Watching Catalonia and Spain feels like watching a Pedro Almodóvar movie where all the characters start to act freakily. It could be Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (in this case, a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown) or Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (a film about what, in the end, ties us to one another rather than separates us). Don’t get me wrong. Catalonia is a serious matter. But it is also hard not to see the hysteria, the hyperbole, the manipulation. Emotions sweep away reason; radical gestures lead to more radical gestures; passion drenches everything; the picture becomes one great confusing swirl. Can anyone still get a grip?
To sum up the current situation: we now have full-on confrontation. Not armed confrontation but political, legal, and cultural. And with large street pressure involved. The Spanish cabinet is due to meet on Saturday after the prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, indicated he wanted to trigger article 155 of the constitution, which allows the imposition of direct rule. Catalonia’s regional institutions could be disempowered.
In response the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont, has threatened to press ahead with a declaration of independence (currently “suspended”, although the region’s parliament hasn’t yet formally voted on it). A pro-independence demonstration will be held on Saturday. This comes just one week after an opposing, pro-Spanish unity demonstration, organised in both Barcelona and Madrid. There will probably be more of this back and forth. The film is not over.
Meanwhile, EU leaders met in Brussels for a summit whose official agenda did not list Catalonia at all. But obviously the topic came up in conversations, and (take note, British readers) much more so than Brexit, which in the end ranked as a minor issue, with negotiations hardly moving forward. Nor is there much negotiating going on over Catalonia, which explains why independence activists have become rather frantic.
Rajoy’s strategy has full EU support, and he’s apparently aiming to defuse the crisis by triggering new elections in Catalonia. He’s sticking to a stubborn but consistent logic: nothing can happen outside the constitution.
In private, most EU officials think he’s mishandled the whole separatist question for years. Sending policemen to push old ladies down staircases and fire rubber bullets at crowds on the day of the referendum was bound to backfire. He played straight into the hands of his Catalan opponents.
The same can be said of the recent arrest of two leaders of pro-independence civil society organisations, now accused of “sedition”. That was an inflammatory move. The crowds on Saturday will no doubt brandish slogans about “political prisoners” – an expression even the moderate mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, is using. So now we have martyrs to the cause.
However, the 1 October referendum was hardly a model of sound, democratic expression. Only a minority of Catalans took part (turnout was 43%), and its organisation ran counter to Catalonia’s own legislation. The two laws that led to it were voted through without the two-thirds majority the Catalan charter (the Estatut) requires for such a momentous reform process. Nor was the vote overseen by the regional constitutional court. The Council of Europe, Europe’s democracy watchdog, said it did not abide by its fundamental criteria. Reporters without Borders, an organisation that scrutinises freedom of the press, denounced the harassment and intimidation – sometimes physical – of reporters who did not toe the pro-independence line.
These points often get drowned out in the romantic wave of commentary that Catalonia and its history can understandably inspire, within and beyond Spain. Catalan radicals have taken to social media to try to raise support across Europe, using English-language videos. They are fronted by a young woman with pleading eyes who describes a small nation that has come under the juggernaut of a quasi-fascist central government. She says “all [Catalan] values are under attack right now”. She says the Catalans on 1 October did “just like the Scottish not long ago”. “Help Catalonia, save Europe,” is the message. Propaganda thrives in a crisis.
The script of this film is one that leads to two separate nationalisms heading for a monumental showdown. No matter what colours you may want to drape it in, nationalism can hardly be good for anyone in Europe, especially now. Rajoy is no Franco. Puigdemont is no Mandela. Spain is not an oppressive state but a democracy. The Scots voted in a law-abiding process that had been agreed with London – not in a sequence of events specially designed to produce rupture.
Support for Catalan independence may now skyrocket, centred on a narrative of victimhood and in an atmosphere that’s become unhinged. Which brings us, in a way, back to Almodóvar. Born in 1949 in a poor family, he became the best chronicler of Spain’s transformation as it freed itself from the Franco era (with, by the way, Catalonia’s autonomy and economic success as a showcase for the whole country). Almodóvar’s work reflected the festive, frenetic spirit of a nation liberated from the past, from its suffering and its entrenched rigidities.
In some of Almodóvar’s wild, dark comedies, the scenario reaches a point where the viewer thinks only folly is left. But then something happens, a realisation, a cathartic moment of understanding and, yes, love. Self-destruction is averted. Feuds end. There is reconciliation. May the dizziness around Catalonia be like an Almodóvar movie.
Natalie Nougayrède is a Guardian columnist