Saturday 23 March 2019

Bye, bye Barcelona?

Will Catalonia break away?

A man painted with the Catalan separatist flag, takes part in a Catalan pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona
A man painted with the Catalan separatist flag, takes part in a Catalan pro-independence demonstration in Barcelona
Would Barcelona, with Lionel Messi as its star, quit La Liga if Catalonia got independence?

Eamon Delaney

If Catalonia breaks from Spain, what will it mean for tourists?

It is one of the great European cites, with the famous unfinished cathedral of the Sagrada Familia, the mosaic-tiled rooftops and, of course, the famous Ramblas pedestrian walkway going down to the sea, which is always bustling with locals and tourists.

And then there is the seafront itself, reclaimed and extended when the 'party town' played host, very successfully, to the 1992 Olympics. Irish author Colm Tóibín has even written an acclaimed book about the city, and area, called Homage to Barcelona. The title is a variation, and homage itself indeed, to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

It is one of the great Spanish cities, except that soon it might not be Spanish at all, and could be a great European capital and the main administrative centre of a new independent state of Catalonia. Long dormant feelings of separatism have come to the fore again, and now the Catalans are looking for independence.

Last week, 2,235,000 people voted in a referendum organised by the Catalan regional government and 80pc went for independence. The central government in Madrid declared the referendum invalid and illegal. They say that Catalonia is a constituent part of Spain and has no right to decide on its own to break away. But, inspired by the recent Scottish referendum and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Catalans are determined to keep going.

The impasse is a serious development which could create major instability at the heart of the EU. By comparison, the recent Scottish campaign was a relatively benign vote and even if it had led to the break-up of the UK, it would have been relatively harmonious. Not so with Spanish vote. The animosity between Madrid and Barcelona is strong and the feeling that the latter has been economically 'carrying' the rest of Spain is much felt. Catalonia has a big chunk of Spain's population but also its economic and financial powerhouse. There is also a strong sense of difference, with a distinct and special language, art and culture. Catalans can speak Spanish but they are understandably proud of their language which is different but related to Spanish.

Football fans will know this from the intense rivalry of Real Madrid and Barcelona but so will those who know the history of Spain and its near break-up during the bitter Spanish Civil war. Former dictator Franco was a Castilian centralist, who suppressed separatism, and was thus hated in Barcelona, but he kept the whole Spanish republic together. Democracy has continued to do so, but now, with growing regional separatism, does more democracy mean it is falling apart?

The problem is that if Catalonia breaks away, or tries to, presumably other regions like the Basque country, and the territories of Valencia and Galicia could follow suit. The Basque region still has the violent ETA terrorist group (once allied to Sinn Féin and the IRA)

There is no violence yet in Catalonia but what will happen if the Madrid government continues to ignore the popular will of the Catalans? And how can Madrid prevent them leaving unless through an economic blockade, or military intervention? It is the situation Ireland was in a hundred years ago, and that Ukraine was in last year (with Crimea) and Yugoslavia was in 20 years ago.

The Madrid government also rightly argues that there are millions of people living in Catalonia who do not want to break away, and want to stay under Spanish rule. Indeed, Spanish migrants living in Catalonia even have their own soccer team called, appropriately, Espanyol. Indeed, football fans are wondering will the mighty Barcelona still play in the Spanish league - or be a Celtic style big fish in a Catalonia league. As it is, Catalan players formed the backbone of Spain's recent World Cup and European Championship success.

As with Scotland, the only solution may be for Madrid to grant Catalonia more autonomy and fiscal powers to dampen the appetite for independence. But this will surely also only fuel it, in which case we could be looking at the break up of modern Spain, a prospect that would cause alarm not just in Spain itself but in an ethnically restive Europe, that has many such potential break-away bits.

Interestingly, even the British Prime Minister David Cameron is appealing for Spain to stay together. The hope was that the European Union would accommodate these regional 'differences', but it may have only deepened them. Meanwhile, for tourists and locals, probably little will actually change down on Barcelona's laid-back Ramblas.

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