Barcelona Football club is one of sports great icons and its motto in Més que un Club – translates as “more than a club”. Why do they make this statement? Because they see themselves as a National team representing the “oppressed” people of Catlunya. To explain this and help to understand the sentiment I am going to start with a little gentle geography and a short history lesson which I hope will be better than the ones I used to sleep through whilst at school! When I went to live in Spain twenty years ago I had a preconceived idea of the country which was, I guess, pretty uniform. A country blessed with 360 days of sun, a large coastline and primarily agricultural economy, which I had ambitions of contributing to but there lies another story. All my assumptions were quite accurate but what I hadn’t appreciated was the history of the country and the divisions that it had help shape. Spain covers over Five hundred thousand square Kilometres and is split not only by two mountain ranges running across the country, hampering communications in the past, but also by language and overhanging resentments of a bitterly fought civil war.
I first visited Spain, or I should say tried to, in 1972 when the Guardia Civil took exception to my long hair and turned me back at the border, ironically in Catalunya. That’s hard to envisage now that Spain is a fully paid up member of the European experiment and has a seemingly liberal government. In 1972 Spain was still under the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco, a fascist dictator, who had collaborated with Hitler to acheive power in Spain in particular utilising the Luftwaffe on occasions one such was to destroy Guernica which ironically inspired Picasso’s great masterpiece. Franco ruled till 1975 and Spain was still struggling with democracy as late as 1982 when there was an attempted military coup led by right wing elements in the Army. The political feelings still run deep and old animosities still hold. Spain is divided into seventeen autonomous regions and roughly these can be divided again into four blocks Madrid where the power is centralised , The Pais Vasco (The Basque country, home of the violent separatists ETA) , Andalucía in the South, ruled by Moors till 1492* and Catalonia which is primarily the North Eastern corner. Andalucía and Madrileños have slightly different dialects whereas the Catalans and the Basques, in particular, have totally different languages. Basque for example seems to share more with Hungarian than Spanish and Catalan appears to be a mix of Spanish, French and Italian.
There have been calls for many years for a return to the independence that Catalonians enjoyed between 1700 and 1935. The region that was particularly bullied by Franco during the civil war years and subsequently starved in an era, known in Andalucia, as the years of grass as that is all they had to eat. During this era immigrants flocked from the country to find work in Barcelona not only swelling its population but also, as often is the case, reinforcing its sense of independence. In more recent times Barcelona has seen an influx of South American migrants who feel strongly about oppression, understandably as they have often fled from it. The callsfor independence were really nothing more than rumblings and often exploited by the region to coerce Madrid into unlocking the coffers for municipal grants. Indeed Barcelona is a wonderful vibrant City famed for not only its football team bur also its food. When compared to the violence that the Basque separatists have frequently unleashed, killing over 800 people over the years, the independence movement has been a peaceful organisation and often just an excuse for a fiesta. There has always been a feeling amongst Catalans that they send more to Madrid in taxes than they receive back in services, it is worth noting that 7.5million Catalans account for more than 20% of Spanish GDP, this disenchantment with central government was fed by the withdrawal of the preferential status of the Catalan language in 2010.
Calls for an independence referendum were bubbling along relatively quietly until the Spanish leadership intervened in a heavy handed manner to try and block the vote , which by the way , almost certainly would have been a no. By the intransigence of Mariano Rajoy’s administration and the heavy handed intervention of the Guardia Civil (the paramilitary arm of the Spanish police) they have achieved the opposite of what they wished for. The originators of the call were the tax paying middle classes but the wider public, who may have been apathetic, are now exercised and rightly wish to have the freedom to express their feelings. However amusing it may be to see Disney cruise liners being disguised to billet Guardia Civil make no mistake their presence has reignited memories of the cruelty and murders that the hated Guardia served out during the Franco years. As one Catalan, who didn’t want his name revealed, told me “if we have to die at the hands of the Guardia Civil we are ready to do so to honour the blood of our dead relatives”.
It feels that whatever the central government does the vote will go ahead and it is a binding result with no minimum, so a low turnout by activists could mean that Catalonia will declare independence on 1st October. Rajoy has the nuclear option to simply declare that the vote and decision are illegal and overrule it. His problem lies in the fact that his government relies on the Ciudadanos Party to support it in parliament and, here lies the kicker, Ciudadanos was originally started in Catalonia as an opposition party to independence but they are Catalans and whether Rajoy’s weak government could survive such a heavy handed approach is doubtful.
Whilst Europe appears to be embarked on a voyage to greater and greater integration to form a super federalist state it is interesting that there are strong feelings not only amongst the Catalans but also the Poles and Hungarians for independence and indeed the United Kingdom is in danger of splintering mainly through divisions on how it faces Europe in the future. Whilst the Catalans haven’t expressed a clear view on their role in Europe if they become independent it feels like once again the independence of a nation is having one last kick at freedom from the yoke of centralised power. Will the unelected bureaucrats listen in Brussels to what the people are saying? I don’t think so. Whilst all this plays in the background and threats of further civil disobedience lurk in the background I would not rush to buy Spanish stocks, in particular companies based in Catalunya or any Spanish bonds and whilst the Euro seems to be the beneficiary of safe haven status at present (God alone knows why) I would keep an eye on developments, many not reported in the press, in Spain and the old communist countries such as Poland and Hungary. When Poland calls for war reparations of One Trillion from Germany surely there is surely something untoward stirring in the wood shed and action to protect oneself is the wise route.