“This is now such a visceral and tense dispute that it sadly leaves no room for those who want only the role of spectators,” said Carles Domènec, a journalist and photographer who is based in Barcelona. “I feel like the person who is suddenly told that he is a Jew and made to discover what it means to be Jewish.”
Nobody seems able to explain exactly how the conflict escalated so fast. But neither can anybody still ignore it. “I feel pure sadness having to waste ink on a Catalan problem that should never have occurred,” said Andrés Rábago, a veteran newspaper cartoonist known across Spain as El Roto. “We all know our history and the difficulties of maintaining our unity, and we should all be able to recognize that diversity is good and should never be converted into a push for hegemony.”
Diversity, however, is rarely put forward as one of Spain’s assets. Among their longstanding grievances, for instance, Catalans complain that their language is taught in far more German universities than ones in the rest of Spain and that lawmakers in the Spanish Parliament aren’t allowed to use the language of their own region.
“The big problem of Spain is that it has had this pretense to be one country, with almost a sacrosanct idea of unity, when it should always have seen itself as a remarkably successful experiment in the coexistence of different communities,” said Felipe Fernández-Armesto, an Anglo-Spanish historian who is a professor at the University of Notre Dame. “Nationalism didn’t work when it was invented in the 19th century and it makes even less sense now, but in a time of globalization, people are retreating to comfort zones, even if that might mean creating new ghettos.”
Such is the power of this territorial conflict that it is also threatening to ignite passions in other regions of Spain, starting with those that neighbor Catalonia.
At the Formentor literary festival this month on the island of Mallorca, where people speak Catalan but which doesn’t form part of Catalonia, an argument started after one of the authors spoke in Catalan at a colloquium and was asked by the moderator to switch to Castilian Spanish. Basilio Baltasar, a writer and organizer of the festival, said the event had always been bilingual and had never caused such frictions before.
“I think we need psychoanalysts instead of politicians to resolve the situation in Spain, which has become very, very emotional,” Mr. Baltasar said. “The politicians have been using the same rhetoric as that of the 1930s that led us to civil war, fueling passions that are always very difficult to extinguish.”
Separatism in Catalonia has century-old roots, but it gained considerable strength this decade during the euro debt crisis. The largest pro-independence demonstration was held in September 2012, three months after a Spanish banking bailout. The ruling conservatives in Madrid and Barcelona then fell out over money rather than sovereignty as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy rejected wealthy Catalonia’s demands to reduce its tax contribution to poorer parts of Spain. For many in Catalonia, independence offered a promise of improvement amid the gloom of a lengthy recession.
Five years later, Spain has returned to economic growth and politicians are no longer feuding over taxes and infrastructure. Instead their confrontation has become more existential, swinging between arguments over jurisprudence and political theory — the weaknesses in Spain’s Constitution and whether separatists can therefore flout it in their pursuit of statehood and in the name of democracy — while rarely talking about exactly what kind of state Catalonia could be.
Along the way, the politicians are also opening a can of worms about how Spain was reconstructed in the 1970s after Francisco Franco’s long dictatorship. As part of their protest against the recent police clampdown in Catalonia, orchestrated from Madrid, separatists are reviving memories of Spain’s dark and recent past under Franco, who notably banned the Catalan language.
Anybody visiting Madrid or Barcelona today should be impressed by how much progress has been made since Spain emerged from the oppression and isolationism of the Franco era. Yet “unlike many other European countries, Spain has a terrible inferiority complex, almost ashamed of itself,” said Ignacio Vidal-Folch, a writer.
Most English people feel they could live equally well without independence-minded Scots. But the Catalan demands for a divorce, he argued, have been received in the rest of Spain as “if a husband is told by his wife that she always thought he was ugly.” And as is often the case in a divorce battle, the couple no longer bother to discuss why they wanted to split in the first place.