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Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote

The ill-fated referendum of October 1st 2017 unleashed a political crisis from which the separatists have never recovered, and on the eve of the anniversary, Catalonia's pro-independence coalition is at the point of collapse.

Why Catalan separatists are in crisis five years after independence vote
A photo taken on October 1st 2017 shows people sat in Plaza Catalunya square in Barcelona as they wait for the results of a referendum on independence for Catalonia, a vote that was banned by the Spanish government. ON October 1st 2022, Catalonia marks the fifth anniversary of self-determination referendum organised by separatists despite being banned by the courts. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN / AFP)

Josep Lluis Rodríguez has not given up hope of an independent Catalonia. But five years after a banned referendum, he no longer expects anything from the deeply divided separatist leaders in Barcelona.

“Of course there is frustration and anger, because they didn’t do what they should have done,” the 62-year-old former company boss told AFP of the leaders who failed to make good on their separatist promises.

“It’s clear they are no longer openly interested in independence,” he said, standing outside the church in Arenys de Munt just north of Barcelona.

Many Catalan independence flags can be seen fluttering from balconies along the main street in Arenys de Munt, a town of of 9,000 residents which was the first place to hold a symbolic referendum on independence in 2009.

Hundreds of municipalities followed suit, driving a groundswell of pro-independence activism which would reach its climax in the events of October 2017 under the regional government of Carles Puigdemont.

Despite being banned by the Spanish courts, the 2017 referendum organised by the separatist government went ahead but descended into chaos as police moved in to stop it, sparking confrontations marred by violence.

“October 1st was when civil society really came out en masse,” catching the separatist parties by surprise who had not expected such a huge mobilisation in response to their moves towards independence, Rodríguez said.

“It was only later that we realised that they didn’t have a concrete plan, nor structures in place (for achieving independence),” said Rodriguez, an activist with the ANC, the region’s biggest grassroots separatist movement.

Despite the police crackdown, the fact the referendum took place at all was “a great victory for the Catalans”, he said.

And to mark the anniversary this Saturday, he will attend a demonstration in Barcelona bent on securing a new referendum.

“We’re organised and when the time comes, we will mobilise.”

Divided and squabbling

The results of the October 2017 referendum were never independently corroborated, and weeks of confusion followed, culminating in a short-lived symbolic declaration of independence by the Catalan parliament.

That proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, with Madrid sacking the Catalan government, suspending the region’s autonomy and putting its leaders on trial as it struggled to handle Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.

Despite passions running high over independence, the region itself remains divided, with only 41 percent in favour of separation while 52 percent want to remain in Spain, the latest survey suggested.

But it’s a far cry from the 49 percent who wanted to break away in the October 2017 poll.

Last year, the separatists again won a majority in the regional elections and managed to cobble together a fragile coalition grouping the left-wing ERC and hardline JxC.

But they are sharply at odds over how to achieve independence, with ERC backing a negotiated strategy via dialogue with Madrid, while JxC prefers a confrontational approach given that Spain has ruled out any new referendum.

“The political deadlock is ongoing, the Catalan government is divided and every day they attack each other in the press over a thousand things,” said Joan Botella, a political scientist at Barcelona’s Autonomous University.

“Nobody is suggesting a way forward or how to resolve the conflict.”

Demonstrators hold a banner reading “52%, why the hell did we vote for you ?” and wave Catalan pro-independence “Estelada” flags during a protest marking the “Diada”, the national day of Catalonia, in Barcelona on September 11th 2022. The protest coincides with Catalonia’s national day, or “Diada”, which commemorates the 1714 fall of Barcelona in the War of the Spanish Succession and the region’s subsequent loss of institutions. (Photo by Josep LAGO / AFP)

‘Won’t happen in my lifetime’

Fed up with the impasse, the ANC called people onto the streets for the annual “Diada” march on September 11th with a rallying cry denouncing the politicians and insisting “only the people and civil society can achieve independence”.

The powerful movement has been openly critical of the Catalan government’s dialogue with Madrid, and this year its leader Pere Aragones did not attend the rally.

Police said 150,000 people turned out for the event, the lowest figure in a decade — without counting the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“People feel cheated and frustrated but it doesn’t mean they will stop backing independence,” said Josep Sánchez, mayor of Arenys de Munt, standing next to a small monument by the town hall marking the 2017 referendum.

But shopkeeper Magda Artigas has lost any hope of seeing the emergence of an independent Catalan republic, despite voting for one in successive referendums in 2009, 2014 and 2017.

“I’m already 64, it won’t happen in my lifetime,” she said with a sad smile.

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Spanish PM seeks international image with China visit

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez begins Thursday a visit to China he hopes will show Spain has gained global influence under his watch ahead of a tight year-end general election.

Spanish PM seeks international image with China visit

The two-day visit comes as Spain is gearing up to take over the European Union’s rotating presidency in July which will also serve to project the country on the world stage.

Sánchez will attend the high-profile Boao Forum for Asia on the Chinese island of Hainan on Thursday before meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

He will be only the second leader of a European country to visit China since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic three years ago, after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit in 2022.

Sánchez said last week that Xi’s invitation proves “the international recognition given to Spain during a time of such complex geopolitical difficulties.”

Sánchez’s talks will focus on the Ukraine conflict, with Xi trying to present himself as a mediator.

The world should listen to China’s “voice” in order to find a way out of the war in Ukraine, Sánchez said on Friday ahead of his visit to Beijing.


Spain is not “in the first division of global actors” and is not “decisive regarding strategic issues relating to China or Russia,” said José Ignacio Torreblanca, a senior fellow with the European Council for Foreign Relations.

But the country has “easy” ties with Beijing and it “could act as a facilitator,” he told AFP.

Sánchez, a socialist, has made international affairs a priority since he came to power in June 2018, in contrast to his conservative predecessor.

Spain lost influence in the EU, especially during the country’s deep economic downturn sparked by the 2008 global financial crisis, said Raquel García, an analyst with Madrid’s Elcano Royal Institute, a think tank.

But in recent years Madrid has had “a much more pro-active attitude when it comes to defending its positions, presenting its ideas” in Brussels, she added.

Sánchez managed in 2019 to get his then-foreign minister, Josep Borrell, named as the EU’s foreign policy chief.

The Spanish premier has also taken advantage of “the loss in leadership of the Franco-German axis” to present Spain as a country that can “make the difference when it is time to form alliances,” said García.

Sánchez has been a staunch ally of Ukraine and has visited the country twice since Russia’s invasion.

‘Reinforce his leadership’

Despite being on the other end of Europe, Spain has welcomed 165,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to Eurostat. Within the EU, only Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic have received more.

“Spain is not part of the G7 and is only invited as a guest to G20 meetings. It is in Europe where it can best exercise a certain form of leadership,” said García.

Having a clear position on Ukraine is “a way to reinforce his leadership” on “the issue which is central in the EU”, she added.

Spain’s upcoming presidency of the EU will also be the focus of Sánchez’s talks with Xi.

“China wants to obtain precise things from the European Union and wants to get closer to Pedro Sánchez” for this reason, said Torreblanca.

Sánchez’s taste for diplomacy could also be an asset in the run-up to a general election expected in December, even if the campaign will not focus on international relations.

“The temptation exists to take advantage of foreign policy for electoral purposes for a very simple reason: it’s a subject where the opposition does not act,” said Torreblanca.

Most polls put the main opposition conservative Popular Party (PP) several percentage points ahead of Sánchez’s Socialists.