It seemed like a very good idea at the time. A period of research leave in Barcelona would allow me to put everything I knew about nationalism to the test. I would see up close how competing nationalist visions corrode harmony and peaceful coexistence among culturally diverse groups. I would understand how the principle of national self-determination could inspire a people to seek their own independent state. But also grasp how the idea of national unity threatened diversity. More specifically, I could find out how the mood in Barcelona, once a bastion of multiculturalism and conviviality, had turned to such anger and how Spain’s exceptionalism in not having a far-right political party was coming to an end. So I accepted the offer of a visiting professorship in Barcelona without much hesitation.
Alas, the reality on the ground was more complex than I expected. True, the usual factors were all in place. The 2008 financial crash and the recession that followed had been more acutely felt in wealthier regions such as Catalonia, which became even more reluctant to share its tax revenues with the poorer parts of the country.
And heightened separatist sentiment had been used by politicians on both sides to further their own agendas. For Artur Mas, from 2010 to 2015 president of the government of Catalonia,it was an opportunity to prop up his declining electoral fortunes by breaking with the traditional, middle-of-the-road approach of his predecessor, Jordi Pujol, and to embrace separatism. For Mariano Rajoy, prime minister of Spain from 2011 to 2018, and his centre-right Partido Popular (People’s party), this in turn provided a means to clamp down on separatism (via an earlier supreme court decision in 2010), further crushing Catalonia’s hopes for more self-rule.
But, as I learned, neither events nor facile arguments about Spain being the latest victim of a global far-right populist zeitgeist are enough to explain the conundrums of current Catalan and Spanish politics. Or the results of this week’s general election, which saw the far-right Vox become the third largest party inparliament.
For one thing, Spain has not been that much of an exception when it comes to far-right ideas being represented in parliament. Few international pundits take note of the fact, but Vox, which rose to prominence in the 2018 Andalusian regional elections, was established by a splinter group of the centre-right People’s party, hence was already very much part of mainstream politics in Spain. Similarly, Vox’s latest gains cannot be explained as evidence of an unprecedented surge in xenophobic feeling. Spanish people remain much more tolerant towards immigrants than most of their European counterparts.
Key to Vox’s increasing appeal is the Catalan crisis (if we leave aside one-off factors such as the government’s exhumation of Franco’s body). During the election campaign Vox promised a crackdown on the Catalan secession movement, characterising the protests in Barcelona as evidence of a “permanent coup”. But here, too, the reality is much more nuanced than any morally charged black-and-white narrative of separatists versus unionists would have us believe.
To begin with, the unrest triggered by the supreme court’s sentencing last month of Catalonia’s separatist leaders can only be partially explained with reference to demands for national self-determination. Because independence means different things to different people. The latest barometer from the Catalan Centre for Opinion Studies shows that only 34.5% of the population believes that Catalonia should be an independent state while 24.5% believe it should be a state within a federal Spain, as opposed to 27% who prefer the continuation of the status quo – a fact confirmed in the general elections with 43% of the voters rooting for independentist parties as opposed to 40% who opted for non-independentist parties.
Perhaps more importantly, for a significant number of Catalans, the demonstrations are not about Catalonia’s future status at all.
The protesters have little sympathy for secessionist leaders such as Quim Torra or Carles Puigdemont – as the dismal performance of their Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalonia) at the ballot box also revealed. What unites the participants of demonstrations and strikes is anger at, and a certain disdain for, what they perceive to be a corrupt political elite. In that respect, they are more a continuation of the anti-austerity indignados, who occupied the Puerta del Sol Square in Madrid back in 2011, than anything else.
This doesn’t mean that the current crisis is artificial or indeed temporary. On the contrary, the latest wave of protests, mobilised by the Defence Committees of the Republic (CDR) and/or the Tsunami Democràtic, was much more organised and aggressive than before, sending shockwaves through the rest of Spain and around the world. What is more, the protesters weren’t only the “left behind”, the “somewheres” and the “back rows” – the darlings of the dominant media narrative about such incidents – but included the “well-off”, the “anywheres” and “front rows”. Many were white-collar workers or university students, “part-time” protesters dividing their time between work or university and the street demonstrations. This is corroborated by survey data that show that support for secession is highest among those who have a household net income of €2,000-€3,000 per month, followed by those who make more than €3,000 (averages for Catalonia). In other words, Catalan separatism is a middle- or upper-middle class phenomenon, not a balloon of discontent that time’s pinprick will burst.
No one is more aware of this than Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, who insistently played the economy card in the run-up to the elections. “The economic crisis will find us without national unity and without legal security,” said Abascal in a televised debate on 4 November. He finished by quoting Ramiro Ledesma Ramos, one of the ideologues of the fascist Falangist movement: “Only the rich can afford not to have a country.”
Of course, Abascal’s ideal country, a muscular centralised Spain, is not the country most Catalans want, preferring an independent Catalonia or an autonomous region within Spain with more control of its fiscal powers. And neither seems willing to accept the other’s fantasy, as the election results, which divided evenly between left and right, showed.
The danger Spain faces in the aftermath of the general election is that the holders of one fantasy try to usurp the other. There were already signs of it before the elections when the Madrid branches of the People’s party and Ciudadanos (Citizens) declared that they might support Vox’s initiative to outlaw independentist parties. Whether they actually choose to follow this harsher path rather than engaging in a dialogue with the separatists – the policy the newly forged left coalition between PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ party) and Podemos will follow – remains to be seen.
The one certain thing is there will be much less room for manoeuvre in a country locked into a situation where Catalan and Spanish nationalisms feed off each other.
In the meantime, the academic who comes to Barcelona to see nationalism in action faces ever more ambiguity and complexity. I’ve already learned the most important lesson though as I walk the tightrope between competing Catalan, Basque and Castilian nationalisms: simplistic solutions and conventional wisdom give you the wrong answers.
Umut Özkırımlı is a visiting professor at IBEI (Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals) and CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs).