By Jeannette Neumann and Charles Penty
Talking about Catalonia’s Existential Crisis, It didn’t take long for Gerard García to fall out with his father over politics after returning home to Barcelona. The argument flared during their car journey from the airport; the subject was the future of Catalonia. At a stoplight, Gerard swung open the passenger door and bolted.
The family fight happened months before Catalonia’s 2017 push for independence, which was crushed by authorities in Madrid. García’s father, José Manuel, argued that Catalans contribute more in tax revenue than they get back. He felt betrayed when Gerard, an investment banker who lives in Madrid, accused him of buying the separatist spin and argued that the secession drive was a distraction from problems such as unemployment, which Spain could better address united. “There’s a false narrative that’s being told in Spain, and my son had bought that narrative,” says José Manuel, 59, who sells construction products for a French company. He no longer reads national newspapers and gets most of his news about Spain from Catalan pro-independence media. “Afterward you think, how can you argue with your son like that? But my feelings are just so strong.”
In the Catalonia’s existential crisis, their bitter rift has been writ large in the months leading up to Spain’s April 28 snap election. Whatever the makeup of the next government, the challenge of dealing with a restless Catalonia will remain. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who has a commanding lead in the polls, says he wants to explore ways to expand Catalonia’s powers without allowing an official referendum on secession. On the far right of the political spectrum, an insurgent Spanish nationalist group called Vox vows to protect the country’s unity. Polls show it may win enough seats to make it a force in the next parliament. It aims to strip powers from regional governments and wants to suspend Catalan autonomy “until the unquestionable defeat of the coup mongers.” Campaign events held by parties advocating more political power for Madrid have been met with raucous protests in Catalonia.
Spain is one of the world’s most decentralized countries, a confederation of languages and heritages. The crisis of 18 months ago challenged the uneasy constitutional settlement that’s held the country together since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975. Successive Catalan administrations have used the powers given them in those agreements to pursue separatist goals, and many conservatives worry that they’ll eventually use those powers to tear Spain apart.
Although it failed, Scotland’s 2014 referendum on breaking away from the U.K. encouraged Catalans. While Brexit divides Britain—encouraging Scottish nationalists to seek another vote—and Poland and Italy have lurched to the right, Catalonia has become Spain’s dominant existential question. “It’s the Spanish spin on a European phenomenon,” says Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.
Leaders of the failed bid to split from Spain are on trial for rebellion—proceedings that are broadcast daily and watched avidly in Catalan households such as José Manuel’s. “When we’re listening to the trial and we hear the lies upon lies upon lies, that just creates more pro-independence sentiment,” says María Luz Esteve, 56, José Manuel’s wife of 35 years. The couple donates hundreds of euros each year to two Catalan civic groups that support the families of imprisoned separatist leaders.