Monday 23 September 2019

Catalan valley wants its own independence and to stay Spanish

Catalan separatists say they won the October 1 referendum (AP)

Angus Berwick

If Catalonia declares independence from Spain this week, one community in the region's mountainous north might declare independence from Catalonia.

Most people in the picturesque Aran Valley - a semi-autonomous community nestled among the Pyrenees - want to stay with Spain, and the area has the right to self-determination under a law passed in 2015 by the Catalan parliament.

"We're a little spot on the map and often we're not taken into account," said Maria Verges Perez, the deputy mayor of Aran's capital, Vielha, a cluster of stone-and-slate houses on the valley floor ringed by autumnal forests. "But we will exercise our right to decide our future."

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is expected to declare independence today in Spain's worst constitutional crisis since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

The roughly 10,000 people of Aran, on the border with France, have a language and culture distinct from the rest of Catalonia, which itself differs from the rest of Spain. The valley's economy is heavily dependent on winter-sports tourists from Spain and the EU.

Their politicians say the 2015 law gives them the right to vote on whether they want to break away with Catalonia - something which Catalan officials do not dispute. The Spanish government has vowed to prevent Catalonia seceding. Losing the region would deprive the country of 16pc of its people and a fifth of its economic output.

But while Madrid insists Spain is indivisible under its constitution, the Aran Valley underlines the complex nature of nationhood in such a culturally diverse country.

Ever since Spain's return to democracy in the 1970s, Madrid has struggled to balance the country's patchwork of regional identities, including its decades-long fight to quell separatism in the northern Basque Country led by violent militants ETA.

Few in the medieval villages along the Aran Valley doubt the community would opt to stay with Spain if asked to vote.

"The people here feel very far away from what is going on in Barcelona," said Carlos Barrera, head of the Aran government, at a rural festival in Salardu village where locals judged stocky Pyrenean horses and handed out racks of blood sausages.

The valley had the lowest voter turnout by far in Catalonia's independence referendum on October 1, which had been declared illegal by Spain's constitutional court.

Across Catalonia there was a 43pc turnout, with most people who wanted to remain in Spain staying home, and 90pc of those who voted backed secession. In Aran, just 24pc voted, with 84pc of those backing independence.

Many people in Aran fear Catalan independence would destroy its tourism economy which revolves around Baqueira-Beret, Spain's most popular ski resort.

About two-thirds of the population in Aran depend on the ski resort for jobs. In the winter, the population triples with the influx of skiers drawn to the same slopes used by Spain's royal family.

Since the referendum, Verges Perez, the Vielha deputy mayor, said potential visitors had cancelled almost 30pc of hotel reservations for next week's local holidays.

And if an independent Catalonia was no longer part of the EU, Aran's reliance on agreements to use French hospitals for medical emergencies would be jeopardised, she added. (Reuters)

Irish Independent

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