This is an edited extract from my (unpublished) travelogue about the trip Katy and I took through Europe in the spring of 2016.
The train from Valencia to Barcelona passes through seaside resort after seaside resort: big, ugly tower blocks of apartments overlooking the Mediterranean, or, in the case of the less fortunate, overlooking other tower blocks and the rail track.
As we trundle past, the late April sun bounces off thousands of white and grey shutters: firmly bolted, untouched through the long winter. The no frills, foursquare architecture is unmistakably sixties: these apartments were thrown up in a rush to capitalise on the tourism boom that Spain enjoyed in that decade. Between 1959 and 1973, the number of visitors who came to Spain each year rose from 3 million to 34 million.
By the mid-sixties, Spain had far surpassed France and Italy in terms of total tourist numbers. Strange to think that Europeans of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were quite so sanguine about holidaying in a country that was run by a fascist dictator. (The transition to democracy only came when Franco died in 1975.)
We are on our way to meet someone I would never have met were it not for another of twentieth century Europe’s evil dictators. Danijela grew up in Istria, the part of Croatia that borders Italy. Like so many of her compatriots, she fled home during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and came as a refugee to London, where she took on any job she could get, including (poor woman) looking after me and my two younger brothers.
Today, Danijela is a successful interior designer who lives in Barcelona with her partner Boban, a Serb who works all over the continent as an editor of TV documentaries, and their two children, Dane (a boy of twelve) and Vajka (a girl of eight), who frankly have no national identity: they are simply Europeans.
Danijela meets us at the train station and almost as soon as we’ve got in the car, the embarrassing stories start. Danijela has an infectious joie de vivre that bubbles over, sweeping up all around her. Except my younger self, apparently: I was a very serious child, who refused to be swept along. In the face of her laughing and joking, I (aged nine) would stand arms folded and give her a stern, disapproving look. “Stop being so silly, Danijela,” I would say. “In England, people think it’s vulgar to show so much emotion.” I’m sure I thought I was being helpful.
Back at her top-floor apartment, Danijela cooks us a delicious meal of grilled razor clams and king prawns in a light, garlicky sauce: an old Istrian speciality. It’ss delicious and seemingly so simple to prepare – though I’m sure there’s more to it than meets the eye – that we vow to get the recipe and try it at home.
As dinner recedes into the past and a bottle of whisky is produced, eventually, inevitably, we get onto politics. I comment that we’ve seen an awful lot of Catalan flags in the last couple of days. This observation is met by a weary shrug. “Yes, it’s very sad. You see, for us it’s very simple. All nationalism is evil.”
The reason it’s simple for Boban and Danijela is because of where they come from and what they’ve lived through. For them, nationalism is the monster that tore their countries and families apart in the 1990s. It killed their friends and it bombed their cities. It turned them into refugees, utterly dependent on the willingness of others to see them not as members of this or that national group but as fellow human beings with much to offer.
That was the kind of society they found in London when they arrived twenty years ago; it’s the kind of society they’ve enjoyed being part of in Barcelona for the last eight years. But now, with Brexit and the Catalan independence movement, they’re concerned that the tide is turning against the idea of an open, tolerant, inclusive society in the very places that have been, for them, a safe haven from nationalism.
On 27 October 2015 something happened in Barcelona that could be momentous not just for the future of Catalonia and Spain, but for all of Europe. On that day, the elected representatives of the Catalan people passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months.
This declaration did not come out of nowhere: separatism has been on the rise in Catalonia for at least a decade, triggered in part by a spectacularly miscalculated decision on the part of the Spanish government in Madrid to mount a legal challenge against a Statute of Autonomy passed by the Catalan government in 2006.
The legal challenge was at least partially successful: key parts of the Statute were deemed non-constitutional when the Spanish high court delivered its verdict in June 2010. But politically, using the courts to undermine a Statute that had already been approved not only by the Catalan parliament and the Catalan people (in a referendum which, they were promised, was legally binding), but also by the Spanish congress of deputies and senate in Madrid, was idiotic.
The 2006 Statute was not even about independence; at that stage, the Catalan government was merely asking for a few more powers to be devolved to it. It was only as a result of Madrid’s rough, underhand treatment and its decision to ignore the democratically expressed will of the Catalan people that independence started to get a serious hearing.
Of course, peel back the layers and there’s a deeper history to Catalan separatism than this. Once again, The Franco regime was committed to suppressing Catalan nationalism, the Catalan language and the development of autonomous political institutions in the region by any means necessary. 3,500 Catalans were murdered by Franco’s army in 1938; many others fled across the border to France.
By the 1970s and Spain’s democratic turn, there were forty years of pent-up frustration at Madrid ready to bubble over at any moment. However different the methods of suppression may be today, when legislators and judges in Madrid appear to ride roughshod over the will of the Catalan people, the response in Barcelona, however hyperbolic, is predictable: “it’s the same as it was in Franco’s time.”
The parallels with Scotland are obvious but there’s one important difference that means Catalan separatists may succeed where the Scottish Nationalists have, so far, failed. Catalonia is one of Spain’s wealthiest regions and, while there would be plenty of messy aspects to a divorce from Spain – to do with what share of Spain’s sovereign debt Catalonia ought to inherit, for example, or on what terms (if at all) Catalonia is allowed to stay part of the EU – there can be little doubt that the region would be economically viable as an independent country. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia contributes more to the Spanish exchequer than it gets back.
The reason all this matters at a European level is because Catalonia could set off a chain reaction. Across the continent, there are many other regions that are itching to kick the nation-states they belong to in the balls and make a break for freedom. Scotland, Flanders, Bavaria, Northern Italy, the Basque Country – the list of places where Catalonian independence could inspire a dangerous surge in separatist feeling goes on.
Decades from now, historians may look back on this moment in European history as a time when the political calm and integration we’ve enjoyed since 1945 was on the brink of collapse. Those same historians may write books about Barcelona – the place where a European revolution started.
If so, it will be a revolution into which, not for the first time, we sleepwalked. Certainly there was nothing in the atmosphere of the city during my brief sojourn that suggested a place on the brink of anything more significant than a trip to the beach. As I said, all I noticed was some flags.
As it happens, I’m not sure I agree with Danijela and Boban: I’m not convinced that all nationalism is inherently evil, though I can understand why someone who’s experienced what they have would come to that conclusion. For sure, nationalist movements provide political cover for a small minority of nasty, bigoted people to come out of the shadows. But that doesn’t make it intrinsically wrong to want Catalonia to be independent, any more than it’s intrinsically wrong to want Britain to leave the EU.
I don’t know what the right answer is for the people of Catalonia – thankfully it’s not up to me. All I know is that what happens in Barcelona over the next few weeks and months will send ripples all over Europe, dislodging old certainties and causing structures we’ve grown up thinking of as permanent to come tumbling down.