While on the plane flying into Barcelona, Spain, this past weekend, I was struck by the visuals of the rocky Pyrenees Mountains carving a deep swath across the Iberian Peninsula from 30,000 feet in the air. How fitting it was, I thought, that I was about to disembark into Europe’s rockiest political situation: the Catalan independence movement.
Although I was a little nervous about exploring a city undergoing intense political disruptions, I was more excited to get a feel for an already vibrant metropolis bustling with all sorts of activity — political and otherwise.
I arrived in Barcelona on Oct. 27. Between the time when I departed Copenhagen for Barcelona and the time when I turned my phone back on after the flight, I was alerted that Catalonia had officially declared independence and that the Madrid government had invoked Article 155, dissolving the Catalan government and imposing direct rule over the region. It was clear that I was in for an exciting weekend getting a first-hand view of a major world issue.
Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, sits on the coast of the Mediterranean in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Catalonia technically operates as a largely autonomous community within Spain, with its own police force, public broadcaster, parliament and president.
The Catalan independence movement began in 1922 when the political party Estat Català, or Catalan State, was formed. Following Catalonia’s declaration of independence on Oct. 27, the central government in Madrid dissolved Catalonia’s office of the president with Article 155. Although attention is currently on Catalonia, many other autonomous regions within Spain, such as Galicia and the Basque regions, have similar disputes with Madrid over sovereignty and nationality.
Visiting Barcelona, it is easy to entirely forget the dispute taking place in Spain’s government. Barcelona exudes magic and is filled with modernist architectural marvels such as the dominating Sagrada Familia, which completely overwhelms its viewers with its sheer power, and the Parc Guell, which allows visitors uninterrupted mountainside views of the city and the Mediterranean. Both of these Catalan marvels were designed by Antoni Gaudí, the Catalan architect whose style defines the city.
Walking the streets of Barcelona in between sightseeing these architectural wonders, I was struck by the sheer number of Catalan flags hanging from balconies and graffiti of the word “Sí” spray-painted to symbolize support for independence. It seemed completely fitting that the vibrant red and yellow of the Catalan flag would be draped across this distinctive city.
Before my arrival, I was expecting everyone to be constantly up in arms about the political situation and the city to be at a standstill. But contrary to my expectations, nothing really seemed out of the ordinary. The city hummed along and for the most part, you could walk through the city for an entire day and not know anything about the conflict between the local and national governments. There were, however, the occasional exceptions of secessionists and their pro-Spain opponents decked out in their respective flags walking throughout the city and the roar of the occasional protest in a city square. Barcelona exuded an odd aura of seeming completely normal while at the same time grappling with intense questions on the conflicts between national and cultural identity.
Though one might think at first glance that the secessionist movement is in line with the other nationalist movements that have wracked the globe recently — Brexit, or the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, the U.S. presidential election and the success of the far right parties throughout Europe — the Catalan independence movement does not fall easily into any category.
The EU has declared that it does not recognize Catalonia as a proper, independent international actor, and Donald Dusk, the president of the European Council, wrote on Twitter on Oct. 27, “For EU nothing changes. Spain remains our only interlocutor.”
Though Catalonia’s bargaining power with Spain stems from its role as one of the most significant and dynamic economic centers of the country, that the EU continues to reject Catalonia speaks volumes about Europe’s view on continued nationalistic agitation.
Although the idealism of the Catalan independence movement is laudable and perhaps even achievable within the Spanish political system, I believe that the institutional hurdles of actually seceding from Spain are too much of a risk for Catalonia — in much the same way that Brexit has proven to be misguided in the United Kingdom.