Barcelona is a wonderful economic capital, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea and the mountain Tibidabo. The thousand facets of mosaic that decorate its most famous buildings reflect it perfectly, as it crystallises diversity, warmth, and beauty – the reasons why this city imposed itself as an evidence for me to carry out my Erasmus year.
This warmth is also felt when frequenting the inhabitants. It must be said that this population is characterised by a funny paradox: while heavily protesting against mass tourism, driving up real estate prices exponentially, they are also very welcoming to foreigners. They are Catalans – as it is easy to realise when lost in the geometric streets of Barcelona, they are extremely connected to their culture. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find many flyers in Catalan, to see restaurant doors on which are affixed a “tancat” or an “obert”, or to hear men young and old discussing in this local language.
It must be noted that, unlike France, which does not recognise any official language other than French, Barcelona has two: Castilian and Catalan. This identity is so strong that when it occurred to ask them their nationality, it is a very frank “I am Catalan” that has been retorted several times. This culture, which seems to have been built in discordance with the Spanish national identity, is actually the window of a much deeper gap. But I did not see the scale of this until the day of the referendum. I never could have imagined starting my Erasmus year in one country and finishing it in another, while staying in the same place.
I must admit that as soon as I arrived in the city, some elements had foretold the Catalan-Spanish gap, but not its depth. Firstly, I have attended demonstrations where the word “votarem” was on everyone’s lips, in protest against the illegality of the referendum, as well as concerts of loud saucepans in the middle of the night in protest of the repression of Catalan politicians. I, however, did not realise that these events were the premises of a strong unilateral commitment to independence. In the days leading up to the referendum, Barcelona’s streets looked like venues for shows, songs and theatre for the Mercé Festival, with the city celebrating Catalan culture there as well. It was only the day before, when my family strongly advised me not to leave home, that I realised that this referendum was not ordinary. I thought until then that it would have only an advisory value or that, similarly to the Scottish, the Catalans would not have gone through with their commitment.
A peaceful people: the role of the media
Regarding the referendum day, what I have been able to deduce from it is that the media have been inflating the situation. Yes, there was police violence that day that I strongly condemn. But the city did not turn into a bloodbath, nor was it a civil war. Some of my friends refused to come see me because they feared for their safety, and this even several months after the events. Personally, I never felt less safe in Barcelona than in Toulouse. My daily life has not been affected by the situation that much. I think that the media, by insisting on demonstrations and conflicts with the police, have frightened the population and cultivated fear. It must be noted that around 2 million people expressed themselves that day in Catalonia. In a context of pure violence, I do not think it would have been the case. What we can remember from this conflict is that the Catalans are an extremely peaceful people, and their manner of communication is not violence, but noise. After the referendum, the city did not become more dangerous – in fact, the demonstrations that followed shocked me by their tranquillity. I also keep a very good memory from it: a large gathering of thousands of people dancing over drums, and passing a message calmly. If some overflows happened during those times, I have not found them to be more virulent than a supporters’ fight in a football match.
A difficult conflict to resolve
This situation remains rather destabilising for an Erasmus student coming into the heart of a political conflict of this magnitude. Questions quickly arose, especially after the declaration of independence: Is Catalonia a country in its own right? Who is at the head of Catalonia: Puidgemont or Madrid? If Catalonia were to no longer be European, would the Erasmus contract still be in force? And so on. Despite this, we have never been asked to take sides in the conflict. Even if I wanted to, it would have been impossible for me, as a foreigner, to have a decided opinion on the situation: The Catalans themselves are divided on the subject. However, this last aspect was not often shown in the media.
We might think that all of Catalonia is rising against the monarchy and wants its freedom, but that is not the case. Two very distinguished fronts stand out. On the one hand, there is the will to be liberated from a Spanish colonial kingdom; on the other hand, there is the desire to stop “being stubborn” and ruining the Catalan potential. According to the Courrier International, a French newspaper, Barcelona and Tarragona are anti-independence cities, while independents are more often found in the Catalan countryside. Here again, we might think that supporters and opponents to the independence clash in an interminable conflict. But that is not what I saw: law teachers, on the contrary, socialise without being on the same side, while friends share their days together in knowledge of their political differences. The protests on both sides were remarkable for the respect they expressed towards one another.
A situation with significant side effects
Certainly, we may not agree on which side to stand. What cannot be denied, however, is the detrimental influence of this situation on all of Catalonia. Although this is not very visible in the life of an Erasmus student, some aspects are to be considered. Firstly, tourism has significantly declined since the month of October 2017. According to the newspaper LCI, “Catalonia has seen the number of foreign visitors diminished by almost 5% (…) and it is the only region in this case in Spain.” It must be remembered that Catalonia is an extremely touristic region: Independence of not, I cannot imagine its economic sustainability if the number of tourists continues to decline. A restorer I interviewed told me that today his number of the cutlery was around 30 against 100 a few years ago, while some museums have also preferred to move their artwork outside the region after the declaration of independence. Concerning the stock market, the days following the referendum made it extremely unstable, making any financial manipulation impossible. This situation has even affected football, as some wonder about the future of FC Barcelona in the case of independence.
It is easy to understand that the situation cannot remain indefinitely unstable for the good health of Catalonia. But this is uncertain. The vote for the new parliament after the submission to Article 155 gave rise to a parliament where the separatists, while less virulent, have even more seats. Moreover, the Catalan crisis calls into question the entire organisational system of Spain. Should the country become a true federation in its own right? Many are those who are asking the question today. The solution seems to be linked to a modification of the constitution, which is something the Rajoy government does not seem very inclined to do.
by Laohra Calvados