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Barcelona is now Europe's capital of confusion

Melissa Rossi
Catalan Regional Government President Carles Puigdemont, center, acknowledging applause from colleagues. (Photo: Luis Gene/AFP/Getty Images)

BARCELONA — Of all the declarations of independence in modern times, from the United States’s in Philadelphia, to Nora’s in “A Doll’s House,” the one in the Catalan Parliament in Barcelona Tuesday evening may have been the most peculiar: ringing and stirring but at the same time hedged and ambiguous, and leaving the 7.5 million residents of this wealthy northeast corner of Spain wondering what exactly had taken place — and what country they were living in. The new Republic of Catalonia? Or were they still part of the constitutional monarchy of España?

Confusion over the status of Barcelona and the surrounding region — visited by some 1 million Americans annually — wasn’t at all surprising.

Life has been confusing here for weeks — ever since Catalonia’s President Carles Puigdemont, a shaggy-haired journalist/propagandist gung-ho on secession, went head to head with Spain’s prime minister, stern Mariano Rajoy of the conservative People’s Party, about whether Catalonia could hold a referendum about splitting from Spain, a step opposed in Catalan public opinion polls as recently as July by a margin of 49-41.

Rajoy’s national government in Madrid unsurprisingly said no. Then the country’s Constitutional Court ruled such a referendum unconstitutional. The only way one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities —which, like Catalonia, hold considerable powers of self-government — could saw itself off from the motherland was by national referendum. And that was that.

Lifelong independista Puigdemont, a former mayor who gained the presidency in a parliamentary deal, was deaf to Madrid’s protests.

The referendum would take place, Puigdemont declared.

It would not, said Rajoy.

Pro-independence supporters listening to a speech from Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. (Photo: Francisco Seco/AP)

And Rajoy went to great lengths to stop it, warning Catalans not to participate in the referendum and sending national and military police to raid nationalist media outlets and printers of ballots. The national government shut down internet sites to prevent voters from learning where to cast their ballots and tried to shutter voting places before they were open.

Catalans responded with marches, student strikes and a protest by firemen who perched on the roof of the Catalonia History Museum to demand a vote. But Madrid was unmoved.

Related slideshow: Voices of the Catalan referendum in Barcelona >>>

“The referendum will not take place,” repeated Rajoy.

But it did, and although Oct. 1 was rainy and cold, some 2.3 million Catalans — between 38 percent and 43 percent of eligible voters, depending on whose stats you believe — went out to vote in a disputed, disorganized event that was boycotted by most of the antisecessionist camp and marred by accusations of voting fraud and by the heavy-handed tactics of the national police.

“A referendum did not take place in Catalonia,” Rajoy asserted later that day.

From then until Tuesday evening, when Puigdemont made his long-awaited announcement, Barcelona, never sedate, has been chaotic, divided and far noisier than usual — with near-daily demonstrations by tens, sometimes hundreds, of thousands on all sides of the contentious issue: pro-independence, pro-Spain, pro-dialogue, anti-police violence. Clogging thoroughfares, and banging on pots and pans in squares, they threatened vacation plans by tourists — and the $18 billion a year they contribute to the local economy.

It was hard to tell that Spain is usually an easygoing, reasonable, peaceful, democratic country that celebrates the great diversity of its many parts. It was hard to remember that Barcelona is usually an urban paradise famous for dreamlike architecture, colorful parades, street parties, sandy beaches and over-the-top fun.

And then businesses got cold feet. In the nine days following the referendum, more than two dozen corporations, including the banks Sabadell and Caixabank, utility Gas Natural and water company Aguas de Barcelona, insurance companies and Spain’s biggest book publisher, Grupo Planeta, announced they were moving their legal headquarters outside of Catalonia.

Related slideshow: Violence erupts as Catalans vote on referendum on a split from Spain >>>

Many were jittery about what secession would mean for security. If Catalonia seceded from Spain, it would also be cutting itself off from the European Union, the eurozone, and NATO. An independent Catalonia would not have an army, navy or air force; it would have no means of border control or even air controllers to maintain an airport.

The topic of secession had likewise stirred up residents who generally have more important things to discuss — like food, music and fashion — than politics. Casual meetings for tapas on terraces turned explosive. “This issue has divided all my friends, all my family,” says a painter in her 70s, who like all those interviewed declined to use her name. “I can’t bear to hear any more of it.”

“I have spent all of my 50 years in Barcelona,” adds a salon owner. “I am Catalan, but I am Spanish too. If this keeps up, I’ll move somewhere else.”

The sentiment echoed among expats as well. “This constant tension between Spain and Catalonia just makes me really sad,” says a U.S.-born businessman who’s been here 12 years. “I’m ready to go back to the States.”

“Everybody I know is pulling all their money from banks,” says a Briton who owns three restaurants here. “Should I just pack it all up in Barcelona?”

And everywhere, everyone was waiting for Catalan President Puigdemont to make the declaration that Madrid, every major political party, the mayor of Barcelona and even the president of the EU’s European Council had pleaded with him not to make: a unilateral declaration of independence.

Tuesday, hours before his speech, an eerie calm descended over the city. Normally packed restaurants were less than half full, the bustling sidewalks quiet.

Pro-independence supporters at a rally near the Parliament in Barcelona. (Photo: Felipe Dana/AP)

By 7 o’clock, some 30,000 had gathered near Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf, a fitting symbol for what was expected to transpire in the nearby Parliament. Young and elderly alike, waving Catalonian flags or wearing them as capes, the locals had squeezed in to watch giant video screens live-streaming Puigdemont’s speech. They had been called by the two leading separatist societies to celebrate what promised to be a declaration of freedom, and to help protect the president, should the government in Madrid decide to arrest him for declaring independence from Spain.

And then he began talking, at first in Catalan, the regional language, then switching to Spanish to address the national government in Madrid.

“We are here because, on the first of October, Catalonia held a referendum of self-determination,” said Puigdemont. “From 8 in the morning until the close of polling stations, the police and Guardia Civil beat defenseless people and obliged the emergency services to attend to more than 800 people. We all saw it, as did the world, which was horrified as the images came through.”

He thanked all who had helped make the vote possible — from the citizens who hid ballot boxes in their homes, keeping them safe, to the volunteers who slept in the polling stations to make sure the police didn’t close them and all those who’d been injured while trying to vote.

And then the long-awaited moment arrived. “As president of the Generalitat, I take it upon myself to say, in presenting to you the results of the referendum before Parliament and our co-citizens, that the people have determined that Catalonia should become an independent state in the form of a republic.”

The crowd broke into loud cheers, flags waved, some broke into the Catalan anthem.

Crowds watching a giant screen showing events inside the Catalan Parliament. (Photo: Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

But then he continued.

“With the same solemnity, the government and I myself propose that the Parliament suspends the effects of the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we may begin a dialogue [with Madrid] without which it is impossible to arrive at an agreed solution.”

The announcement was met with stunned silence, then a few whistles and boos.

“We firmly believe that this moment needs not only a deescalation of tension but also a clear and committed willingness to advance the claims of the people of Catalonia from the results of the first of October. We must keep these results in mind during the period of dialogue, which we are willing to open.”

Expressions of disbelief overtook faces. What the hell did he just say?

In Madrid, they were wondering the same. Had Puigdemont declared independence or not?

Was he offering Rajoy’s government an olive branch or tossing a time bomb? Had the mayhem that followed the referendum given him cold feet? Was he worried about an exodus of business? Had he caved in to all the pressure not to declare unilateral independence?

The stretch of land before the Arc de Triomf was nicknamed the “Zone of Deception,” and most had filed out before the responses from politicians were broadcast. Inés Arrimadas, leader of the opposition Citizens Party, was against secession and called Puigdemont’s declaration tantamount to a coup. “Nobody has recognized the result of the referendum,” she said, directing her comments at Puigdemont. “Nobody in Europe supports what you have just done.”

Rajoy’s deputy prime minister in Madrid, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, said Puigdemont “doesn’t know where he is, where he is going and with whom he wants to go.”

Rajoy greeted the news by calling a Cabinet meeting for Wednesday. The outcome has not been announced, though Rajoy confirmed that he asked for clarification on whether Puigdemont had in fact declared independence.

“If Mr. Puigdemont demonstrates a willingness to respect the law and reestablish institutional normality, we could bring a close to a period of instability, tension and the breakdown of coexistence,” Rajoy said in a short press briefing.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, bottom right, is applauded by party members after his speech at the Spanish Parliament in Madrid on Wednesday. (Photo: Paul White/AP)

“We must put an urgent end to the situation in Catalonia. There must be a return to normality and calm as swiftly as possible.”

But by day’s end, Rajoy wasn’t so cordial. Catalonia’s president had eight days, he threatened, to drop any call for secession. And if he didn’t, the national government would take over the running of Catalonia.

A spokesperson for the Catalan government, however, told Catalunya Radio that if Madrid didn’t take up the offer for talks, Catalonia would just proceed with its independence. “We have taken a time out,” spokesman Jordi Turull said Wednesday. “Which doesn’t mean a step backwards.”

The crisis, in other words, hasn’t been averted, but possibly postponed. And sunny, carefree Barcelona stands on the brink of chaos.


Melissa Rossi, a writer based in Barcelona, is the author of the geopolitical series “What Every American Should Know” (Plume/Penguin).


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