Barcelona protests: An expert take

Penn experts share their take on the protests in Barcelona, the push for Catalonia’s independence, and how recent events will affect the upcoming Spanish elections.

Aerial view of a large crowd in Barcelona, many holding Catalonia flags

Barcelona erupted in chaos and violence in October after Spain’s Supreme Court sentenced former leaders of Catalonia’s independence movement to steep prison sentences. It stemmed from a failed attempt in October 2017 to declare Catalonia’s independence from Spain, a move that the central government deemed illegal, and which led to the arrest of 12 separatist leaders. The former Catalan president fled and is in exile in Belgium.

Almost exactly two years later, on Oct. 14, those former leaders were sentenced, some to as many as 13 years in prison, and outrage bubbled over in Catalonia. More than half-a-million protesters took to the streets of Barcelona and to the city’s airport, where hundreds of flights were canceled. Protesters put up barricades on streets and set them ablaze, and rioters destroyed cafes, banks, and stores while clashing with police. Officers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. An estimated 600 people were injured in the weeklong riots, including more than 200 police officers.

Three Penn experts—historian Antonio Feros, political economist Mauro Guillén, and linguist and cultural historian Ignacio Javier López—share their thoughts with Penn Today on the court’s ruling, the ensuing protests, and what it all could mean for the independence push and the upcoming national election on Nov. 10.

As for how the issue of Catalonian independence will be resolved, Feros, Guillén, and López agree that that much will depend on the elections, but it’s unlikely to be settled any time soon. From Spain’s point of view, they have done everything they can do as far as giving Catalonia autonomy. Without a clear majority in favor of independence, and with the difficulty of both sides finding a way to have a dialogue, the movement is at an impasse, they say.

‘The problem has roots that are very difficult to untangle,’ Feros says.

Why were the pro-independence leaders sent to prison?

López: Those pushing for Catalonia’s independence claim they have a right to vote in a referendum. They claim that voting is not a crime, and that the Catalan people have a right to determine whether or not they want independence. They compare themselves to Scotland because Scotland had this type of referendum. The Spanish government has responded that the sovereignty of Catalonia doesn’t belong solely to Catalonia but to all of Spain. Historically, Scotland became part of the United Kingdom as a sovereign country. That was never the case with Catalonia, which was a part of the Kingdom of Aragon. Aragon, including Catalonia, and Castille united in the 15th century, forming the main two kingdoms of Spain.

The argument that voting is not a crime is a twisted way of looking at the problem. For instance, driving is not a crime but if you drive against the traffic laws you are committing a crime. Voting is not a crime, but if you are voting to break a law then it becomes a crime. This is the argument in Spain, and this is the argument that sent the leaders of the movement to jail for embezzlement because they used public money to prepare the referendum.

Why do some in Catalonia want to separate from Spain, and is it realistic?

Guillén: Catalonia is a competitive, vibrant economy and has excellent companies. They export a large amount of goods and services to Europe, but they export way more to the rest of Spain. That’s not the issue. The real issue is that people believe the decision for Catalonia about its future is not up to Catalonia alone. It’s up to all of Spain. There are many people who are from Catalonia but live elsewhere in Spain, and vice versa—there are many people from Spain who live in Catalonia. So, it’s not as simple as saying, ‘Oh, people who today happen to be in Catalonia should decide this.’ That is not fair.

One important thing to note is these referendums polarize public opinion. In surveys, if you give people an intermediate option, for instance to increase the autonomy of Catalonia, even to the point of Spain becoming a federal system like the United States, then that becomes the preferred option for a majority of people in Catalonia.

Why did the protests turn so violent?

Feros: The problem is the separatist leaders were given very high sentences. There was no possibility to find a political solution; that was very clear by the sentences. This is what immediately provoked these protests in Catalonia, many of them extremely violent, and this in many ways is not a surprise. Not all the Spaniards agree with the independence push, but they also don’t agree with the state that provoked this kind of sentencing.

They are criminalizing what should be a political and constitutional debate. Many people in Spain think that this is not the way to find a solution. Because some believe that the Catalans have the right not to decide what to do but the right to express their feelings about whether or not they want to keep being part of Spain. The only way to find a solution is by going back and solving these questions in political terms.

How will the events in Catalonia affect the Nov. 10 elections?

López: The events in Catalonia have had an impact in the politics in the rest of Spain. Spain was one of the few countries that did not have an extreme right party in Congress. When the events in Catalonia started, the far right started emerging. The Conservative party in Spain has actually been very moderate compared to other countries like Hungary, but this is going away. The politics in Spain are changing. Can we anticipate an attack against democracy like what happened in 1936? I don’t think so. But we cannot discard further destabilization in the future. A dramatic sequence of events has happened before in the history of Spain: the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, as it is commonly known, but the first shot of the war actually took place in 1934 when Asturias started a revolution and Catalonia declared its independence and the Army said ‘no.’

Feros: Until the sentencing came out, polls predicted that the Socialist party was going to get the absolute majority. At this moment they are going down and the Conservative party, the Partido Popular, and the extreme-right party, VOX, are going up. The conservative party is making the Catalan question the main question of the political debate, and the extreme right is doing the same. In Spain, the main political idea, the ideological center of extreme right politicians, is the unity of the country. It’s not like other countries in which migration, foreigners, and race are the main topics for the extreme right. For extreme-right parties in Spain, Catalonia has come as something of a gift from heaven, by allowing them to portray themselves as the defenders of Spain.

Guillén: I think the biggest outcome from that election is that we are going to go back to the two-party system. Whenever you have these strong conflicts over identity and culture, people get polarized. You’re either for or you’re against, and that will benefit the two-party system.

In Spain about 10 years ago, we used to have only two dominant parties, like the United States. Then two new parties were launched, and they were growing very quickly, and three years ago everybody declared this is the end of the two-party system in Spain. Now, the Catalonian conflict has reversed that trend.

Antonio Feros is the Rose Family Endowed Term Professor of History in the Department of History in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mauro Guillén is the Dr. Felix Zandman Professor of International Management in the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ignacio Javier López is a professor and chair in the Department of Romance Languages in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.