BARCELONA — Chris Nash, a 58-year-old English language teacher, is troubled by the thought of his adopted homeland, Catalonia — a wealthy region of 7.4 million people in northeastern Spain — breaking away from Madrid and becoming a sovereign state.
“It’s difficult,” said Nash, who is from originally from London. “I don’t feel I can trust the [the nationalist parties] … Their campaign is somewhat opportunistic.”
He has lived in Terrassa, a town 13 miles outside Barcelona, the Catalan capital, for the last 26 years. He thinks Catalonia’s ascendant separatist movement has failed to answer key questions about what independence would involve.
“I’m not necessarily anti-independence, but it needs to be discussed,” Nash said. “All we’ve had so far is denial. [Nationalists] say we’ll be fine and there won’t be any problems. But this wave of romantic delusion is the wrong way to build an [independent country].”
On Sept. 27, Catalonia held elections to its devolved parliament, which were billed by separatists as a proxy referendum on independence from Spain.
A coalition of nationalist parties, including center-right Convergencia, left-leaning Esquerra Republicana and radical leftists Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), won 72 of the legislature’s 135 seats and now claim a mandate for independence.
However, the Spanish government, under right-wing Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, has ruled out any talks with Barcelona that could lead to the break-up of Spain.
In order to force Madrid to the negotiating table, Catalan independentistas will have to find a way of boosting support for independence in a population that remains, despite Sunday’s election results, divided on the issue.
Traditionally, nationalist sentiment has been strongest among the Catalan-speaking middle class. But, like Nash, many in Catalonia’s sizable immigrant community — a group that includes people from other Spanish regions as well as from beyond Spain’s borders — are uneasy about secession.
Maria Justina Moya, a 33-year-old madrileña who moved to Barcelona two years ago for work, said the debate over independence had made life in Catalonia more difficult for her.
“For me, the situation is very sad. Sometimes it is quite uncomfortable to live in Barcelona as someone from Madrid because [Catalan] politicians are always saying that Madrid has stolen their money … but there are poor areas of Spain that need it.”
She used to believe in a united Spain but now thinks that if Catalans want to secede, they should. “If they don’t want to be Spanish, they should just go,” she said. “I am tired, and I would prefer just to let them go. I don’t want anyone [to stay] in this country who doesn’t want to belong.”
Moya’s views are echoed by Jenny Morrison, a student from Scotland who lives and studies in Barcelona. “Right-wing [language] dominates the Catalan independence movement,” she said. “They say, ‘Espanya ens roba’ — ‘Spain robs us’ — because Catalonia contributes more [in tax] to Spain than it receives back. But this is because Catalonia is a rich part of Spain, so their contribution should be higher in order to fund redistribution.”
Morrison campaigned for secession during last year’s referendum on Scottish independence but sees Catalan nationalism as less progressive than its Scottish counterpart.
“Support for independence here is the reverse of what it is in Scotland … A new Catalan state is likely to be formed through right-wing middle-class support. It is difficult to see the working class gaining much in that scenario.”
‘For me, the situation is very sad. Sometimes it is quite uncomfortable to live in Barcelona as someone from Madrid because [Catalan] politicians are always saying that Madrid has stolen their money.’
Maria Justina Moya
Conscious of the need to broaden the appeal of independence, nationalists have worked to address some of the concerns non-Catalans have about the potential consequences of separation on Catalonia’s economy and international status.
“The main worry, particularly for people from Europe, is that they want Catalonia to remain in the EU and to keep the euro,” said Martha Moreo, an activist with the pro-independence Catalan National Assembly who hails from Italy and Argentina. “Madrid tells them, ‘You are going to lose your job, your residency. You are going to starve.’ But when we sit them down and start dismantling these arguments, they change their minds.”
Of course, some adopted Catalans have already embraced the prospect of secession. Dave Ambler, a 54-year-old American who has spent the last decade working as a translator in Catalonia, sees the independence movement as a healthy expression of Catalonia’s distinctive cultural identity.
“About four years ago, I went to Barcelona for Catalan National Day [and] was amazed not just by the number of people there but by the atmosphere,” he said. “Everyone was standing up for their identity in really a positive way … Generally, Catalonia has been really welcoming to people from outside.”
He believes that politicians in Madrid, not Catalan independentistas, are responsible for the aggressive tone the Catalan independence debate sometimes assumes. “I don’t think [independence] is going to be as easy as its supporters think. But Spain has not offered anything to try to tell the people of Catalonia why they should stay, except scare tactics … None of the Spanish parties has said, ‘No, Catalonia is important. We want you stay.’”
The results of Sunday’s elections, though far from conclusive (pro-Spanish parties secured nearly 40 percent of votes), have edged Catalonia toward the exit door.
The nationalist parties have set out an 18-month timetable, at the end of which — if Madrid has refused to negotiate an amicable divorce — the Catalan government may declare independence unilaterally. But that declaration will be difficult to implement if large and politically influential sections of the Catalan population, including many of its immigrants, wish to remain part of Spain.
However, Catalan separatists are confident that an independent Catalonia would be better positioned to safeguard the rights of minority groups than the Spanish government is.
“Everybody who lives in Catalonia will have citizenship and rights from the very get-go, complete political rights that the Spanish state took decades to deliver,” said Antonio Baños, the leader of the CUP and one of the key figures in the independence movement.
“The problem is not one of two communities or about language or religion. It’s about insisting that feelings of belonging to a nation — Spanish or Catalan — are sacred and should be respected.
“One can feel Spanish and want an efficient and just state and believe that Spain is neither viable nor reformable. Independentism is a political and civic commitment. It’s not about identity.”