Catalonia’s Existential Crisis Is Dominating the Spanish Vote

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It didn’t take long for Gerard García to fall out with his father over politics after returning home to Barcelona. The argument flared during their car journey from the airport; the subject was the future of Catalonia. At a stoplight, Gerard swung open the passenger door and bolted.

The family fight happened months before Catalonia’s 2017 push for independence, which was crushed by authorities in Madrid. García’s father, José Manuel, argued that Catalans contribute more in tax revenue than they get back. He felt betrayed when Gerard, an investment banker who lives in Madrid, accused him of buying the separatist spin and argued that the secession drive was a distraction from problems such as unemployment, which Spain could better address united. “There’s a false narrative that’s being told in Spain, and my son had bought that narrative,” says José Manuel, 59, who sells construction products for a French company. He no longer reads national newspapers and gets most of his news about Spain from Catalan pro-independence media. “Afterward you think, how can you argue with your son like that? But my feelings are just so strong.”

Their bitter rift has been writ large in the months leading up to Spain’s April 28 snap election. Whatever the makeup of the next government, the challenge of dealing with a restless Catalonia will remain. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who has a commanding lead in the polls, says he wants to explore ways to expand Catalonia’s powers without allowing an official referendum on secession. On the far right of the political spectrum, an insurgent Spanish nationalist group called Vox vows to protect the country’s unity. Polls show it may win enough seats to make it a force in the next parliament. It aims to strip powers from regional governments and wants to suspend Catalan autonomy “until the unquestionable defeat of the coup mongers.” Campaign events held by parties advocating more political power for Madrid have been met with raucous protests in Catalonia.

Spain is one of the world’s most ­decentralized countries, a confederation of languages and heritages. The crisis of 18 months ago challenged the uneasy constitutional settlement that’s held the country together since the death of ­General Francisco Franco in 1975. Successive Catalan administrations have used the powers given them in those agreements to pursue separatist goals, and many conservatives worry that they’ll eventually use those powers to tear Spain apart.

Although it failed, Scotland’s 2014 referendum on breaking away from the U.K. encouraged Catalans. While Brexit divides Britain—encouraging Scottish nationalists to seek another vote—and Poland and Italy have lurched to the right, Catalonia has become Spain’s dominant existential question. “It’s the Spanish spin on a European phenomenon,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

Leaders of the failed bid to split from Spain are on trial for rebellion—proceedings that are broadcast daily and watched avidly in Catalan households such as José Manuel’s. “When we’re listening to the trial and we hear the lies upon lies upon lies, that just creates more pro-independence sentiment,” says María Luz Esteve, 56, José Manuel’s wife of 35 years. The couple donates hundreds of euros each year to two Catalan civic groups that support the families of imprisoned separatist leaders.

Catalonia’s Existential Crisis Is Dominating the Spanish Vote

Gerard, 24, says in 2012 he attended an annual festival in Barcelona celebrating Catalan culture and traditions, which his parents attend every year. Now he feels the event has been hijacked by pro-independence groups. “It’s no longer festive,” he says. “It’s against someone.”

The administration in Barcelona has been using its power to try to shape the region of 7.5 million people, separated from the rest of the country by language and identity if not by a border. The increase in support for Catalan separatism dates to 2010, when Spain’s Constitutional Court struck down part of a statute that would have granted Catalonia greater autonomy. Then came the financial crisis, which emboldened pro-independence groups to claim that the region, representing almost 20 percent of the economy, would be better off on its own.

Some of those who back union with Spain say separatists in the regional government are using the cover of the Catalan language and education to promote their agenda. In 2017, a small Catalan teachers’ union published a report on what it said was the use of educational materials to indoctrinate children. It highlighted textbooks that listed the Catalan parliament as part of the system of government without, for example, mentioning Spanish institutions such as the monarchy. One book showed a Catalonia map alongside European nation states including Italy and Germany and described it as a European region, which, as such, “can have its own government.”

Catalonia’s Existential Crisis Is Dominating the Spanish Vote

The Catalan administration strongly denies the use of education or media as propaganda. But separatist officials and their supporters acknowledge that Catalan language laws may help lay down the ­linguistic foundations for Catalonia if it does one day become independent. Ester Franquesa, the regional government’s director of language policy, says that Catalonia’s system is for the benefit of all Catalans, not just those who support independence. On the other hand, she says, “as a government, we clearly have a position in relation to wanting, aspiring, and working to have an independent state.”

Jaime Uros, 66, a retired electrician whose grandfather emigrated from Andalusia to find work building Barcelona’s metro system, still struggles with Catalan, a language he was unable to learn in Franco-era Spain. He sees the access his son, Jaume, had to Catalan through the schooling system as a positive force rather than nationalist indoctrination. “For me it is a matter of pride that my children can speak Catalan,” Jaime says. Like the Garcías, though, father and son disagree about Catalonia’s place within Spain. Jaime favors union with Spain, while Jaume is strongly pro-independence.

Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo, who’s running for the national parliament from Catalonia for the conservative People’s Party, used an interview in mid-April with Catalonia’s public station TV3 to accuse it of participating in the region’s “coup against democracy.” Her party’s former leader, Mariano Rajoy, was prime minister when Spanish authorities temporarily took over Catalonia’s administration in 2017. Like many on the right, Alvarez de Toledo considers the channel to be a propaganda arm of the regional government. A TV3 spokeswoman said the station is audited by a regional agency and a private company to ensure quality and a plurality of political views.

José Manuel García thinks the national media have spun people into believing that the Catalan government turns students and voters into separatists. That message has helped to lay the groundwork for the election campaign, he says. “Going against Catalonia, for Spanish national parties, brings votes,” he says. “I don’t trust Madrid.”

Since the standoff with his father in the car, Gerard says they’ve found an unsteady peace by avoiding serious conversations about politics. But the memory of 2017 is fresh. “Do I vote for what’s best for my country, or for the people who are from the same place as I am, Catalonia?” he asks. “I’m trying to find my place, but I can’t find it.” —With Ben Sills

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at jgoodman74@bloomberg.net, Rodney Jefferson

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.