No Mediterranean home is considered properly constructed without balconies, but in Barcelona the balcony has become more than a sun trap. It's a barometer for current issues, a way for citizens to interact and signal their concerns – and a way to lay out their demands. Walking round town nowadays you’ll see independence flags, sheets scrawled with pleas for revellers to keep the noise down, yellow ribbons symbolising the call to release Catalan political prisoners and a fair few placards bemoaning overtourism.
The Drive for Independence
Not so long ago, the idea that Catalonia could break away from Spain and become a sovereign republic was only held by a handful of romantics and crackpots, but over the last decade or so it has gained so much traction that it dominates the political landscape both regionally and nationally.
In September 2017, former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont pushed a referendum law through the regional parliament, and the vote (deemed illegal and unconstitutional by central government) went ahead a couple of weeks later. There was a 42% turnout (relatively few unionists – those against secession – took part in what they saw as an illegitimate referendum) and around 90% voted in favour of secession. The day was marked by the violence doled out by the Guardia Civil (the Spanish police force, shipped in for the occasion) to those attempting to vote. A tense few days followed, in which a political stand-off saw Puigdemont being vague about his intentions while insisting on dialogue with central government in Madrid, and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy refusing to be drawn while making obvious his intention to respond by imposing direct rule over the region.
Finally independence was declared and immediately quashed by Madrid (in the shape of direct rule), with several high-profile Catalan leaders arrested and charged with crimes including 'rebellion' and obstructing the police from carrying out their duties. Puigdemont, meanwhile, fled to Belgium (where he remained at the time of writing). Regional elections were held in December 2017 but the results simply shored up the status quo, with separatist parties losing the popular vote but maintaining a parliamentary majority and forming a coalition. Puigdemont installed hard-line nationalist Quim Torra (widely seen as his puppet) as president. The anti-secessionist Ciutadans party, meanwhile, has been the real winner, gaining the most votes in the regional election and with skyrocketing support in national polls.
A minor thawing of relations came with a vote of no confidence in Rajoy, who was replaced by Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez in May 2018. Sánchez has adopted a conciliatory tone, and expressed a desire to reach a solution on the Catalan question through dialogue and concession (while ruling out the possibility of Catalan independence), but how it all shakes out is anybody’s guess, and no one is expecting a smooth ride.
Tie a Yellow Ribbon
Keeping tempers high is the ongoing issue of the nine independence leaders held in jail on charges relating to their roles in the referendum and subsequent declaration of independence. The campaign for their release (at the very least, it is felt, they could be placed on bail and reunited with their families) has as its symbol a yellow ribbon, tied all over the city on balconies, lamp-posts and fences, with Catalans on both sides of the divide wearing enamel versions of the symbol on their lapels.
Barcelona or Disneyland?
Ada Colau, Barcelona’s progressive mayor, has drawn fire from all sides for sitting on the fence on the independence issue, but has other fish to fry in the shape of what’s become known as Barcelona’s parquetematización (the act of turning into a theme park). As ever-increasing numbers of tourists pour into the city year-round, centuries-old family businesses give way to chain cafes and souvenir shops, and pavements fill with Segways and walking tours, the city is in grave danger of losing its charm.
As part of an attempt to lure visitors out to lesser-known neighbourhoods, Colau has clamped down on new hotel openings in the centre, and has removed or restricted many central pavement terraces – a move that has been welcomed by exhausted residents but met with fury by bar-owners and restaurateurs, who see the mayor as ‘anti-business’.
Her left-wing social policies have also seen a softening of the laws on the ‘manteros’ (from manta, blanket, and which refers to the immigrant vendors of cheap knock-off goods spread on sheets on the pavement), which has also angered those wanting to reclaim public spaces from tourist pursuits, and will also influence the outcome of the 2019 municipal elections. To date, however, none of the mayoral hopefuls currently campaigning has come up with any real solutions.