded society – entirely through the ballot box.
It would be no exaggeration to say that Catalonia is showing the world how borders can be changed for the better (no wonder it’s got Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali on its side). In Ukraine, on the other hand, Russia is giving the world an unpleasant reminder of how border conflicts used to be dealt with: a model that it is high time to ditch.
Matthew Tree has lived in Barcelona since 1984 and writes in both English and Catalan. His 1999 short story collection Ella ve quan vol won the Andromina Award.