The contrast between the streets of Barcelona and those of most other major Spanish cities is stark, and not just for the architecture. The flag of Spain, commonly hung from balconies all over the country, is not visible here anywhere near to that extent, except on federal buildings. Rather, the red and yellow stripes of another flag, that of Catalonia, seems to be displayed everywhere.

The Spanish flag and Catalan state flag over a government building.

In 2017, the movement for Catalan independence reached a tipping point, with a controversial referendum passing (though those against it didn’t vote as they said it was illegal), independence being declared, and the Spanish government cracking down on both the movement and its leaders, imprisoning many and declaring the referendum null and void. Since, things seem to have simmered slightly, but the call for independence is still in the background.

So let’s examine just a little behind this: its causes, possible future of the movement, and the effect on us as tourists. (It is important to note that opinions made here are those from my own personal observations and conversations with both locals and ex-pats, and are not necessarily universal truths. I am, after all, neither Spanish nor Catalan, and have only spent a couple of weeks in Barcelona.)

It is important to remember that modern Spain, much like the UK, is made up of several distinct “nations,” each with its own history, language, and traditions. In Catalonia, the area of Barcelona and the surrounding provinces (as well as a bit of southern France), Catalan is a fully equal language to Spanish, and many people here – though certainly not all – consider themselves first Catalan and then Spanish. (There are other similar regions in Spain, as well, like those of the Basque and Galician peoples.)

The two Catalan independence flags, made up of the state flag (red and yellow stripes) with the addition of a star

Under Franco’s dictatorship, which lasted from 1936 to 1975, speaking those regional languages was punishable by imprisonment. So, naturally, when the country moved toward democracy, nationalist sentiments in those regions was bound to come out. Catalonia was no exception, and Spain’s constitution of 1978 allows for the region to govern itself semi-autonomously, as it does for the other nationalist regions. It again is most similar to the UK in its set-up. For decades, this seemed to work, although there has always been an undercurrent of those who would prefer Catalonia to be independent.

Fast forward to 2011, when Mariano Rajoy was elected prime minister of Spain. 2012 saw a financial crisis during which unemployment peaked at 27%. He was incredibly unpopular in Catalonia, both for his national policies and for his seeming to be against the regional autonomy. As a result of a combination of the economic conditions, long-standing desires for independence, and a hatred of Rajoy, the movement for secession gained popularity and steam, culminating in the election of a majority pro-independence Catalan parliament and the 2017 referendum, which, after being staunchly rejected by Rajoy as illegal, led to the imposition of direct rule on Catalonia (and the associated loss of autonomous status) for a time.

Demonstrations, on both sides of the issue, were largely peaceful but huge, with hundreds of thousands of participants. One American ex-pat covering the period was Todd Glider, a filmmaker who turned his footage into the documentary Catalunya Barcelona. I sat down with Todd at his posh Barcelona flat to talk about the experience, and what has happened since.

Plaza Catalunya, basically Barcelona’s main square, was the center of the protests.

According to Todd, the main ingredient holding the independence movement together was hatred of the central government under Rajoy. Besides that, he tells me, independence – while certainly a common goal – was more a buzzword. After all, in Catalonia there are both left-wing and right-wing pro-independence parties. While they had a common enemy in the federal government they could work together, but upon the election of Pablo Casado in 2018, these wings of the secessionist movement have gone back to bickering, as Casado has been much more accepting of Catalan autonomy than Rajoy was.

Today, while a plurality of Catalonians still favor independence, a referendum would be unlikely to pass. There are still legitimate concerns, like the fact that Catalonia pays more into the central government in taxes than it gets back in benefits like infrastructure. (A common gripe is the lack of high-speed rail connecting Barcelona to anywhere except Madrid.) And while many more hang the Catalan flag than the national one, there isn’t another referendum – legal or not – on the immediate horizon.

But what would happen if Catalonia were to leave Spain? Spain has promised that they would block a Catalonian state from admission to the EU, leaving the small state isolated economically from the get-go, and without the might of the UK to force trade deals with the EU and others. So a more likely scenario is similar to what has happened in the Basque regions, with increased autonomy, a furthering of Catalan language and traditions, and a simmering of independence talk beneath the surface.

From a purely touristic standpoint, a united Spain is advantageous for ease of getting around, common currency, and, as Todd is quick to point out, visa purposes. His permanent residence visa is for Spain, and it is uncertain whether or not a new Catalonian state would honor it.

For now, the primary residual anger seems to be the continued imprisonment of many who led the 2017 movement. And while many residents still identify primarily as Catalan, and would favor independence from a hypothetical standpoint, the barriers to such a thing seem too large to overcome. Even so, it is something to keep an eye on. Catalonia is the economic engine that keeps Spain running, and future leadership (both regional and national) could cause things to flare up again.

Freedom of opinion isn’t quite the same as secession, but the issues have been linked.

Either way, there is no danger to tourists even if and when protests begin again. So visit Spain, visit Catalonia, and see for yourself the difference in the vibe – and the flags.

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