Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Two weeks ago, left-wing agitators and demonstrators in Barcelona were making noises for their anti-tourism protests. After the events of August 16, when terrorists targeted the city and drove a van straight down Las Ramblas — the broad pedestrian walkway that’s an excellent way to see the best the Catalan capital has to offer — those voices of protest have simply died away. The terrorists will have done more to kill off Barcelona’s tourism trade than the misguided and misinformed alt-left protesters could have dare dreamed of. If there’s a moral here, it’s — be careful what you wish for.
For many Catalans, however, their wish is for succession from Spain and the declaration of independence for the region around Barcelona with its Catalan language and culture. They say the region has never been a fit with Spain from the moment the Mediterranean naval and trading state was unified with the Iberian powerhouse through the marriage in 1479 of Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon. Regardless of the historical facts, there’s the current political reality: The 7.5 million Catalans make up about 16 per cent of the overall Spanish population, and the region accounts for a little less than a fifth of Spain’s annual gross domestic product.
Catalonia is one of 17 provinces of Spain that has a regional parliament with the power to set limited local laws over purely domestic issues — local taxes, education and the like.
That Catalan parliament staged one referendum already in November 2014, with 80.8 per cent of those who voted supporting independence. Trouble was, the vote was declared illegal the week before it happened, and the result had no legal standing. It was little more than a high-cost and highly politicised survey.
Artur Mas, then the president of the Catalan parliament, along with former vice-president Joana Ortega and former Catalan education minister Irene Rigau, were convicted by the Catalan high court this February for defying the Constitutional Court ruling that declared the plebiscite illegal. Despite those convictions, the separatist parties in Catalonia are determined to hold a second referendum on October 1. Already, that vote has been declared illegal. The vote will go ahead, the result will be meaningless, few will have voted, and Carles Puigdemont, who now heads the regional parliament, will use it to declare independence. Simply put, the result will not be worth the paper it’s written on — it is illegitimate, illegal and invalid.
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was deeply criticised last time around for not doing enough to stop the first Catalan independence plebiscite. This time around, he’s taking a much more aggressive stand and has warned both Puigdemont and another separatist politician, Carme Focadell, that they face charges for pressing ahead with the new October 1 vote.
With all the discord between the central government in Madrid and the regional parliament in Barcelona, one would have imagined that the terrible events would be above such politics or at least offer a respite from the separatist squabble.
Sadly, not at all. And the separatists, in particular, should be ashamed for trying to make political hay from the fallout of the Las Ramblas rampage.
The attack happened just after lunchtime last Thursday, and the previous Tuesday had been a public holiday across Spain, with many taking advantage of the midweek break to make a full week’s vacation. Both Rajoy and Puigdemont had taken time off. As soon as the attack happened, both cancelled their weeks’ holidays. For Rajoy, the measure was necessary, to calm a country in crisis and provide leadership. His party had learnt well from the Madrid train bombings of 2004 — then deliberately blaming Basque terrorists ETA for the atrocity, instead of the terrorists who actually carried out that massacre. This time around, there was rush to judgement, and Rajoy acted to make sure the national, Catalan and local police forces, along with the CNI — Spain’s intelligence network — had all the help needed and resources at their disposal to catch and eliminate those who planned the evil attack.
He also headed straight to the city to lead the response. Puigdemont too cancelled his leave, a necessary step for a man whose economic and political power base had been hit by the terrorists.
But the blood was still wet on the historic boardwalk and the city centre still sealed off behind a cordon of police tape when Puigdemont used the attacks to raise the question of Catalan’s independence. “Catalonia has been, and will be, a land of peace. A place of welcome. And we will not let a minority end our way of being what has been forged over centuries,” Puigdemont said. And he noted: “We’re not the only, or the first, city in Europe where there has been a massacre like this,” adding that the region’s “road map” towards independence would not be derailed by the attacks.
For his part, the Spanish prime minister was forging a message of unity.
“Terrorists are beaten by institutional unity, by cooperation between police forces,” Rajoy said. A year ago, after the truck attack along the boardwalk in Nice, France, Spain’s Ministry of Interior had recommended placing bollards on Las Ramblas to prevent such a terrorist atrocity from happening. That suggestion was turned down by Catalan police. Puigdemont hasn’t explained why. Instead, Puigdemont is more determined now than ever before to hold the referendum, and he says that once the result is official, he will declare independence the next morning.
For Catalans and Spaniards still coming to terms with the events of last week, that’s a prospect that they don’t want to deal with right now. They are still in mourning.