On 1 October last year, Catalonia’s independence referendum – deemed illegal by Madrid – created Spain’s worst political crisis in decades. A year on, with images of baton-wielding policemen charging at polling stations fading in memories, a long-lasting political solution has yet to take shape.
(Weeks later, on 27 October, the Catalan parliament declared independence but was dissolved when Madrid invoked the article 155 of Spain’s constitution for the first time and imposed direct rule.)
The arrival of new heads of government has allowed something of a thaw in political relations – with Socialist Pedro Sánchez taking over from the centre-right Mariano Rajoy in Madrid, while Catalonia’s ruling Nationalists have a new leader in hardline Republican Quim Torra,
But the underlying pessimism remains. According to a late-September poll by Metroscopia, 69 per cent of Spaniards consider the political situation in Catalonia to be worse than last year; only 15 per cent believe it has improved.
“The Socialists’ willingness to hold meetings with the Nationalists and deal with some long-running budget questions and investments has definitely provided some oxygen in an atmosphere which, under the previous Partido Popular government, was simply asphyxiating,” says Germà Capdevila, a longstanding political analyst for L’Esguardmagazine and online Catalan daily NacioDigital.
“But the change of climate hasn’t produced a real change of positions.”
“The Catalan government continues to demand a referendum or an advance towards a republic and the state government continues to say such questions cannot even be discussed, let alone negotiated.”
“The problem has turned chronic because there is no real will for dialogue on either side,” believes Juan José López Burniol, lawyer and political columnist for La Vanguardia, Catalonia’s biggest newspaper.
“Catalonia certainly does not have the strength for unilateral independence but it has a massive ability to destabilise the whole of Spain.”
Polls in Catalonia confirm the ongoing stalemate, with no clear majority either in favour or against remaining in Spain.
Yet while nationalist parties squabble to the point where the regional parliament was suspended for 70 days this summer because of their infighting, the Republican movement has shown no sign of losing its power to mobilise its grassroots supporters.
Around a million pro-independence supporters gathered on 11 September for Catalonia’s most important national day, the Diada, roughly the same as last year.
On Sunday evening across Catalonia, demonstrations were being held to commemorate the referendum.
The referendum marked a watershed in political life, says Xavier Diez, a teacher and writer on Catalan modern history, “because a large number of people, even those who were not ‘independentist’, saw what happened. If you are attacked for going to vote, that affects you.”
A likely start date in January for the trials of those jailed for their role in the 1 October referendum will continue to maintain the pro-separatist parties’ momentum through the winter.
“If the prisoners faced a normal series of charges for civil disobedience, rather than distorting it with charges of rebellion with violence, that would help defuse things”, believes Mr Capdevila, “firstly because they would probably be released, and secondly because calling it rebellion with violence makes an agreement much more difficult.”
Currently, though, the question of how the agenda will be moved forward on either side is much harder to see. Direct rule from Madrid, hugely unpopular in Catalonia, was ended last winter, but Mr Sanchez has warned it will return if there are any attempts to move towards unilateral independence.
“The current Spanish government would have a very hard time making an offer that could even be debated with the Nationalists, let alone accepted by them. And with the opposition of [Spanish rival parties] Ciudadanos and the Partido Popular, it’s virtually impossible,” says Mr López Burniol.
“If I was a Spanish politician and I wanted to improve the situation in Catalonia, my career would probably be over,” adds Mr Diez.
As for the Nationalists, “their big error last year was believing that in the Europe of the 21st century, Spain would not be prepared to accept the damage to its international image in return for its continuing unity,” says Mr Capdevila.
The consequences of such a longstanding, ongoing confrontation are deep divisions, but even the nature of those divisions are the subject of much debate.
“The more urban part of Catalonia is more diverse and the rural part more singularly Catalan,” says Mr Lopez, who argues that the split has been partly fostered by the separatist movement, but that “the actions of the central government, particularly the era when Mariano Rajoy led it, have caused the problem to stagnate. And that includes the social fracture.”
“The fracture is only true on a political level, not in terms of day-to-day living,” counters Mr Capdevila, who says the mainly peaceful nature of the separatist question post-1 October “should be a source of pride for independentists and nationalists alike.”
“If you don’t like different political opinions, go with North Korea. Here there are two visions of how things ought to be, and that’s the same as you can find in the United States where there are two big political parties, or in Britain, with those in favour of or against Brexit.”
Mr Diez cites his own family, where his sister is not pro-independence, while he is, “in any family get-together some subjects don’t get discussed”. He adds: “In today’s Catalonia, when you don’t know somebody, you’re very careful about your words and gestures, because you don’t want to create divisions.”
Yet at state level, dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona over Catalonia’s future remains off the table completely, a situation for which Mr Lopez Burniol believes both parts to be partly responsible.
Mr Lopez Burniol said: “The separatists thought they could break with the constitution and proclaimed unilateral independence, something which is absolutely unacceptable in a democratic state, but there was also a huge error on the part of the [previous] government.”
He added: “They did not realise that this question only has a political solution, and that its ending up in the courts would be a serious mistake, only making the situation worse.”
“And when a problem like this is approached in this way, we were always going to end up where we are now.”